On Winning Without Winning

Craig Dalzell – 2nd December 2022

I subscribe to the idea put forward by John Steinbeck that it is not power that corrupts, but fear; perhaps the fear of losing power. Nevertheless, there’s something inevitably power hungry about governments of all kinds but especially governments with majority control. I suppose it’s the nature of power itself. Where a minority government proves its success by pointing at all of the times that it has collaborated with others to make policy happen, a majority government often proves its success by pointing at all of the times it “fended off” the opposition to ensure its own policies passed and theirs did not.

I spoke a little about this in a recent column on cross-party policy-making and on how the current Scottish Parliament is one where the Government cannot be outvoted by the non-Government parties (the best that can be achieved by a united opposition is a tie and the blocking of legislation) and this compares poorly to the 2016/21 Parliament where every non-Government party had the chance to be kingmaker in decision-making and therefore had a vested interest in trying to encourage the Government to work with them on any particular issue.

In this Parliament, we’ve seen the First Minister in particular berate the opposition and effectively tell them that if they want to be listened to then they should have won more votes in the election. This stands in marked contrast to the previous Parliament where the FM asked several times for the opposition to come forward with their ideas on things like tax and budgets (not that they always did – my thoughts on the relative weakness of Scotland’s opposition parties and how this corrodes the abilities of the Government is perhaps a conversation for another column).

There are exceptions to the rule, however. Some Opposition Members’ Bills have been notable in their influence. In my previous column I discussed the difficulty of creating and passing these bills given the disparity of power and scarcity of resources available to non-Government MSPs but that despite this we have seen Bills pass such as Monica Lennon’s Bill on period poverty, Mercedes Villalba’s Bill on rent controls and now, this week, Katy Clark’s Bill on Freedom of Information looks set to join the ranks with the Scottish Government launching a consultation on adopting its tenants into amendments to FOI legislation.

However, there’s a twist in how each of these Bills has made it to legislation. None of them actually really passed on their own merits and all of them faced substantial opposition by the Government until it became obvious that public sentiment and political tide meant that that opposition was unsustainable. Even then, in cases like this is isn’t the Members’ Bill that passes the Parliament (in the case of the rent controls bill, it was directly voted down by the SNP and Greens) but a similar Bill brought forward by the Government to do the same job.

This, I believe, is the nature of power in a majority Government. To see Parliament pass a Bill brought forward by the opposition is effectively to “lose” that debate – whether or not the Government votes for it or merely fails to block it, it has come from “outwith” and is therefore suspect. However, if the Government either adopts the Bill and brings the member into the fold (as happened with Monica Lennon’s Bill) or simply passes their own similar Bill and tries to claim sole credit for it (as happened with Villalba’s) then passing the Bill counts as “winning” the debate.

As a cross-party, non-party, non-Parliamentary think-tank, Common Weal faces this issue a lot too. Our policy ideas are open to anyone to take up (they don’t even need to be in Scotland – Wales has adopted our plan for a National Energy Company) but we don’t always get the full public credit for those ideas when they appear in political manifestos. On one hand, this is fine. If I must make the choice between seeing the policy adopted and getting credit for it, I’ll pick the former every time. On the other, getting the credit does help us promote ourselves and expand our donor base to allow us to create the next policy.

Knowing that majority governments will be suspicious of ideas from outwith, will only take them on if the alternative is worse and will demand majority or even sole credit for the idea – that does give those of us outwith the Government the power to make change happen despite our lack of power – we can win without winning.
Independence supporters should consider this as the recent clarification of the UK’s Constitution in the Supreme Court revealed to us that Scotland never had the power to hold an independence referendum without the permission of Westminster. The UK Government has a majority and therefore will see views from outwith as against its own agenda. The UK Government views basically everywhere outside London as “outwith” – Scotland is so distant as to be beyond the horizon in all but name and the resources flowing from it.

Robin has been writing about how we should advance the independence movement in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling but we can already see some impact of public shift happening. Not that long ago Alister Jack claimed that there wouldn’t be another indyref within the lifetime of anyone who voted in 2014. Already, that claim has been walked back to one of “within 40 years”, then “within 25 years”, and now “when there is sustained support for another one”. Common Weal has already laid out what we think would be a solid plan for building that support and applying the pressure to the UK Government to not turn a blind eye to that support (especially given the caveat that they’ll “know there’s support when they see it”) and to grant their sanction for an indyref (or to amend the Constitution to allow all devolved Governments the right to hold one when they choose). Even if a General Election Plebiscite is used as a democratic event demonstrating that support, we’ll still need the UK Government to recognise this fact and the same logic applies – in the face of majority government this will only happen when acceptance becomes politically easier than continued resistance.

Scotland doesn’t need to win a majority of pro-indy support in the House of Commons in order to win our independence. We don’t even necessarily need to thread that narrow path of hoping there’s a minority Government that can be influenced by Scottish MPs. Faced with a majority in the House of Commons otherwise opposed to our independence, all we need to do is work out how to win without winning even if it means manoeuvring them into the position where they claim it was their idea all along.

2 thoughts on “On Winning Without Winning”

  1. Useful advice in this. I’ve been involved in two issues – the Rest and be Thankful and the ferry debacle – where dogged resistance to any ideas from outwith the current establishment can be seen in practice. It’s not about the merits, or otherwise, of the proposals for reform. It’s really about who they are coming from. Clear failure of present policy isn’t enough, unless the failure becomes so big and embarrassing that it brings the complete establishment down.
    There must be better ways of going about things, but until they are found I would follow Craig’s advice.

  2. Bill Johnston

    Perhaps a starting point would be to ask Alister Jack “What selfish and strategic interests does His Majesty’s Government have in Scotland”. It could be the answer is “none” in which case it may be that the powerful have nothing to loose but their fears and we have nothing to loose but our chains.

    But be quick in case Christmas comes early and he gets his ermine fleecie sooner than expected.

    All the best,


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