Call me cynical, but much like the Prime Minister in coalition with the Lib Dems, Nicola Sturgeon’s new Scottish Government now has a useful ‘out’. Whilst the SNP will be disappointed that they fell short of majority, confidence and supply in minority government provides ample political opportunity which can enable the SNP’s style of politics.
As Rafael Behr recently wrote in the Guardian, for David Cameron, the Liberal Democrats came in handy when he needed to patch things up, keep his party together or drop a policy which he didn’t particularly favour anyway. A similar event happened when David Cameron dropped plans to relax the fox hunting ban. The SNP opposition to the measures blocked the opportunity to bring back fox hunting. Was the liberal Conservative Prime Minister that disappointed? Minority Government allows for much of the same approach. The governing party can reevaluate, drop and adapt policies more easily. Parliamentary numbers like this offers flexible ways to hold things together. I can’t imagine that the reduction of the Air Passenger Duty is a policy that the First Minister will live or die by.
Writing in the Herald this week, David Torrance suggested that this Parliament provides difficult policy choices for the SNP. Whilst Torrance suggests that “there will be fewer places to hide” on policy and what type of Government Nicola Sturgeon intends to lead, I would argue that minority Government enables the sort of pragmatic politics which is the SNP’s hallmark and provides plenty of hiding spaces.
The First Minister will wish to define the era of ‘Sturgeonism’ and she has the mandate to do it. But she also has the parliamentary arithmetic to fall back on when a policy trail hasn’t been as popular as hoped or she sees an opportunity to diffuse an issue quickly. She can claim her party are valiant in compromise when they wish to adopt another party’s policy ideas or claim that they simply can’t get their true Yellow policy pushed through Parliament if they wish to drop a policy or two.
In this context, Sturgeon’s strong comments on the need for “efficient government unencumbered by political gamesmanship” seek to frame her Government above the fray, but provides plenty of space to gain credit when they do wish to compromise. Minority Government provides the perfect pitch for the Scottish Government to play very effective gamesmanship, absorbing decent ideas from the opposition and turning them to its advantage or dropping its own under the auspices of possible Parliamentary defeat. Again making comparisons to Westminster, the raising of the income tax threshold was a Lib Dem policy swallowed up by the Tories which has now become synonymous with the Chancellor’s every budget speech.
On the big ideological decisions of this Parliament, rather than fewer places to hide, the SNP’s skills of politicking and policy triangulation can be best used in minority Government. After all, it’s what took Alex Salmond to majority Government in 2011. Sturgeon has the option of turning both left and right to retain the centre ground which her party has made its own.
I agree that Salmond’s successor is more uncomfortable when fudging the big issues, such as income tax. But minority Government helps to ease this pain. Idealists would see this parliamentary balance as an opportunity for inclusive politics, nation-building and healing wounds. An opportunity to re-forge the Parliament in the planned Holyrood mold of 1999 – consensus building and working across the political divide. Not me.
It is not the SNP party that will face the biggest challenges in this Parliament, but the other parties who could be overpowered by slick Parliamentary versatility – pick-pocketed, cajoled and spun in the name of national interest and to the benefit of the SNP.