Salmond survives budget battle

6 Feb 09
IAIN MACWHIRTER | When the Scottish opposition parties defeated the minority government’s budget, you would have expected them to push home their advantage, not rush to save both the Bill and the first minister

When the Scottish opposition parties defeated the minority government’s budget, you would have expected them to push home their advantage, not rush to save both the Bill and the first minister

Government is always a kind of confidence trick — and never more so than in a Parliament of minorities. In the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party government has only 47 seats out of 129.

It could have been defeated almost any time in the past two years had the unionist parties — Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative — got their act together. Alex Salmond has remained first minister since 2007 by sheer self-confidence and by the unwillingness of the major opposition parties to risk an election. But on January 28, the mask of confidence slipped.

It was the tiny Scottish Green Party that finally brought defeat to Salmond, after its two MSPs voted unexpectedly against the government in the crucial second stage of the budget Bill. The Greens had been seeking a £100m home insulation programme and had been offered a programme worth £33m. Their parliamentary leader, Patrick Harvie, would have bought this, but he wasn’t convinced that it was actually new money. Dissatisfied with the assurances he received during the dying minutes of the budget debate from Finance Secretary John Swinney, Harvie pressed the nuclear button.

It was a high-risk strategy for the little Greens, since there was no guarantee that, having rejected this deal, they would get anything better – or, indeed, anything at all.

If a government cannot get its budget, it cannot govern, and Salmond immediately announced his intention to resign if the budget Bill could not somehow be resurrected.

After the most chaotic afternoon in Holyrood since the Scottish Parliament was born a decade ago, it looked as if, finally, the nationalist bluff had been called. Journalists and opposition MSPs speculated about a February election. Councils across Scotland were plunged into confusion as they saw black holes emerge in their finances. Under the rules, if a budget is voted down, the previous year’s estimates are reapplied, which would mean a £1.8bn funding shortfall.

However, no sooner had Holyrood absorbed the shock of the new, and started to consider life after Salmond, than the confidence dramatically returned. Within 24 hours of the budget vote, the opposition parties were lining up at Salmond’s door, desperate to do a deal to save the very budget they had voted against, twice. The LibDems dropped their demand for a 2p tax cut and signalled their willingness to do a deal on new borrowing powers for Holyrood.

Then the largest opposition party, Labour, made it clear that it would also like to talk constructively about a deal on its demand for more apprenticeships. The Scottish Greens were trampled in the rush to save the nationalist government and head off a financial and constitutional crisis.

Why didn’t the opposition parties just let Salmond swing in the wind? Why didn’t they use their combined strength to bring down the SNP administration? After all, Labour has been condemning it as incompetent, constitutionally divisive and a danger to the economic health of Scotland. Here was their chance to rid Scotland of the nationalist menace. But they decided instead to find a compromise to save Salmond’s skin. The episode was a timely reminder that, in a Parliament elected under proportional representation, there is always an element of collective responsibility, even though opposition parties don’t recognise it.

Neither Labour nor the LibDems expected the budget to fall — they thought that the SNP had a deal with the Greens. When it did, they were suddenly responsible for the consequences — the possible loss of more than 30,000 jobs.

Having rejected this budget, they now had to come up with a convincing alternative — put up or shut up. They had to consider moving a vote of no confidence in Alex Salmond and seeking to replace him with the Labour leader, Iain Gray. But the opposition parties were not ready for an election and clearly in no position to replace Salmond as first minister. In theory, a LibDem-Labour coalition could have installed itself without going to the country if it had a majority. But this is just not how we do things in our political culture, where people expect governments to change only after elections.

So, having bottled the election, the opposition parties had no choice but to come bearing gifts to an increasingly smug Salmond. He insisted that he wanted the opposition MSPs to vote unanimously for his budget when it returned to Parliament this week. As if to underline his point, poll findings by YouGov revealed that the SNP and Salmond had increased their standing as a result of the budget crisis.

Instead of the government being blamed for not getting its budget through Parliament, it is the opposition parties that are being blamed for being obstructive and for endangering jobs. By holding his nerve, and facing down the opposition parties, Salmond has forced them to reveal their weakness. He has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

What a difference a day makes.

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald

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