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by Sofia Villegas
22 May 2024
In Context: An SNP minority government

The SNP was reduced back to being a minority government after the Bute House Agreement was scrapped | Alamy

In Context: An SNP minority government

What is a minority government?

When no party wins a majority of seats at Holyrood a minority government is formed by the party with the largest number of MSPs and the support of half or fewer than half of all members of the Scottish Parliament. In other words, a party with the backing of 64 MSPs or fewer.
How did we get here?

In the last Holyrood election the SNP won 64 seats, meaning it fell one short of a majority government. This situation led to the party signing a power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens, known as the Bute House Agreement. With the addition of the seven Green MSPs, the SNP then had the support of 71 MSPs for its fourth consecutive legislature in charge. 

Although it was intended to last until 2026, former First Minister Humza Yousaf ditched the Bute House Agreement last month, taking the SNP into minority government. 

The party currently has 63 seats in parliament after former SNP MSP Ash Regan defected to Alba last year. 

What does this mean?

This situation puts the SNP in a tricky situation. It will have to rely on making deals with other parties on a case-by-case basis to pass legislation and budgets.However, recently appointed First Minister John Swinney is hopeful he can garner support across party lines. During his leadership bid he said that “a budget process puts a responsibility and an obligation on everybody” and acknowledged the government had “to change how it talks to people” to get them on board.

What have other parties been saying?

After Yousaf resigned, Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie indicated there was “no reason” his party would not work with the minority government if it had a “willingness” to pursue “progressive” values and policies.

However, the appointment of SNP MSP Kate Forbes as deputy first minister has further caused division between the former allies, following her remarks on same-sex marriage in 2023.

During last year’s SNP leadership contest, Forbes said she would have voted against gay marriage in Scotland had she been an MSP at the time the relevant legislation was passed (she was not).

She later apologised “unequivocally” for “any hurt and offence” her comments had caused.
Harvie has accused Swinney of taking Scotland back to the “repressive values of the 1950s” by appointing Forbes. 

A Greens inside source told The Scotsman that if the SNP moved “too far to the right, they would need to look elsewhere to get their policies and budgets passed”.
However, Swinney has said he intends to lead the government from “a moderate left-of-centre position”.

Alba was the only opposition party to back Swinney as first minister during a vote in the Scottish Parliament, but Alex Salmond, who has served as the leader of Alba since 2021, said Swinney had a “tough job on with the parliamentary arithmetic”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said Scotland needed a “change of direction” rather than just a change of leader. Speaking at FMQs, he said he hoped Swinney could put the “national interest before party interest”, though added that “that change can only come with an election”.

Meghan Gallacher, deputy leader for the Scottish Tories, said her party “will take every opportunity to oppose this SNP government and its obsession with independence” but highlighted that this did not mean it would not co-operate “to deliver on the real priorities of the Scottish people”.

Neither the Tories nor Labour supported the SNP’s new ministerial appointments.

Has there been a Scottish minority government before?

Yes. In 2007 the first SNP government, then led by Salmond, was the first minority government in Scotland after the party failed to work out coalitions with the Scottish Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

However, unlike the current situation, the SNP did manage to reach an agreement with the Scottish Greens to support its ministerial appointments.

As a minority government it ran into difficult situations, with the 2009 budget presented by Swinney – who was then finance secretary – only passing on its second attempt after a deal was struck with the Conservatives.

The 2007 SNP government also had to drop plans to replace council tax with local income tax due to lack of support, while on the education front it failed to deliver its plan to cut primary school class sizes. 

Swinney recently quoted the 2009 budget struggle to indicate he is not concerned about passing the 2024/25 one. He said that “within a couple of weeks the budget was passed, virtually in its entirety from what I had originally proposed,” adding: “The opposition parties were challenged about how hospitals were going to be funded, or schools were going to be funded, or councils were going to be funded and they didn’t have any answers.”
In 2016 Nicola Sturgeon also led a minority government after falling short of two seats of a majority.  

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