Opposition oxygen

Sunday National, 29th August 2021.

I hope you like your gammon well-smoked, because the angry men of Scottish unionism have been at a vigorous boil all week. Triggered by the cooperation agreement between the SNP and Greens, the men of letters and political hacks have been falling over themselves to make the direst prophecy about the consequences of the deal passing.

One Tory MSP described the “extremist” Green manifesto as “a doctrine to start a war on working Scotland.” Another Tory scribe suggested this week that the main goal of the cooperation deal was to destroy Scottish house prices, explaining that “undermining home-ownership is the reality of a class war subtext which underpins everything the new Greens and their Extinction Rebellion outriders do, and the SNP has just bought into it.”

Writing in the Daily Mail – which memorably once described Patrick Harvie as the “voice of the irresponsible left-led anti-family anti-christian gay whales against the bomb coalition” – former BBC frontman Andrew Neil rinsed every drop out of his spleen this weekend. “Anti-monarchy, anti-Britain, anti-wealthy: what price will Scotland pay for giving power to eco-zealot Marxists?” he asks, apparently in all earnestness, in a dire screed suggesting capitalist refugees seeking a warmer life will pack up their assets and flee the jurisdiction.

Douglas Ross seems to think comparing Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie to Laurel and Hardy – and parroting the phrase “coalition of chaos” incessantly – is some kind of devastating political critique, while Anas Sarwar is reduced to trudging out limp statements, as he contemplates five more years of political irrelevance for the Scottish Labour party. Alex Cole-Hamilton is presumably jumping up and down on a bouncy castle somewhere, crying “look at me” in a smaller and smaller voice.

We’re so used to opposition hysterics in Holyrood, that it is easy to overlook the peculiar pitch objections to this deal have taken. Why do sad? Some of the critiques are based on substantive policy disagreements, certainly. It is an agreement with independence at its heart, but it doesn’t change the raw voting numbers in favour of a referendum in Holyrood. Formal or informal, the combined forces of the SNP and Greens in parliament are already capable of getting any policy through ad hoc. So why does the cooperation agreement seem to have driven the big unionist parties and their media sympathisers doolally?

One thing you have to understand is that opposition politicians thrive on jeopardy, and the one thing this accord will definitely do is strangle the scope for the unionist opposition to make mischief at the government’s expense.

How? Dig into the detail of the deal. Much of the focus has been on the big ticket items, but check out the fine print. The accord sets out a list of “excluded matters” where the Greens will be free to follow their own distinctive policy course. A substantial number of these relate to reserved matters anyway – aviation policy, international relations and NATO membership – but the list of exclusions includes potential political flashpoints including the status of private schools, the legal status of sex work, and field sports. Outside these narrow limits, the Greens have signed up to support every Bill, every amendment, every vote of confidence, and every budget the Scottish Government lay before the parliament. 

We’ve got so used to SNP minority government that we forget how fragile the proposition first seemed back in 2007, when the SNP had just 47 MSPs compared to the 64 sent back to Holyrood in May. When the new government first took office, ousted old hands in Scottish Labour were confidently predicting that the new regime’s days were numbered. History played them false there, but you can understand the analysis. Alex Salmond’s first minority government controlled just over a third of the seats in Holyrood, well short of a 65 vote majority, with no domination of committees to rely on, and no prospect of passing a budget on its own votes. They relied on the support of at least one of the major opposition parties to get anything done in the chamber. Bruce Crawford worked like stink behind the scenes to throw together alliances of convenience issue-by issue, as the new government did its best to navigate the political deadfalls and pitfalls which surrounded it.

Since 2016, the SNP’s minority position in Holyrood has strengthened immeasurably – but the magic number if still 65. In the end, parliamentary politics is about the numbers. If you have a majority in the chamber, you can run the table. If you have a majority on parliament’s committees and can keep your bodies in order, you’ve got the game all sewn up. But lose that majority? Death, desertion, defection, by-election defeats – the only way is down.

Eventually, you will find yourself at the mercy of events.  What do you do if a Bill unexpectedly runs into controversy, and your opponents aren’t playing ball? How can you get that tricky budget through? How do you protect yourself against the opposition picking off a minister with a well-timed confidence motion?

At the very least, the possibility of any of these things happening keeps party managers awake at night, and gives opposition parliamentarians the glimmer of hope that they can engineer an upset, knock out a member of the cabinet, or knock down a Bill.

Even if they don’t get their scalp – this kind of theatre allows the opposition to stage a parliamentary scene, to grab a headline or two, and remind the electorate that they’re still breathing. When you’re dealing with a government fortressed behind a majority, by contrast, the oxygen is sucked out of parliament, and it is invariably the opposition that’s left gasping. Keir Starmer is struggling with similar political problems in the House of Commons.  This is why Anas Sarwar looks so morose this weekend. That’s why Douglas Ross’s pips are squeaking.

Just consider political life in the UK before and after Boris Johnson won his 80 seat majority in 2019 and “got Brexit done.” Under Theresa May, there were countless crunch votes and parliamentary occasions. The legislative atmosphere was frenetic. Party whips on both sides of the House more than earned their keep, as sittings stretched into the night, knife-edged votes followed knife-edged votes, and the Democratic Unionist Party briefly enjoyed the illusion they were the indispensable king makers on which all of British politics depended.

After Johnson’s 80-vote landslide, by contrast, all the attention has leaked away. Sure, there are the occasional flashpoints and controversies – minor rebellions which might give the opposition half a chance to embarrass the government – but these are vanishingly few compared to the dramatic and often interminable period between 2017 and 2019 where the legislature was centre-stage.

This, I think, partly explains why Scottish Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats reacted with such outsize            outrage to the prospect of formal cooperation between the Greens and the SNP. Although they reliably lob the accusation that the Greens are just the SNP’s “gardening wing,” in truth, it was the Scottish Greens’ formal autonomy in a parliament of minorities which gave opposition gambits some life.

Without a majority, the Scottish Government’s budget could fall, as it fell in 2009. In the last session, both John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon survived no confidence motions which could easily have gone the other way. On taking up the leadership of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross has proven particularly fond of this nuclear option. Now he can still hammer away at the button if he likes, but unless the cooperation agreement collapses, the conclusions will be foregone. The opposition are the real losers out of this deal, and their glum faces show they know it.

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