Nicking the spoils of election?
The UK General Election on 6 May 2010 led ultimately to the formation of an unlikely Tory/Lib-Dem coalition government, a still almost Tory-free Scotland, a Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland, and the return to the political front line (as Advocate General for Scotland) of Jim Wallace, last heard of going back to practice in Parliament House.
If a hung Parliament was widely anticipated even before the election campaign began, not so the eventual governmental configuration and the resulting prospects of constitutional change. In fact, some of the constitutional changes expected from a Tory government – notably the replacement of the Human Rights Act with a so-called UK Bill of Rights – became a little less likely, and even if it does eventually happen, it will surely be a rather different thing from what readers of the tabloid press have been expecting.
The coalition government's agreement, published on 20 May 2010, contains little of specifically Scottish interest. The most obviously significant commitment is to implement the Calman recommendations to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and also to look at the West Lothian Question (why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on England-only matters when their English counterparts are generally excluded from the same issues in Scotland?). But change to the Barnett formula, which determines how much money the devolved administrations have to spend, and which is loved in Scotland and hated in Wales, will apparently await the "stabilisation of the public finances" – which looks like being a long way off.
There will however surely be earlier implications for Scotland in the decisions to get rid of home information packs in England and Wales, extend the scope of the UK Freedom of Information Act, review libel laws to improve protection for freedom of speech, take measures to end 'unfair' bank charges and ban the sale of alcohol at below cost price, as well as to grant a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act, seek foreign recognition of civil partnerships, and give anonymity to defendants in rape cases. The new Prime Minister's "respectful" visit to Scotland on 14 May also seemed to bear fruit for the First Minister, whose claim to accumulated and future revenues from the Fossil Fuel Levy in Scotland, always rejected by the previous Labour Government, has been met with a commitment to a review expected to grant Mr Salmond's wishes, and so give him some £185 million to play with, perhaps before the next Scottish election in May 2011.
Whatever happens in Westminster in the future, it would be unwise now to extrapolate from the results of this election what is going to happen in that Scottish election a year from now. It seems pretty clear that the results in Scotland were for the most part the product of a desire to avoid a Tory government in the UK – and in some sense that may have been achieved. But in the Scottish Parliamentary elections there is no danger (for the moment) of a Tory or Tory-dominated administration. Whether the Scottish Lib Dems will lose or gain from their participation in the Westminster coalition is a moot point; but it will surely make it difficult if not impossible for them to form a coalition with Scottish Labour. Which raises a host of interesting possibilities about who may be governing us Scots, and with what powers after Calman implementation, a year from now. Remember that once Calman is enacted there will be new tax-raising and borrowing powers in Scotland, with which, perhaps, some of the effects of Westminster-driven cuts might be offset. Will the SNP's years of minority government inspire others to try to do likewise? With which other parties might whichever is the biggest party try to cut a deal if it did not fancy minority government? And if the Westminster coalition lasts and has any success at a UK level, will that have an effect on the corresponding Scottish parties in the run-up to May 2011?
And finally there is, quite apart from the West Lothian question, the question of the Scottish MPs at Westminster. How long will Gordon Brown remain there? Will he fancy a stint as First Minister at Holyrood once he realises how little he can do for his Kirkcaldy constituents from Westminster? How will ex-Scottish Labour Ministers Cathy Jamieson and Margaret Curran fare as MPs? Will they make the Opposition front bench? Will they hang on to their MSP jobs, just in case? Much to look out for and perhaps occasionally enjoy, even as the public expenditure cuts begin to bite more deeply.