23 May 2007

Welsh lessons

*braces self for angry reaction from Welsh speakers, furious at the butchery of their language*

Anyway, in the midst of the formation of the Executive in Scotland, it's been far too easy to overlook Wales. For those who haven't checked, Labour now have 26 AMs, Plaid have 15, the Tories have 12, the LibDems 6, and there is one Independent. Labour attempted negotiations with the LibDems. They have collapsed. They have been attempting negotiations with Plaid, and these are at death's door. Plaid, meanwhile, is negotiating with the Tories and the LibDems to form a 'Rainbow' Coalition, and this could lead to Ieuan Wyn Jones becoming First Minister.

Now, this has raised an interesting question. If Plaid and the Tories can negotiate in Wales, what's stopping the SNP and Tories from negotiating in Scotland. I'm not the first blogger to consider this question but never let it be said that I don't know a good bandwagon when I see one.

Anyway, the question is, "Interestingly, Plaid doesn’t appear to have a problem entering into a coalition with the Tories, eventhough PC didn’t embrace the business community in the way the SNP has. Has Wales woken up to a new dawn where the Tories aren’t the bogeymen and women they once were? After all that Bliar and Brown have put us through, is Scotland mature enough to have that debate?"

I'm going to start by considering the wording of the question. Why is it a question of Scotland being mature enough to debate the Tories' involvement in government? It's not like Scotland has frozen the Tories out altogether. The 1997 wipeout (as Duncan points out) was caused by the voting system, not hatred for the Tories (though that helped!). They got enough votes in 1999 for 18 MSPs, and managed to win the Ayr By-Election not long after the creastion of Holyrood. There are Tory MSPs, Scottish Tory MEPs and a Scottish Tory MP. So Scotland per se has no problem with the Tories.

The issue is the SNP's "No deal with the Tories" rule. Now, this hasn't stopped informal understandings being reached between the SNP and the Tories at Council level, and it's almost certain that the new Executive will talk to the Tories on some issues. So why no formal Coalition? (I'm aware that the boat is likely to have sailed on this for the short term, by the way) Why is the rule still in place?

As far as I understand (and I may be wide of the mark here), the rule was instituted as a response to the Poll Tax. This means that it was drafted at a time before Holyrood, when there was no prospect of the SNP forming a government of any sort unless there were about 300 Parties in the Commons and the SNP ended up being the largest of them.

So if that's the case, then the ban is equivalent to being anti-American because of Vietnam. It was a valid reason at the time, but it's a little passé. Not only that, but it was designed to prevent the SNP propping up a UK Tory Government. It would have been written when the Scottish Parliament was still an idea, and never imagined the circumstances that the Tories might ever be in a position to prop up a Scottish SNP Government. Rather than being a signpost, setting out the SNP's position in a Hung Westminster Parliament, it's become a shackle, limiting the SNP's options in a PR Holyrood Parliament.

There's a cliché that I rather like: "the past is a different country - they do things differently there". Things have changed: the SNP is more sympathetic to business than it was in those days, when Alex Salmond was elected National Convener for the first time, and had a vision of turning the SNP leftwards away from the old 'Tartan Tories' line. Jim Sillars is out, Jim Mather is in. Conversely, the Conservatives are more accepting of devolution now - the fact that devolution is here has surely helped - and are even sympathetic to calls for more powers to be transferred Northward. So where at the time, the two parties were essentially diametrically opposed on practically everything, there's been a convergence, and the two have both moved a little closer. There's room for discussion and certainly room for negotiation.

The question is: can everyone involved dare to think the hitherto unthinkable?

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