Is Alex Salmond the new Tony Blair?

No sofas at Holyrood? <em>Picture: Lotus Head</em>
No sofas at Holyrood? Picture: Lotus Head
It is slowly dawning on many at Holyrood that the more parliamentary power you have, the less you need it.

Tony Blair was criticised during the early years of his premiership for developing so-called “sofa-style” government.

The then prime minister had such a whacking great majority in the Commons that he didn’t really need to bother too much with parliament. Policy could be thrashed out by a small coterie of decision-makers – usually Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson – on the sofas of Number 10, leaving parliament to rubber-stamp the end results.

There is a feeling at Holyrood that we might be entering a similar period in Scotland. Last week, parliament’s main set-piece debate was on the economy and hardly anybody – not even most of the MSPs – paid it the slightest notice.

Today we have a debate on Taking Scotland Forward: a Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy. Don’t expect to see columns and columns of newspaper text given over to reports of this debate, because it won’t be interesting enough to excite either parliamentary reporters or their editors.

But these two debates aren’t isolated examples. We are going to see more and more of this. Because of the SNP’s dominance of the chamber, the Scottish government will secure more time to debate its favourite subjects than ever before. Some of the debates they initiate will be worthy and sensible – but, other than that, pretty unimportant and actually downright dull.

And, because of the opposition’s general impotence, no one really cares much about the vote at the end of these debates – or even much of the content – because we have heard it all before and we know what the outcome will be.

At the same time, Alex Salmond is working out how to force changes to the Scotland Bill, how to unify his fellow first ministers into a coherent block to squeeze changes out of Westminster – and also how to organise the substantial background work that needs to go into the referendum.

These are his current priorities and none of them needs parliament. There aren’t any sofas in the first minister’s office, but Mr Salmond can – and will – sit round the table in his office in St Andrew’s House with Nicola Sturgeon his deputy, Stephen Noon his policy expert, Kevin Pringle his spin doctor and the relevant cabinet member for whatever subject it is under discussion – and, together, they will decide on a way forward.

So is Alex Salmond the new Tony Blair? In many ways, he isn’t. He isn’t pursuing a “Third Way”, trying to combine the free market with statist social policy, and he isn’t trying to crusade across the world – but, in one important respect, Mr Salmond is like Mr Blair.

Like Mr Blair, the first minister has the luxury of a parliamentary majority which means that he doesn’t have to fight, negotiate and cajole his way to every successful vote in chamber.

That means he can devote his time and energy to his priorities and leave parliament – almost – to run itself. The Scottish parliament will not be a sideshow for the next five years because it will be the forum to explore the major themes of this parliament – including the referendum.

But it will certainly be less important than it has been. Remember all that budget frenzy? Remember how John Swinney had to play off each of the opposition parties until the eleventh hour every year just to get his budget through? It was fabulous political theatre but there will be no need for that for the next five years. Mr Swinney will set the budget, get it approved by parliament and that will be that.

The will-they won’t-they? cliffhangers of previous years – when no one was quite sure whether the Scottish government or the Scottish executive would get its votes through – have gone, deluged in the flood of votes which brought the SNP its majority.

This may not be a bad thing. It will allow the current administration to forge ahead with its aims with a single-mindedness and freedom that no other party has ever had before – but parliament will become less important.

It will be no surprise if, as happened during the early Blair years in London, press attention moves away from the actual business of parliament and focuses instead more on personalities, on cliques, cabals and gossip from inside the corridors of power as journalists look for something interesting to report.

There will be those who warn that “sofa-style” government is undemocratic. It’s not. It is merely a symptom of the dominance of one party at the polls.

Mr Salmond was elected first minister because of his overwhelming endorsement by the people of Scotland. He now has power and he can be expected to exercise it. Just don’t expect him to bother too much with parliament if he doesn’t have to.

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