Former Minister for Education, Housing, Fisheries and Sport at the Scottish Office and MP for Aberdeen South 1992-1997, Raymond Roberston gives us his predictions for the year ahead in Scottish Politics, in our latest guest blog.
Holyrood has returned to business following the recent elections and the fifth parliamentary session will be markedly different from the one that preceded it: the SNP have lost their majority, the Scottish Conservatives are now the main opposition party and there’s been a large turnover in MSPs. Those MSPs starting or returning to work are doing so in a Parliament that has extensive new powers following the passage of the Scotland Bill.
But what can we expect from the new minority SNP administration at Holyrood? How will the new political context in Scotland affect UK politics? And what effect will this have on UK and Scottish Government relations?
Re-setting Holyrood-Westminster Relations
In his first speech since the Holyrood Elections, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Rt. Hon David Mundell MP called for a “re-set” in relations between the UK and Scottish Government, claiming that voters were “sick and tired of the bickering and blame games”, and that the two governments should work together for Scotland. Responding to the speech, the Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP gave it short shrift. The yawning political differences could not “be so easily brushed aside”. Indeed, those differences were highlighted only a few days later.
Queen’s Speech and the SNP Alternative
The UK Government’s Queen Speech passed largely unnoticed in Scotland – despite 13 of the 20 Bills wholly or partially affecting Scotland – and Scottish political hacks were largely concentrated on finding out the details about the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s new Cabinet.
The First Minister, although wishing to work with the UK Government on matters of common interest, argued that the Queen’s Speech highlighted “divergent priorities” between the Scottish and UK Government. Indeed, the SNP team at Westminster presented their ‘Alternative Queen Speech’, casting themselves as a progressive alternative against the austerity-driven Conservative UK Government.
When Holyrood returns from Summer Recess in September, the Scottish Government will announce their Programme for Government for 2016-17, setting out their own legislative priorities and actions.
The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government
Given the mandate received from voters, the SNP Government will feel confident in taking forward their legislative agenda for the upcoming session, despite their minority status. Indeed, there is a precedent for a minority Scottish Government working constructively with other parties to get legislation through parliament – the first Salmond administration did so from 2007-2011, even relying on Conservative support to pass budgets. As the First Minister reshaped her Cabinet portfolios to reflect her priorities of education and the economy, one would expect that to be replicated in the make-up of Bills outlined in the Programme for Government.
How the Scottish Government Can Influence Westminster
While there are obvious differences in the policy priorities of the Scottish and UK Government, that is not to say that the agenda followed at Holyrood will not have a consequent effect on the political agenda south of the border. In previous years, we have seen the SNP Government ‘leading the UK’ on public health legislation, particularly in relation to tobacco and alcohol policy, and there are numerous instances of the UK Government being influenced by, or conceding to, the approach taken at Holyrood. That is unlikely to change.
Future Points of Conflict Between Holyrood and Westminster
This month, one issue above all else could potentially provide a huge schism between the UK and Scottish Government: Brexit. If the UK decides to vote to leave the European Union, against the wishes of the Scottish electorate, then arguments about Scotland’s constitutional future will again come to the fore (not that they ever went away). Over the summer, the First Minister has pledged to renew the drive for Scottish independence by persuading those who voted ‘No’ in September 2014 of the merits of leaving the UK. That case might be made slightly easier in the event of Brexit.
Two Unions, Two Parliaments, Two World views – the year ahead in Scottish politics promises to be fascinating. In this ever-changing political landscape, it has never been more important that those seeking to engage with the Scottish Parliament actually understand it.