Future Alliances at Holyrood

My father claims we’re from the same part of the Mackenzie clan as the Brahan Seer, aka the Seer of Kintail, but I’ve never been great at predictions. Eighteen months ago, Nicola Sturgeon was still sweeping all before her, and I don’t think I was alone in not foreseeing where we would be now. 

Having said that, I was teasing Humza Yousaf on Twitter about being future FM material more than a decade ago, not that mystical visions were required to see that possibility.

But what’s next? Just under two years of this Holyrood session remains, and one key question is this: how, as First Minister, will John Swinney stay securely in post and deliver on his agenda? What does the adder stone show? (crystal balls were not part of the Highland seer tradition)

Swinney still faces the same fundamental problem that brought Yousaf down. Lyndon Johnson’s dictum applies very bluntly to the situation at Holyrood: the first rule of politics is to learn how to count. And the SNP remain two seats short of a majority.

The Bute House Agreement squared that problem off, at least in theory. But Humza started to face a numbers problem associated with the increasing rebelliousness on the SNP’s right flank. Pushback grew on LGBT+ rights and on efforts to redress power imbalances (such as those between tenants and landlords). But trying to hold onto the right of the SNP by ejecting the Greens still leaves them short of a majority.

Many around the SNP leadership have happy memories of that first Salmond minority administration, starting 17 years ago, just as many on the Labour right dream constantly about 1997. This fondness for the SNP’s first term in office can be seen in two key mistakes the party made under Yousaf. 

First, in the 2007 session, a freeze on Council Tax was politically popular. Austerity had yet to bite, so Scottish Ministers could top up councils’ budgets. But the decision to freeze it again in October last year landed very differently. Councils have been struggling financially for years, and the unilateral announcement was very unpopular amongst the Greens at all levels. 

The Bute House Agreement required “consultation and collaboration with the

Green Group throughout the development and scrutiny of all stages of the annual budget process“, and that clearly did not happen. This is no doubt why, once talk started circulating amongst the Green membership about pulling out of the agreement, Green councillors were amongst the first to support it.

Second, back in the 2007 session, all four opposition parties were prepared to do deals with Swinney, then Salmond’s finance minister. The Tories were easiest to negotiate with, operating as they were at the time under the “my enemy’s enemy” approach, determined to dish Scottish Labour above all. And the Greens argued each year for their priorities, and more often than not, a deal was done. But all four opposition parties voted for those SNP budgets at least some of the time.

But that was before the polarisation around the indyref. Now, Labour and the Tories would be unlikely to vote for an SNP budget no matter what it contains. And the Greens, previously open to deals and then bound into the Bute House Agreement, have little incentive to be flexible after their Ministers were abruptly sacked. 

That does, however, leave one potential partner that Swinney could court. The Liberal Democrats miss their own glory days as the junior partner to Labour during the Parliament’s first two sessions. They know they struggle to distinguish themselves from the other two Unionist parties. And they would love to be relevant, to get out from under the cloud of their Westminster coalition days.

It would require Swinney to take independence off the table for the next two years, in theory: in practice, it’s off the table anyway, given the stubborn refusal of Westminster to recognise the pro-independence mandate of the 2021 election.

The SNP, especially under Swinney, are also economically indistinguishable from the Lib Dems. Where, other than the constitution, would the flashpoints come? To give the Lib Dems credit where it’s due, they’ve been the only party other than the Greens to reliably and unanimously vote for LGBT+ rights, so that could be an issue. But they’re now the SNP’s most obvious partners. In many ways, the only possible partners.

And the signs are there. Earlier this month, when Parliament voted for Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister, that vote was only won because the Lib Dems abstained. Why else would they do that if not to indicate a willingness to deal with the Swinney administration?

From Swinney’s perspective, I imagine, the key is to get to the 2026 election without more chaos in government, to steady the ship, and get a couple of prominent policies through. Why not also, somehow, fulfil the Lib Dems’ key priority of mental health funding? Again, to give them credit, it’s much needed.

Then Swinney can take his chances against Scottish Labour, who by that stage will have to contend with the likely disappointment of Keir Starmer in Downing Street. If I’m right, the Lib Dems would have something catchy to put in their leaflets, just in time for the Scottish electorate to have their say again. Whatever the outcome in 2026, the adder stone projects it’s unlikely to produce a balance of power quite as awkward as 2021 did.

Comments (3)

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  1. norm says:

    While the 2024/25 council tax free wasn’t popular with Green councillors, it certainly has some public support.

    In my view, however difficult it was a correct action to mitigate against Westminster’s cost of living crisis

    1. MacGilleRuadh says:

      Freezing Council tax in 24/25 was a ridiculous policy, economically and socially incoherent, and done for narrow political advantage (something it will probably not deliver)

  2. Observer says:

    The council tax freeze also involved scrapping council tax reforms which would raise more from the most expensive properties, so rendering the tax system less progressive overall. The income tax rises, particularly at the top end, were criticised mercilessly by the SNP’s media opponents who would barely have noticed a previously flagged council tax rise. Bad politics from HY who one can only assume was influenced by foolish advisors.

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