Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Can Salmond stop the posturing?

The reason I ask is that big chunks of the legislative programme unveiled by Alex Salmond today will not happen unless the Gnats prove themselves willing to compromise.

The most obvious area where the minority Gnat government will have to compromise if it is serious about governing rather than posturing is on the abolition of council tax. Salmond knows there is no majority in the Scottish Parliament for a nationally-set 3p income tax to replace the council tax. The Scottish Lib Dems support abolishing the council tax and replacing it with a tax based on ability to pay, but for us it is unacceptable to remove all local accountability in setting that tax.

I'm not privy to how the Scottish Lib Dem MSPs intend to proceed when the bill is debated, but I would be surprised if they didn't vote for the bill on second reading and then abstain at subsequent stages if unsuccessful in getting the legislation changed to a genuinely local income tax. If that happens, there is no way the bill could go through, with Labour and the Tories implacably opposed. And if that did happen, it would be solely down to Salmond deciding to posture rather than compromise.

There are other areas where the Gnats need to show they are a serious governing party. Their ridiculous proposals on alcohol and tobacco, for instance, are stupid, ineffective, authoritarian, unnecessary and possibly illegal under European law. But if they came forward with sensible proposals for better enforcement of existing laws regarding booze sales and for better education about the effects of booze and tobacco, I'm sure other parties would work with them to tackle the binge drinking culture.

And there's also their confused attitude towards rural schools. While today's proposals to introduce a presumption against closure of rural schools are welcome, it doesn't square with the impact their budget has had on rural education. As I've noted before, the council tax freeze introduced by the Gnats has had an effect on education budgets across the country, which in places like Highland has been felt particularly in rural areas. Legislation to make it harder to close rural schools is all very well, but it's meaningless unless backed up with the finances to keep them open.

Of course, all this assumes that Salmond does actually want to govern rather than play politics. But on previous form, I'm not confident that's the case. Salmond is a master political tactician, and it may suit him to pretend that other parties are stopping him from doing things. But he's in government now and getting things done will mean making compromises. When you're just the largest minority, that is a vital skill.

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