Michael Russell, MSP
The views expressed do not reflect those of Policy Scotland or the University of Glasgow.
There was a moment of confusion on the first sitting day of the new Scottish Parliamentary session. When the retiring Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, asked the candidates to succeed her to stand most of the SNP members, seated in the middle of the chamber, took some time to spot them.
The reason was that the Labour and Tory parties had swapped seats. It’s third place meant that Labour had to move from the left hand desks in which the main opposition had sat since the building was opened more than a decade ago. Replacing them were a much more sizeable group of Tories.
For the largest – and still governing – party it was, in seating terms at least, business as usual. And indeed at 63, the total for the SNP was only one less than that with which it had finished the previous session, given the election of Marwick as Presiding Officer in 2011, the defection of three members over the NATO vote in 2012 and the loss of the Dunfermline seat at a by election in 2013. Yet that reduction has propelled the SNP into minority government again.
That should not be a great problem. If, as one senior member observed the day after the vote, the SNP could do it with 47 (the number of seats it had from 2007-2011) it can do it with 63. Indeed for some in the SNP ranks minority government will be seen as a positive advantage, ensuring as it will that all proposals are thought through thoroughly (and often discussed with other parties) before coming to the chamber and providing a useful reason for Ministers to resist civil service advice when it tries to force matters by weight of votes rather than logic or common sense. SNP backbenchers and – more importantly – the Parliament’s committees will be able to influence policy and legislation much more than they did between 2011 and 2016.
Given what is expected to be Labour’s reluctance to identify with the Tories – such identification during the Referendum having been at least partly responsible for Labour’s accelerating decline in support – it is also possible that abstention on some contentious matters will be a Labour tactic at least in the early years of the session further easing the pressure on the SNP. Labour will however eventually have to decide whether to keep repeating the “SNP Bad” mantra for another five years or move to a new, more positive, approach in order to try to recover lost ground.
The opportunity for constructive work between the SNP and the Greens is however much greater and would be welcomed by a large part of the SNP support in the country. Such enthusiasm is perhaps based more on hope than experience, given the fondness of the current Green leadership for finding hairs to split with the SNP Government from the highest of self-selected moral grounds. Yet the new group has some conciliatory voices within it who will want a more productive relationship if only to try and entice the SNP and its members towards a greener perspective both environmentally and economically.
The parties also have some key common interests. Taking Land Reform a big step further is one of them. So is ensuring that Climate Change targets are stretched and met – something that Nicola Sturgeon now sees as a personal challenge and commitment.
The Liberals are, if anything, in a more difficult position than before. Their number may be unchanged but the nature of the group indicates a national retrenchment in depth and breadth. Their single list MSP proves that point whilst the two constituency gains merely restore the Lib Dems to their former political niche as a safe alternative to the SNP in exactly the same way they were a safe alternative to the Tories in the same seats twenty years ago.
Which leaves the question of those Tories – all 31 of them, more than double the previous number. No wonder Ruth Davidson seemed so pleased as, one by one, they were announced and took their oaths on the first morning in the chamber. Her second vote oppositionalism strategy had paid off yet the names and places told a story that might, in time, cause difficulties for her.
A good half of the Tory group are very far from the modern image of the party that Ruth so assiduously cultivates and projects. The landed gentry of the north, the highlands and the borders is there in force, motivated to stand for public office no doubt for the noblest of motives but also to protect its own. What they have they intend to hold and stopping land reform – as a retiring Tory MSP pointed out to me during the Tory selection process – is what has driven these candidates out of their estates and farms, and ensured that there was the money to get them elected.
For them, absolute resistance to any further rural change goes hand in glove with absolute resistance to any further constitutional change. Defending the Union is defending the status-quo which has served them so well.
When that becomes apparent to the wider public it will sharply crystallise the real choice in Scottish politics – that between a progressive, equitable and fair future, or an unequal, unfair past.