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24 February 2011

The Scottish Budget: Bringing out the best

A minority government's ability to govern is dependent upon their ability to successfully make deals. This task requires frequent submission to the opinions of their opponents for the sake of remaining in power and effectively running the country. The Scottish Budget process through Parliament once again highlighted that the Scottish National Party's (SNP) four years as a minority government has operated within this reality. The budget passed by 79 votes to 48 - healthy democracy in action, some would say.

The Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats both supported the Government at the final vote after working closely to make sure certain criteria were met. The Government gave away £67 million in concessions to the two parties, which included £5 million more for community care, a further £9.5 for future apprenticeships, a further £16 million into housing programmes and £8 million for an additional 1,200 college places. Other key aspects of the Bill included funding for local authorities to deliver a further council tax freeze and maintaining 1,000 extra police officers.

This time around, the budget process was overtly influenced by the coming Parliamentary election in May making any act of partisanship too much for some. Even though they are leading in most opinion polls, it seems that the Labour Party was always going to vote against the budget even if, to most observers, it seemed that most of their demands were met by the Government. Significantly, Finance Secretary John Swinney announced on the day of the final vote that the number of modern apprentices will rise to 25,000 in 2011-12. This was a key issue for Labour - but obviously not enough. Swinney therefore concluded that: "This is apparently not enough for Labour. Every single thing I was asked to deliver by the Labour Party I offered them.They have now been caught red-handed in a state of total hypocrisy. "

The SNP's ability to govern has been a hallmark of their first ever term in power. They have spent the last four years trying to convince the public that they are a legitimate and sensible party for governance, although continually reminding us of the trials of operating as a minority government. Labour's campaigning will focus on SNP's broken promises and its inability to deliver significant aspects of their manifesto. As the two biggest parties, they are ultimately competing for who will take power in May, made even more significant because neither party is part of the UK coalition Government. The budget process is a prime example that the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives will be willing to work, and maybe even form a government with the winning minority.

While minority or coalition government might create many frustrations and limitations, one Christian perspective might suggest it allows for greater relationality, understanding and sometimes sacrifice on behalf of those involved - producing legislation and governance which is arguably more representative of the people. The deal-making involved might even bring out the best in people, party and country.