Scottish Jaw-jaw

Published: May 12 , 2016
Author: Robin Copland

The fathers of Scottish devolution came up with a system so complicated as to confuse even the most passionate observer and student of the political scene north of the border.  There were three guiding principles:

  • To preserve the best of the Westminster “first past the post” system, which provides a clear result and a named MP for a constituency
  • To ensure that those who voted for a party other than the winning party still had a chance or representation in the parliament (there is a second vote for list MPs in each constituency)
  • To make an overall majority government a rare occurrence – and it is this requirement that has caused the hideous complication!

Anyhow, the SNP drove a coach and horses through the third principle at the election in 2011, securing an overall majority; the polls suggested that a repeat result was on the cards last week.  The rebellious Scots had different ideas though and a resurgent Conservative and Unionist party under Ruth Davidson beat the previously unbeatable Labour party into third place (there were lots of underwear-wearing, hat-eating commentators in Scotland after that result!) with 31 seats.  Of the 129 MSPs, the SNP won 63, so they were an agonising (for their supporters) 2 short of the magical 65.

So what does this mean?  Well, although the SNP’s majority remains enormous, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her team cannot push through unpopular legislation without some give and take.  This opens the door to negotiation and compromise, however opposition parties need to be careful about what they choose to oppose if they want to have influence and a moderating effect.  Opposition for opposition’s sake will not work.

Ruth Davidson, a relative novice, has promised a considered approach to her duties as leader of the main opposition party.  The opposition party leaders would do well to heed negotiating advice from skilled negotiators, all of whom would suggest that a list of ranked and prioritised objectives be drawn up.  They need to ask themselves what the key areas of policy that they want to influence; which of their own policies they need to see included in any legislation.  Once they have the answer to these questions, they can begin to formulate their plans.  They may need to support/ withdraw opposition in areas of lesser importance to them, in order to gain the government’s support for their own priority ideas and policies.

I wonder how much “behind the scenes” bargaining will take place.  Interestingly, every single one of the five opposition parties has enough votes, if combined with the SNP bloc, to gain a majority on a particular issue.  This gives each individual party one or maybe two opportunities to really push for something that they want in return for support in another area.  It also makes the SNP’s job that bit easier; their majority is such that they only have to convince one of the opposition parties to push a piece of legislation through.  Divide and conquer might be their motto, whilst the combined opposition parties would be advised to work together.

Therein lies a problem, of course!  Tories, Lib-Dems, Greens and Labour are not normally in the habit of working together, but, as Churchill remarked, “Jaw-jaw is better than War-war”!

Robin Copland


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Robin Copland
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