Alex Massie

Holyrood Drama? Not so fast, my friends!

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Well, that didn't last long. The entertainment (see yesterday's post) at Holyrood seems to be coming to an end. As predicted by Jeff at SNP Tactical Voting, there seems every chance that the revised Scottish government budget will, far from precipitating the excitement of an issue-free* election, result in the budget being passed unanimously. Everyone will have extracted their ounce of flesh from the SNP (but no more than that).  The Scotsman's headline claims all this amounts to a series of "shock" u-turns but I don't see what's so surprising about parties backing away from the prospect of an election few people really wanted.

So Labour look like they'll get £50m or so to fund a few thousand apprenticeships, while the Lib Dems, courageous and bold as ever, seem to be settling for a commitment to work towards securing borrowing powers for the parliament  - something that the SNP also support, even if they remain suspicious of engaging with the Calman Commission. Not for the first time it is not all that easy to see what the Lib Dems have gained here; nor frankly, what they were seeking to gain.  As for the Greens? I suspect they'll knuckle under too and accept whatever they can get. They may have objected to the manner in which the budget negotiations were carried out, but their willingness to stand up to Salmond may have cost them some of what they wanted to achieve. Nonetheless, Salmond would be wise to act with some magnanimity; he may need the Green votes at some point in the future.

But what of Salmond himself? He will doubtless revel in pulling this budget rabbit out of a hat and present it as a triumph. But the embarrassment of the failure to pass the bill at the first attempt remains. In that respect, it's a useful reminder that Wee Eck must ca' canny and not overplay his hand. Still, the alactrity with which the opposition scurried to avoid any talk of taking the dispute to the country is a reminder that, in the end, it's Salmond who is still the Bold Laddie playing the tune to which the others dance. That's to say, the other parties blinked too. Salmond dared them to reject the budget again. They decided that was a wee bit too risky.

And why not? After all, you can see why Labour would want to avoid an election in the current circumstances. No-one, I think, could be confident predicting how many voters would blame the SNP for causing the fuss and inconvenience of an election (some might blame the opposition too, of course) and how many would use a poll to give Grdon Brown a kicking for the wider economic malaise. If - and of course it's only conjecture - Labour were to lose half a dozen seats (or more!) in a Holyrood election then not only would the SNP be returned refreshed and emboldened, but Brown would have been grievously, perhaps even fatally, wounded too.

Salmond is a gambler. So, despite everything, it's not impossible that he'd have been happy enough with an election. After all, the next election isn't due until 2011 by which time the economy looks like it will have endured a couple of dismal years. By then there may also be a Tory government in Westminster and for all that SNP strategists have long thought that would be their preferred launching pad for an independence referendum, the economic crisis may have changed that calculation. You couldn't run against the Tories in 2011 by blaming them for Scotland's economic struggles; suddenly the Nationalists would have to defend their own record in office, rather than attack Labour for its shortcomings on a UK level and purported indifference to Scottish needs, aspirations and concerns.

Of course the other side of this coin is that Labour and the Lib Dems have embarrassed the First Minister but live to fight an election some time in the future when they trust the ground will prove more favourable. I doubt that was a part of their calculations this week however.

In the end the Great Budget Stramash of 2009 will most likely be forgotten and, to the extent history recalls the rumpus it will conclude that it was a no score draw. But, hey, it was fun for the 36 hours it lasted, wasn't it?

(Standard caveat: all this could still unravel, since nothing's a done deal yet.)

*An issue-free election? Sure, because outside the constitutional question everyone more or less agrees with everyone else on the broad thrust of most of the things that have any real chance of happening. But isn't the constitutional stuff Large Potatoes? Well ordinarily, yes, but I doubt those questions would have loomed as large in a shotgun election fought in these astringent economic circumstances.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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