New SNP MSP Joan McAlpine reports on the political platform Alex Salmond, Scotland's most powerful first minister ever, will take into the new parliament.
This week Alex Salmond will, for the second time, formally accept the post of first minister after a vote in the Scottish Parliament. His first government, elected in 2007, was a minority with just one more seat than Labour, the next biggest party. Mr Salmond’s acceptance speech then was a masterpiece of conciliation. He said the parliament was “bigger than any party” and promised to govern “using strength of argument not the argument of strength”.
Now “Big Eck” is back in a big way. The SNP has a mould-breaking majority. The media have crowned him the “new king of Scotland”, with “the whole country in his hands”. You could be forgiven for imagining that the speech this time will be a tad more triumphant. You would be wrong.
Mr Salmond will develop the themes of 2007 – governing for the many not the few, as reflected by the intake of parliament. The 69-strong SNP group – of which I am one – are a diverse bunch: engineers, economists, journalists, bus drivers and builders.
They hail from every corner of the country and various ethnic groups – SNP MSPs took their oath of allegiance in Gaelic, Italian, Scots and Urdu as well as English.
A major theme of our 2011 campaign was bringing together all strands of Scottish society to work for the greater good.
The party has won support from entrepreneurs such as Jim McColl, Scotland’s most successful industrialist, and Tommy Brennan, the legendary shop steward’s convenor who fought for many years to save the Scottish steel industry. It includes the leader of the country’s tenant farmers and the gay rights campaigner and actor Alan Cumming.
The SNP successfully argued that it was delivering “the alternative” demanded by opposition forces in England and Wales. Our finance minister, John Swinney, postponed the Westminster cuts and accelerated capital spending in Scotland – meaning employment has been rising for nine consecutive months.
Mr Salmond’s most recent idea is the “social wage”, the concept that fairness can be delivered despite a £1.3 billion cut to Scotland’s £30bn budget this year. The social wage protects family incomes with a council tax freeze, free prescriptions, lifeline serves and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies in the public sector.
Though the media and opposition cannot stop talking about independence, the re-elected SNP government has made economic growth its priority. It argues that Scottish ministers have governed well with the very limited economic powers already devolved, so should have considerably more. Every opinion poll since devolution shows Scots are overwhelming in favour of this “devo-max” solution, meaning we would remain in the UK but keep all the taxes raised here and run our own welfare system.
Scotland currently has much less autonomy in economic matters than the average US state, let alone a European sub-nation like the Basque country, which raises all its own income and gives Madrid a levy for centralised services like defence. The rising price of oil makes Scotland’s predicament particularly glaring. Revenues will be £13.4bn this year, before George Osborne’s £2bn tax raid on the industry to support petrol prices. Unlike Alaska and Texas, Scotland gets no share of this resource.
However Mr Salm,ond has not asked for full economic powers or even a share of the oil revenues immediately. Instead he has demanded improvements to the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster. Scotland is denied the power within the UK to legislate on its own constitutional future.
The bill proposes that Edinburgh’s block grant is cut and the shortfall filled by a share of basic rate income tax. The SNP, along with a wide cross section of opinion in business, the media, the voluntary sector and trade unions, argue that this fails to give the Scottish government the ability to manage and grow the economy and could leave the country worse off.
The first minister has asked that the bill be revisited in three key areas.
1. He wants the parliament to have significantly increased borrowing powers so that we can improve our infrastructure and maintain growth and employment. Our capital budget was slashed by Mr Osborne, threatening the fragile recovery the SNP has put in place.
We also need to develop the ports and manufacturing capacity to take full advantage of our offshore renewables industry, which could eventually prove as lucrative as oil.
2. The first minister wants the income taken from the semi-feudal Crown Estate devolved to Scotland. The crown estate has a claim on the seabed and foreshore and charges rental to everyone from fish farmers to boat owners without delivering any tangible benefit in return.
As Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s marine energy potential the SNP want a framework that makes it easier to accelerate developments such as offshore wind and wave power. They also want to ensure that Scottish communities receive a financial benefit from the new industries.
3. Mr Salmond wants corporation tax devolved to Scotland. The UK government is already considering such a move for Northern Ireland. This is supported by a wide cross section of business leaders including those who did not come out for the SNP, such as Tom Hunter.
The coalition has already conceded the first request on borrowing. It was recommended by the cross party committee of the Scottish parliament that examined the Scotland Bill from a unionist perspective. The dismantling of the Crown Estate is a long-standing commitment of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, particularly the Highlands. In fact that party’s failure to push this fundamental policy when they achieved power, may be another reason why they were wiped out in their rural heartlands.
The Scottish Parliament committee examining the Scotland Bill also recommended that Scotland should have devolved corporation tax if the principle is conceded for Northern Ireland.
Lord David Steel, who held his own commission on Scotland’s constitutional future, said at the weekend there was no reason for the government not to revisit the Scotland Bill. Now the grassroots of the Scottish Liberal Democrats are restless, following their near annihilation last week. They are down to five seats in the Scottish Parliament and believe their failure to stand up for Scotland was a mistake. Resignations are being demanded.
Given the result of the election it is difficult to see how anyone can continue to defend what is widely considered a grubby and ineffectual compromise. The Scotland Bill was the unionist response to the SNP’s narrow victory in 2007. It deliberately excluded talk of independence, shut out the wider public from its meetings and ensured that its carefully selected appointees would deliver Gordon Brown’s preferred outcome – an apparent change which actually conceded very little.
The unionist parties defended Calman and the subsequent bill on the grounds that both were backed by a majority in the Scottish parliament. Now that the SNP have won a landslide, that defence is untenable.
In 2010, the coalition government point blank refused to consider the SNP’s alternative proposal of full fiscal autonomy similar to the Basque model. This reflected very badly on the Liberals whose own Steel Commission had demanded far greater devolution of economic powers. Behind the scenes it was claimed that Labour needed to be kept on board as they were likely to form the next Scottish government. That excuse is now tattered too.
Everyone associated with the Scotland Bill has left the political stage. Gordon Brown was defeated and couldn’t even stop the SNP from winning his native Kirkcaldy last week. Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader who devised Calman, is spending more time with her family. All three opposition leaders at Holyrood who defended the Bill – the Tories’ Annabel Goldie, the Lib Dem’s Tavish Scott and Labour’s Iain Gray – have resigned in the wake of the SNP landslide.
Last week the Scottish people voted for radical change. They voted for the front bench they believed had the ability to see the country through economic challenges. They voted for a leader with a vision for the future, of a country re-industrialised by green energy. Other parties say Salmond did not make the constitution an election issue. I would refer them to his broadcast response to George Osborne’s budget at the very beginning of the campaign.
He talks of his government’s economic record and the infrastructural investment he has planned, but reminds Scots that his hands are tied by London: “Give us the tools to do the job” he implores.
Mr Salmond will address parliament this week as the most powerful first minister Scotland has ever had. Yet he will still implore, he will still reach out. The tattered opposition will have the chance to redeem themselves by supporting our demand for the tools to get Scotland back on the road to better times. That is our country’s democratic right, and those who continue to deny it have no hope of political recovery.
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