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Scottish Enlightenment: How Julia Gillard could learn to make minority government work

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond made a roaring success of minority government. AAP

In Anglo-American democracies at least, having a “minority government” is often regarded as an undesirable state of affairs.

Canada may have had considerable experience of the phenomenon, New Zealand learnt to adapt to it since it switched to proportional representation, and even the British House of Commons lived with it for a while in the 1970s, yet it is still often regarded as a state that is best avoided.

In the wake of the 2010 Federal election, Australia also found itself in the unfamiliar position of having a House of Representatives in which no single party had an overall majority. After days of uncertainty, Labor leader Julia Gillard, eventually managed to scramble the support she needed from the Greens and Independents to form a minority administration.

One common criticism of such administrations is that instead of providing the “strong” government any country needs, they have to wheel and deal with others to get legislation passed by parliament. As a result it can seem as though the parliamentary tail is wagging the government dog.

The fortunes of Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government during the last year have done little to dispel this common impression. Greens leader Bob Brown is sometimes said to be “running the government”, while a policy demand from Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie can prove a major headache for the Prime Minister.

A reduced lifespan

Meanwhile, despite its best efforts at keeping parliament happy, typically a minority government eventually runs out of rope well before the next election is due, thereby requiring either a new (perhaps equally weak) administration be formed or else that voters go to the polls.

Across well-established democracies as a whole during the post-war era, minority governments have lasted on average for some 600 days, well below the lifetime of the average single party majority administration of some 900 days.

It doesn’t have to be like that

Yet there is one striking recent example of an Anglo-American minority government that by any yardstick proved to be a political success.

Following what was only the third election to the “devolved” Scottish Parliament that was created in 1999, in 2007 the Scottish National Party (SNP) formed a minority administration when it secured just one seat more than its principal opponents, Labour, despite having just 47 out of a total body of 129 MSPs.

Not only did this deeply minority government survive its full four year term, but at the end of its life in May this year secured a landslide election victory that means the SNP now enjoys the luxury of an overall majority.

The Nationalist paradox

How did this government, responsible for most of Scotland’s domestic affairs apart from the welfare state and taxation, manage to defy the apparent laws of political gravity?

And in particular how did it manage to do so even though when it came to the SNP’s raison de’être, to secure independence from the rest of the UK, it faced opposition from all of the other major parties?

The SNP certainly had to wheel and deal in what was a particularly fragmented parliament. The only combination of two parties sufficient for a majority was the SNP together with Labour.

That was bound to be a rare event given the animosity in Labour’s ranks for a nationalist party that was now proving to be an effective usurper of the party’s onetime dominance of Scottish politics.

The centre-right Conservatives only had 16 seats (excluding one member who became the parliament’s neutral presiding officer) as did the Liberal Democrats, a social liberal party, who also had 16.

The balance of power was potentially held by two Greens and an Independent who had once been a leading light in the SNP, but subsequently fallen out with her former colleagues.

Balancing policy losses with leadership

Against this unfavourable backdrop, some key parts of the SNP’s proposed legislative programme were dropped without even being presented to parliament.

Plans to replace a local property tax with a local income tax were not brought forward. The same fate also befell the party’s flagship policy of holding a referendum on independence.

Other key legislation was gutted in the parliamentary chamber, most notably an attempt to enforce a minimum price for the sale of alcohol.

Nevertheless the impression of weak government was avoided. Being a minority at home did not stop the SNP from being an effective champion of Scotland’s interests vis-à-vis the rest of the UK.

Standing up for Scotland

The government was not afraid to argue with the UK government when it felt Scotland was getting a raw deal, an attribute that distinguished it from the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition that had governed Scotland for the previous eight years.

Equally SNP ministers were more than ready to fly Scotland’s flag abroad, most notably helping Glasgow to be the host city for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Such activity helped dispel any impression of a government able to achieve little.

Strange bedfellows at budget time

Yet there was one parliamentary hurdle that it did have to overcome every year – to secure parliamentary approval for its detailed spending plans.

However, apart from one hiccup the government always succeeded in trading sufficient concessions to acquire the parliamentary support it needed.

Remarkably, the SNP’s most consistent backers were the Conservatives, even though they had once opposed the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament let alone been willing to consider the idea of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

Keen to demonstrate some influence in a country where their electoral support has been in long term decline, the Conservatives proved willing to trade their votes for local tax concessions for business, a freeze on the local property tax, and more spending police on the beat.

However, in 2009 the SNP did miscalculate and initially its spending plans were defeated when anticipated support from the Greens failed to materialise. Nevertheless the government still survived for one simple, but crucial reason – it rapidly became clear there was no other alternative.

The Conservatives declared that if the SNP government were to fall, they would not be willing to allow Labour to take over instead. That meant that if the government were brought down there would have to be an early election.

Trailing badly in the polls, that was a prospect that Labour could not afford to contemplate.

Thus when the SNP sought support for its budget a second time around, Labour, along indeed with everyone else, proved all too ready to compromise and the government secured almost universal backing for its plans. So the SNP government held a far stronger bargaining position than mere parliamentary arithmetic suggested.

Talent shines through

But it also had one other key advantage – personality. In its leader, Alex Salmond, the SNP has the good fortune to have the one of the most charismatic and politically astute politicians in the UK.

More generally SNP ministers were widely recognized as being good at doing their jobs and that, person for person, they compared favourably with their counterparts in the opposition Labour party.

There was one simple reason for this imbalance. Most of Labour’s Scottish talent occupied the party’s green benches in the British House of Commons rather than the new wooden seat in the new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

In contrast, having few Commons MPs in London, most of the SNP’s senior personnel had found their way into the Scottish Parliament. And as any cricketer will know, one side’s first XI will always be fancied to outplay another side’s second XI.

Learning the Scottish lesson?

And so it came to pass when, at the end of the SNP’s term in May this year, the most important umpire of all – the electorate – were invited to cast their judgement on four years of the SNP in minority power.

It should then perhaps be regarded as an astute move by Julia Gillard to recruit some Scottish talent to her team - John McTernan, her new media boss.

Perhaps it is just a pity that she has opted for someone from Labour’s ranks, rather than from those of the SNP.

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