The SNP Government has suffered yet another legislative defeat in the Scottish Parliament. A bill was introduced on minimum pricing of alcohol sales which was defeated by opposition parties yesterday.
All opposition parties agree that some kind of minimum pricing is desirable. On that basis the SNP Government’s legislative bill was world-class and backed by health authorities around the world. Indeed, some described the legislation as world-leading. Opposition to the legislation has been marked by partisan bickering and blocking tactics. Labour’s focus on the single product of ‘Buckfast’ was bizarre and Jackie Baillie’s pursuing of the issue in terms of caffeine being the problem was derisory and ridiculed by one senior police spokesman Superintendent Bob Hamilton, of Strathclyde Police, who said: “We don't attend many violent disturbances outside coffee shops".
Although an important issue in itself – alcohol related problems in Scotland are of major concern to the police, health officials and the general public alike – but the real significance of this parliamentary defeat is a crisis of Scottish democracy itself.
Scotland’s nationalist SNP Government has seen various attempts to scupper its legislative bills and impede its process procedurally, not out of productive opposition to legislation but owing to an oppositional strategy of trying to paralyse the SNP Government and by extension the nation’s Parliament.
Unionist parties were in shock when the SNP won the Holyrood elections in 2007 and in the case of Labour – who see Scotland as an issue of hegemony – denial. This was clearly demonstrated to the world when, immediately after the Holyrood result came in, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown refused to make the customary congratulatory phone-call to the First Minister in waiting, Alex Salmond.
From the outset Labour have attempted to kibosh all major Scottish Government attempts to legislate for the nation. The strategy is clearly designed to show that the SNP government is a failure. The very real and serious problem with this strategy though is that Labour and their unionist allies have reached the point where party advantage is more important than the country’s governance and so the Scottish parliament’s vital legislative function is now critically compromised.
One of the first matters of business when the SNP took office was the new government’s desire to scrap the Edinburgh trams project. Senior SNP policy makers calculated that the trams would be far more expensive than originally planned and would not represent value for money.
This was the opposition’s first opportunity to establish a narrative that the SNP government would not be a successful one. The trams project continued and is now an expensive fiasco with parties threatening law suits and the management team admitting that the final costs are unknown except for the forecast that they will cost a lot more than originally planned. There have recently been a series of resignations from the tram firm TIE including the finance director, Stewart McGarrity and chairman David Mackay who branded the project “hell on wheels”. Mr Mackay stated publicly that the German contractor Billfinger Berger, who are at the centre of the controversy, was a “delinquent contractor”. A threat of legal action ensued and then withdrawn. The TIE company is refusing to release the current costs of the project.
In response to the new Government’s move to scrap the plans, Labour’s then strategy was to attack the SNP in terms of “party prejudice” and “geographic grudge”. On 27 June 2007 Wendy Alexander in Parliament said:
"The motion oozes party prejudice and geographic grudge. The cabinet secretary has told us that the costs are out of control. However, encouragingly for Scottish public life, Audit Scotland simply would not be cowed into validating that untrue claim. The Auditor General concluded that the trams projects show clear corporate governance; well-defined project management; sound financial management in reporting; good risk management procedures; and a procurement strategy aimed at minimising risk. Yet, prejudice still prevails. The minister still wants to cancel the projects, washing more than £100 million down the drain to satisfy party prejudice and geographic grudge. So much for the protestations of prudence that we have heard."
Having forced the Tram project on Scotland against the newly democratically elected government’s wishes Labour sought to then exonerate themselves from blame when it all went wrong as the SNP government predicted. The trams fiasco is now the SNP’s fault apparently.
Scottish Parliament Budgets
Then there is the vital matter of passing Scottish parliament budgets. The minority executive have been happy to negotiate with opposition parties but Labour have voted against SNP budgets even though they had amendments accepted in the legislation.
Local Income Tax
Then there was the issue of the SNP’s election manifesto pledge on local government finance. The Local Income Tax was a policy which was very popular with an electorate clearly disgruntled with the current Council Tax system. Ordinary people would have been the big financial beneficiaries of a system of tax based on income and ability to pay but Labour rallied their allies such as the STUC against it despite offering no alternative. Labour now plan to bring in a property-based tax but with only months before the next Holyrood elections they have no concrete plans of their own. Big business and related organizations were also mobilised to help defeat the Local Income Tax. It could still have been passed with the support of the LibDems who have had a local income tax manifesto pledge for decades, but even they refused to back it. Another part of the Scottish Government’s programme was destroyed.
Labour and other parties, using their majority in parliament and committees, have called for various enquiries into alleged ministerial misconduct. This has wasted a lot of taxpayers money, bogged the parliamentary system down and nothing has come of the enquiries except for exoneration of the SNP Ministers in question including Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.
One such example was the ‘Trump Affair’. Donald Trumps’ golf course project may not be to everyone’s taste but accusing Alex Salmond of Ministerial misconduct in respect of the Scottish government approving his planning application was a serious allegation.
The Scottish Parliament’s committees tend to have a majority of MSPs who are not members of the SNP government; these committees are being abused. The committee which investigated the ‘Trump Affair’ was the Local Government Committee and they made the following findings in relation to the First Minister’s involvement:
242. Given a) the controversy already surrounding the proposal, b) the fact the First Minister had never acted in this way on any development in his public life before, c) the fact that the First Minister had no detailed knowledge of the planning process, d) the First Minister maintains he understood he was constrained in what he could he could discuss with the developer, it seems astonishing to accept that the First Minister did not perceive there might be a risk in his actions, that his actions might be open to question and that as a consequence the decision might be open to legal action. The Committee believes that, far from taking a precautionary approach, the First Minister was cavalier in his actions and displayed, at best, exceptionally poor judgement and a worrying lack of awareness about the consequence of his actions.
243. The Committee believes that the Code of Conduct for Members gave Alex Salmond discretion whether or not to meet with the representatives of the Trump Organisation but did not require him to do so.
244. It is the view of the Committee that, far from distancing himself from the proposal, the First Minister's overriding concern - as First Minister - was the charge that Scotland was not open for business. As a result he risked the accusation of Ministerial interference to meet Trump representatives to refute that charge.
245. The issue of perception and the capacity of Alex Salmond to secure access for the developer to the Chief Planner are critical. Mr Salmond reports that he always acted as a constituency member. Despite Mr Mackinnon’s reputation for being willing to meet with MSPs, it stretches credibility to breaking point to suggest that any MSP sitting in a room with any developer could make direct personal contact with the Chief Planner and set up a meeting at 24 hours notice.
246. If that explanation is not credible, then it does expose the First Minister to the charge of behaving in an unwise and inappropriate way.
Any objective analysis of these findings would conclude that this parliamentary committee’s time was being used to concoct media stories based on nothing more than innuendo, and at taxpayers expense. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, which is ultimately charged with investigating such matters found that no improper ministerial conduct took place. Other such investigations have been instigated using up a considerable public resources and parliamentary time, all coming to nothing. It is clear that the parliamentary process is being abused to lend credibility to allegations which are at base, glorified smear campaigns.
Scotland’s devolved parliament seems to have arrived at a crisis. As minority government seems like the only option for Scotland’s largest party, the SNP, Scotland now faces the real prospect of having a parliament incapable of legislating or functioning in any meaningful way. The wrecking tactics of Labour and to a lesser extent the other opposition parties are causing democratic paralysis.
The unionist parties at Holyrood have shown that they are incapable of being a proper opposition to government. With effective governance hamstrung by this constitutional crisis, the Scottish electorate will wonder what the benefits of having a devolved parliament are. Many will now ask if devolution has failed. However, after so many decades of a home rule struggle, going back to a pre-devolution type arrangement is a non-starter.
The SNP therefore now have the ideal platform to ask the electorate at the forthcoming Holyrood elections for the right to hold an independence referendum in order to unlock this crisis of a dysfunctional parliament. Scotland needs and deserves a functioning government and so this constitutional paralysis must not be allowed to continue any longer.