Magazine article Public Finance

Staying Power

Magazine article Public Finance

Staying Power

Article excerpt

It is almost two years since a political earthquake in Scotland swept Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party to power at Holyrood. Few people could deny that following its 'historic* election in May 2007, the Scottish Government has achieved a great deal despite the restrictions of minority rule.

But Salmond's opponents say some of the first minister's main political policies are beginning to unravel as the problems of minority government become increasingly apparent. The so-called honeymoon period, they claim, is over and the Salmond administration is now struggling.

The flagship local income tax plan has been ditched at least until 2011, when the current parliamentary session ends. And Salmond's intention to hold a referendum on independence appeared to have been killed off last week when Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats united in the Scottish Parliament to approve a call to shelve it.

But Salmond remains confident Despite a hectic timetable, which has recently included a meeting with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Washington and talks just a day or two later with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his counterparts in the other devolved administrations, the first minister looks relaxed and unfazed about the mounting political pressures.

Having met a deputation and dealt with a queue of officials and spin doctors trying to get a 'word', as well as a vote in the chamber, he finds time for an exclusive interview with Public Finance at his fourth floor office in the ministerial 'tower' at Holyrood.

So, is the honeymoon period over? 'It's a pretty extended honeymoon,' he replies. 'It's been almost two years of government. The last time I checked we were still ahead in the Scottish polls by a considerable margin and I notice just in the last few days we've gone back to being ahead in the Westminster samples. So the public verdict seems pretty positive.'

On the referendum, he intends to press ahead with legislation proposing that it be held in 2010. According to Salmond, the other parties have shown contempt for the voters by opposing it

'Here is something that is overwhelmingly popular. . . whether people are going to vote "yes" or "no" they think it's a good idea to have a vote. It's in our manifesto. Last year Labour were going to vote for it. We know a substantial number of Liberal and perhaps even Tory MSPs are in favour of it as well. In one year we don't know where the situation will be. We will introduce it next year.'

Critics have argued that the Scottish Government has made very limited progress in implementing its manifesto. Salmond points to 46 manifesto commitments that have been 'met or exceeded'. Council tax bills have been frozen, business rates cut, student fees abolished, the first phase of abolishing prescription charges introduced, more police officers employed, hospital downgrading plans reversed and ambitious energy renewal plans put into operation. 'We're almost halfway through our commitments. There are a lot of things we have done so it seems to me we're keeping pace with our commitments.'

With just 47 seats in the 129-member Parliament, the SNP needs the support of other parties to be able to push ahead with policies that require legislation. While Salmond has defied critics who claimed his government might not last, he has found that minority rule can be precarious.

By far the biggest example of this was the governments unexpected and humiliating defeat on its 2009/10 budget on the casting vote of the presiding officer. Salmond immediately threatened to resign if the budget was not voted through at the second attempt Labour and the LibDems, who voted against it were thrown into disarray when it became apparent the public disapproved of action that threatened public projects and jobs.

Just a week later - with parliamentary rules suspended to allow a fast -tracking of the Budget Bill - the budget won overwhelming approval. …

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