All parties will now have to cope with pressure that comes with governing

Written by Kevin Pringle on 12 May 2016 in Comment

All the parties will now need to think about participating constructively within a minority government, writes former SNP communications director Kevin Pringle


Scottish politics has hardly been devoid of interest over the past decade, and that’s putting it mildly. But it’s just got even more interesting – and complex – albeit in different ways to the referendum mania that accompanied the SNP’s overall majority in 2011.

First of all, let’s be in no doubt that the SNP achieved another extraordinary mandate last Thursday. At 47 per cent and over a million votes on the constituency ballot, the SNP achieved the most support of any party in the history of devolution.

And apart from the SNP’s own 50 per cent at last year’s general election, it was a bigger share of the vote than any party has chalked up in Scotland or the UK as a whole since Labour in 1966. And in those days, Scottish and British politics were still overwhelmingly a two-party only contest between the Tories and Labour.


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Even on the list vote, the SNP’s share was down by only just over two points on the ‘system-busting’ 2011 result. For any party – never mind one nine years into government – operating in five-party politics, it was a stunning achievement.

The Holyrood electoral system was engineered to prevent an overall majority, and in that sense the ‘empire struck back’ this time and rendered the 2011 result an anomaly. Intuitively, it was to be expected – despite all the polls – and I suspect falling just short of a majority didn’t come as a big shock to Nicola Sturgeon and her campaign team. By definition, exceptions don’t happen twice in a row.

Having successfully navigated a minority government with 47 MSPs for four years from 2007 to 2011, Team Sturgeon with 63 MSPs have the experience and skills in spades to do it at least as well in the five years to come.

The government can only be outvoted when all the opposition parties vote together against the SNP. It is bound to happen but is also bound to be the rare exception rather than the rule. After all, I don’t imagine the Tories and Greens being on the same side on a regular basis is something that either would be happy with.

We have probably forgotten it since 2011 but it’s worth reminding ourselves that minority government also puts constraints and strictures on the opposition parties to act responsibly, for their own sake. Remember who came off worst when the opposition voted down the SNP’s budget in 2009? And how they couldn’t wait to get back into the chamber to vote it through near unanimously a week later.

Except for the SNP, all of the parties crafted manifestos in 2016 designed for opposition. But they are all going to have to cope with a wee bit of the pressure that comes with governing, to greater or lesser extents. That’s part of what minority government means.

This Holyrood election was the most ‘Scottish’ there has ever been, with next to no involvement by big heavyweights from Westminster. Alex Salmond excepted, the dominant figures in Scottish politics all now sit in the Scottish Parliament. And when it comes to Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, they are pretty influential UK-wide too.

The Westminster arms of Labour and the Tories did their Scottish parties no favours in this election, the former in spectacular fashion. And the Lib Dems have more of a Westminster pinkie than an arm.

Scottish politics developed significantly in this election, both in terms of the policy agenda and more autonomous party politics. I think it’s in the interests of them all to develop formally independent parties during this Scottish Parliament while retaining fraternal links with colleagues south of the border.

And there is a prize to be won by the Liberal Democrats, Labour or Tories in being first mover.


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