Following the Scottish Parliament election results of 3rd May this year, no-one could have been left in any doubt as to the seismic shift in the Scottish and UK political landscape that the SNP victory represented.
The policies, initiatives and ambitions announced by the SNP over the last six months have certainly lived up to the expectation that things will be different.
owever, the significant change to the Scottish body politic is not just about the new administration, it is also very much about the fact that the SNP is ruling as a minority government and that the political culture, the way of doing business, is shifting accordingly.
The way in which politics works with a minority government differs from coalition government in two distinctive ways:
- It means that the ruling party does not have to compromise on key decisions with a coalition partner, it can decide which policies it wishes to put forward and how to prioritise its commitments and its legislative programme.
- Whilst there is no coalition partner to force policy compromises, that role lies firmly with Parliament itself, giving it a much more powerful role, with its ability to challenge, amend or defeat Executive policy proposals greatly enhanced. The practical effect of this is that the SNP must form a ‘majority coalition’, with at least one of the other main parties, on an issue by issue basis in order to ensure that its policies can be implemented. Likewise, the ‘opposition’ parties are more readily able to form issue-specific coalitions in order to defeat Executive policy proposals, or to promote their own.
Such a modus operandi requires a more fluid approach to politics, more behind the scenes negotiation, more debate, and ongoing consensus building.
In the few months of business conducted in the Parliament since the May elections, each party has proved itself willing, at some point or another, to side with each of the other parties in order to support and to oppose specific Executive policies.
To this extent, the ‘new politics’ perhaps more closely reflects what the Scottish Constitutional Convention had in mind when, in its final report of 1995, it posited that “…the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a new way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster; more participative, more creative, less confrontational”.
However, what we are experiencing is not an ambitious experiment to create a new political culture based on more constructive principles. Rather, it is the result of a practical realisation by all parties that minority government requires a different approach if it is to work, especially to their own advantage.
Illiam Costain McCade is a political communications consultant, working both independently and in partnership with other consultancies. He was formerly Director of Grayling Public Affairs’ Scottish office (2004-06), and Secretary (2004-2005) and Chair (2006) of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Scotland.