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As I See it

SNP is the loser by disregarding parliament

Brian Monteith portraitWhen the SNP government lost a crucial vote on Wednesday to stop the testing of five-year-old primary one pupils the issue at stake was more than just schools policy.

Had John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, listened to the expressed will of parliament and responded by saying the tests would be halted, then it would have been an embarrassing defeat, but it would have ended there.

Instead he immediately instructed schools to carry on regardless until he returned to parliament at some unspecified time in the future with a statement on any changes he is willing to consider. Now it is about a minority government ignoring the will of parliament – and that’s a far bigger issue than assessments that make some children cry.

We have been here before with the SNP Scottish Government. Its policy of having a ‘named person’ from the state for every child under 18 has also been defeated in parliament, as well as the High Court, and there are reports it is still being introduced regardless. This is very odd behaviour for a party in government that has raised the sovereignty of parliament to an exalted status.

Claims are regularly made, by the First Minister, cabinet secretaries and junior ministers about how the Scottish parliament or its government are ignored and sidelined, or how rightful powers it might have are marginalised or denied, by that other similar institution down at Westminster. The lesson we are meant to take from this is that the decisions of the Scottish Parliament are to be respected and count for something – except when the result is not helpful to the SNP administration.

We could dismiss this as mere politics, the sort of infantile shenanigans that we can expect from opportunist politicians who change policies on a whim when it suits them. After all, the Conservatives had previously supported primary one testing in their most recent manifesto. But in their defence they say they have listened to the teachers and the reports of how they were being applied and called on Swinney to be concerned, as they are.

To dismiss what is becoming a bad habit of this government – rejecting the expressed will of Parliament when every member has to record publicly his or her position – is to question the whole point of having a parliament at all. 

There are other issues, burning issues that deserve parliamentary time and government action. If, for instance, Holyrood were to vote for a change in policy on business rates or any other taxes that were impoverishing businesses and wrecking particular sectors of the economy would Derek Mackay act?

There is a growing clamour for a change of tack by the Finance Minister; it was recently established that there are fewer top rate taxpayers than he had expected and this must eventually hit his revenue forecasts. He is also expecting the tax take on his flagship property transaction tax to be short of predictions. Now companies are feeling the pinch with business rate bills set to rise when they are also being squeezed by a climbing inflation rate. If repeated next month the surprise rise in inflation to 2.7% could add a further £80 million to the total business rates bill.

It is not difficult to see a situation where the parliament could vote for a change in policy with a recommendation for business rates to be pegged back or even cut, but the Finance Minister copies the approach of Mr Swinney and carries on regardless. What value then for Holyrood?

The Government’s budget could, of course, fail to be passed because the business rate poundage is considered to be too high. But we have seen before what happens in such a scenario. A minor party, usually the Greens, is bought off with some pork barrel bribes for favoured political schemes and the budget sails through with the original offending policy still intact.

There is another way to force the SNP government to show respect. The members at Holyrood do have the power to bring the government down and force a fresh Scottish general election by not forming a new government. That is the nuclear option and it needn’t be that way.

This issue goes beyond parties, for if the SNP government can act without regard to votes then future governments, be they Conservative, Labour or a combination of alternatives, will be able to use the precedent to behave in the same manner.

John Swinney must put his cherished policies to one side; he must demonstrate he is the bigger person by showing humility and a willingness to bend; and Derek Mackay would do well to learn from that example.

There is still time for this SNP government to do the right thing on education and taxes and win friends and admirers in the process as time is running down. If parliamentary votes are so wilfully ignored all politicians will ultimately be the losers.



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