All the unionist parties in Scotland have now crawled on board and passed the SNP minority government’s budget. Scottish Conservatives had already joined nationalists in support of the package’s first reading. Liberal Democrats and Labour MSPs have since extracted enough concessions to secure their backing, leaving only two greens opposing the budget in a subsequent division, following its initial one vote defeat.
Each party has done exactly the same in this instance. Annabel Goldie’s Conservatives found Alex Salmond and his finance minister John Swinney immediately receptive to their preconditions. The Tories therefore voted with the government at the first time of asking. Labour and the Lib Dems had their concerns addressed only after inflicting a narrow defeat on the SNP.
The truth is that no party believes that Scotland would benefit if they were to force an early election, or render unworkable the current administration at Holyrood. In the teeth of recession, with Labour weak, pro-independence sentiment waning and Conservative revival in its nascent stages north of the border, precipitating a crisis would have unpredictable results, both for the parties and for the country.
The current minority arrangement has its attractions for both government and opposition MSPs. With power delicately balanced each party has a degree of leverage. Through horse-trading and negotiation it is possible to exert influence incommensurate with a party’s representative strength. From Salmond’s perspective, he can claim credit for every perceived success the Scottish government enjoys, and blame every perceived failure on recalcitrant unionist parties.
Ultimately, however, a regional, nationalist party governing a majority unionist area of the United Kingdom will have a baleful influence on coherent politics there. Witness Salmond’s attempts to paint the illegality of SNP local income tax proposals as a consequence of ‘English colonialism’. It is an attritional, divisive brand of governance which will necessarily take its toll on the fabric of Scottish political life.
Although none of the national parties yet feel that the time is right, eventually the nationalist menace must be confronted.