The SNP lost its majority on Thursday. Here Derek Bateman draws comfort from the party’s big vote and its new Leader of the Opposition
I’ve just realised after 24 hours of media consumption that Ruth Davidson and the Tories won the election. I got my sums all wrong. I thought 63 was more than 31 and that if you got fewer seats you actually lost the election. Nowadays it doesn’t work that way. If you’re really popular with the media and fit the newspaper proprietor’s agenda, you get to win regardless. Must try to keep up.
Not only that but judging from some shouty comments from Ruth Davidson, she’s now running the country and demanding a promise not to stage a referendum. That’s a referendum on independence, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having one on EU membership against most people’s wishes or having one on not taking in destitute orphans who are foreign or anything else the Tories might fancy. This little narrative – that there’s something undemocratic about consulting the voters on independence – is a running right wing theme. The anti Scottish neo con hothead Iain Martin takes up the argument, as has Alex Massie and now Davidson who says the case for it has been shredded. On what electoral basis she doesn’t say except that she got elected and she doesn’t want a referendum. It’s true it isn’t in the SNP manifesto explicitly – it is a qualified offer based on popular demand – but is the right wing now arguing that no government can do anything if it isn’t in the manifesto? Half the Westminster Tory policy programme would need to be ditched if that were true.
And so we see how this is going to work. Ruthie bellows out what she won’t stand for and the media turn it into a demand that the SNP must meet – because of course the Tories advanced and the SNP lost their majority. Ergo, the Tories won. In the Scotsman Bill Jamieson shudders at the thought of all the clouds on the SNP horizon – which turn out to be nothing more than any government faces anywhere on earth. But the landscape has changed, you see. Now they have a champion they can believe in because she’s not Labour. She’s right wing, pro old-fashioned business and small government so she’s the real winner. Forget the largest number of constituencies or highest number of votes ever.
In their glee our newspaper propagandists have missed something. In the same way they laughed all the way to near oblivion in the indyref, so they now are blind to what has happened. First, on assuming official opposition status, Davidson is now herself a target in a way nobody could bother to make her previously. Being opposition leader means more than shouting and pointing. It means devising an alternative programme for government and fully costing it. It means leading debate not piggybacking on Labour. It means being answerable for every howler and misstep of her own government in London – a whole swamp of sticky stuff in which to get enmeshed.
This in itself will begin to turn the rest of the parliament against her because there is no one who defends Cameron in the rest of the chamber. Given the hammering suffered by the Liberals and the evisceration of Labour, it would be suicidal for them to continue on their one-trick pony act of constant attack on an SNP which is now in a position of having to negotiate. There is no monolith, no one-party state to attack when you can get your way by negotiation. (What will Willie Rennie dae noo?) To constantly moan about the Nats now will be facile and will look to many like identifying by association with the Tories.
There is no excuse for Liberals not to seek ways of advancing their argument through negotiation rather than using rhetorical ridicule to batter harmlessly at the walls of a majority government. And if Labour don’t come up with a constitutional case of their own to sell, and quick, they will be the butt of every joke at Holyrood. Seeking bolder change for Scotland along the lines promised before September 2014 rather than what was delivered by Smith should mean more alignment with the SNP instead of knee-jerk opposition. When the common opposition is the Tories, how can Labour side with them against a progressive SNP with no urgent requirement for a referendum on the one issue that could divide them? Labour are about to be skewered by an immediate dilemma while at their lowest ebb.
Getting interesting, isn’t it?
There is now a genuine gulf between governing party and opposition. It is Progressives against Conservatives. The space that was blocked by Labour with their new-found left wing credentials and historic claim to represent the working class, has been vacated.
It is as if (forgive me, I’m a Nationalist) Wallace had manoeuvred Cressingham into sending his cavalry across Stirling Bridge a few at a time…as if he chose the battle field and led his enemy on to it. If you asked a Nationalist strategist for his dream scenario to make the case of independence, he’d pray for a Tory opposition. This is the perfect ground.
It’s as if David Cameron and George Osborne had been elected MSPs. Their presence will hover over the Davidson benches and provide the seed corn for years of Tory baiting. And just how strong will her opposition be? Holding to account is fine pre-election talk but after…? As Labour and the Liberals have found, opposition for the sake of it comes across as vacuous and unprincipled. When the door is opened to budget talks, do you slam it in their face? And when you do start dealing with the hated Nats, what does that say about the reason – the sole reason – you were elected, i.e.to block the SNP?
Tories will demand progress on the economy. That is a good thing. Our economy needs development and sustainable expansion. Our tax base has to grow. But whenever you go far enough down the economic road in Scotland you come against one main obstacle – not oil prices, but lack of powers. A Tory party genuinely interested in prosperity and forced daily to address big economic questions with credible answers, will come up against the brick wall of reserved powers because no one can grow their economy without access to the levers and buttons of corporation tax and the multitude of taxes and tax breaks a normal Chancellor takes for granted from competition policy to immigration to targeted investment.
Credible opposition will force Tories into confronting the practical problems of business, taxation and investment without the tokenistic slogan talk of tax and spend. That can only lead in one direction – eyes looking south for more powers. And won’t Davidson be expected to deliver when it’s her government running the show in London? Indeed, might not the Tory government be inclined to accede to such requests when they come from a resurgent Scottish party that can claim credit for any success? She will be unable to dodge responsibility for real decision-making instead of sloganising and, to be credible, she must fully engage, not decline to participate as on local taxation reform.
Not only did the SNP win the election, they are now in a more promising position, able to pick and choose who to deal with on which issues.
Meanwhile their main opponent is a sitting duck.
The awkward issue of a referendum without the obvious support is now hedged by minority administration.
The pressure is also on Greens to deliver something because having run a campaign largely based on SNP second votes they need to demonstrate their contribution to the strength of the independence movement. At the same time their promise to be bolder must be met to satisfy those voters.
As an aside, I don’t blame anybody for standing in an election and winning votes. I wrote beforehand that you vote and hope and should be true to yourself. It is clear that in Davidson’s seat, the Green candidate swallowed the votes that would have elected Alison Dickie. But that’s the way it works. Every party should do what it can to maximise its vote and that does sometimes hurt others – in fact it’s bound to if you stand for election. One reason why I was reluctant to spread my vote to other parties was their refusal to stand candidates in constituencies because that takes talent and money. Just asking for second votes looked like the opportunistic option while letting the SNP do the heavy lifting. So I can’t complain when the Greens do just that.
I suspect too that this election was a true reflection of opinion. The background talk has been of an over powerful party – I don’t agree – and the switching of votes to back any Unionist against a Nat is a reflection of that. The point is that at election time, every party is an opponent. If this parliament works well, we may learn that majorities aren’t necessary at all and that the need to compromise draws together the politicians in common purpose – even the angry shouty ones whose sole slogan is ‘No!’