On the LiberalOrange website (liberalorange.net/2014/11/04/slab-vs-the-network/), dmthomson1 says “SLAB is the only opposition in town for the majority in Scots politics. If we can’t have a half-decent opposition, then the SNP (unchallenged) will be a poorer government for it.” In the comment which I posted, I included the statement “Once Scotland is independent, then a strong opposition party will indeed be necessary.”
Having reconsidered this, I am not convinced that a strong opposition is really essential in a properly functioning democracy. If a government has a large majority because it has received a majority of votes cast at the most recent election, and it implements policies which are, as far as possible, in line with its election manifesto, then it is implementing the will of the people. Of course, a government with a large majority may be tempted to abuse their strength by amending the constitution to suit itself, packing the judiciary with its own supporters and so on, as is currently happening in Hungary. In such cases, it is probably more important to have media which are truly independent, and which will alert the electorate to what is happening, so that they can vote accordingly at the next election.
If the opposition is to make a positive contribution to the governance of a country, it is not enough for it to be strong; it must be good. Its criticism of the government must be constructive, and it must be willing to agree with, and support, the government where appropriate. If the main concern of the opposition is winning the next election, and if it relentlessly seeks every opportunity to discredit the government, by fair means or foul, then a strong opposition could do more harm than good.
I would therefore say that in any democracy, an honest opposition is highly desirable. What does this mean for Scotland in the present situation?
Above all, Scotland needs a strong party (or alliance of parties) to stand up for Scotland. What most people in Scotland want is for the Scottish Parliament to have substantially more powers than it currently has, whether that is through devo-max or independence. What Westminster wants is something as close to the status quo as they can get away with. With somewhat differing views prevailing in Scotland and the rest of the UK on many issues, such as Trident, EU membership, immigration and welfare, there is plenty of scope for disagreement between Holyrood and Westminster.
Arguably, as long as Scotland is part of the UK, the Scottish Government is part of the opposition to the Westminster government. This is particularly significant because there is a lack of real opposition within Westminster; although the two main parties will squabble over who should form the next government (and have access to ministerial salaries and perks), they differ only slightly when it comes to policies, and have been quite happy to co-operate on a number of matters.
In spite of some of the slurs that have been uttered by some Unionist politicians, the SNP government is not some kind of dictatorship. Even if the SNP were to win the Sottish election in 2016 with a spectacular majority, it could still not abuse this in a dictatorial way while its powers are controlled by Westminster. In the present situation, it is not necessary for there to be a strong opposition within the Scottish Parliament; it may not even be desirable, as a strong, and inevitably Unionist, Scottish opposition party simply allows Westminster to use a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.
What is certainly not desirable is an opposition whose principal aim is to take back the power that they believe is rightfully theirs, and whose main strategy is to attack the SNP and all of its policies, regardless of their merits or the interests of the people of Scotland. Yet this is more or less the kind of opposition which has been provided over the last few years by Scottish Labour, and it is the kind of opposition which they will presumably continue to provide as long as they take their orders from Labour HQ in London.
I expect that sooner or later Scotland will become independent, and then an effective opposition will become desirable. It is highly probable that one will emerge in the political shakeup which will inevitably follow independence, once voters no longer choose how to vote wholly or in part on the basis of their views on independence. I would not like to predict which parties will thrive after independence, and which will wither. Perhaps Scottish Labour will cut their ties to London, renounce Unionism and move back to the left? Perhaps. I would prefer to see a new party, possibly based on Labour for Independence, free from the likes of Jim Murphy, or for an existing party, such as the Greens, gain support. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that Scottish Labour join the LibDems on their way to humiliating defeats in in both 2015 and 2016.