Friday, May 20, 2011

Has Senator Menendez heard the good news yet?

The reappointment of Kenny MacAskill as Justice Secretary for a second term was fully expected, but no less symbolically important for all that. One of the (many) things that had depressed me over the last year as I contemplated the prospect of the SNP losing the election was that some of our "friends" on the other side of the Atlantic might misinterpret it as a vindication of their rather colourful critique (if I can dignify it with such a term) of the decision to release Megrahi. But I needn't have worried. The Scottish government's renewed and enhanced mandate, Kenny MacAskill's own comfortable re-election in Edinburgh East, and Alex Salmond's vote of confidence in his Justice Secretary all send a powerful message to presumptuous US politicians and officials like Robert Menendez and Robert Mueller - assuming these most insular of men ever find out about any of it. I had thought of tipping Menendez the wink via Twitter, but by the look of his account his tweets are probably written by a staffer!

* * *

The parliamentary vote to formally re-elect Alex Salmond as First Minister on Wednesday reminded me of what seems to be a major flaw in the rules. One of the most important principles is that a fresh general election must be called if a First Minister isn't chosen within a month - this is to ensure that a stalemate parliament where no administration can possibly command sufficient support is quickly put out of its misery. But the rules fail to achieve that for one simple reason - abstentions aren't taken into account when determining what constitutes a majority. That doesn't matter if, as on this occasion, there is only one candidate - those members who want to express their lack of confidence in the candidate can simply vote against rather than abstain. But as soon as more than one candidate is validly nominated, a problem kicks in - there's no provision in the rules to vote down all of them, so long as the very modest quorum is reached. If, for example, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs had decided four years ago that they weren't prepared to accept either Alex Salmond or Jack McConnell as First Minister, how could they have voted both down in the final ballot? They couldn't, even though there would have been a natural majority against both candidates.

Of course, in those circumstances an incoming government would probably have been swiftly defeated in a vote of confidence. But in theory the same First Minister could then have been re-elected on a minority vote, and the whole circular process could have carried on and on. Surely there's an obvious way round this problem - if the most popular candidate for FM doesn't have an absolute majority, he or she should then be subjected to an additional affirmative ballot, just to check that the majority of parliamentarians are at least prepared to tolerate the incoming administration. Cumbersome, admittedly, but it could potentially save a lot of grief in the long run.


  1. You should write to the PO about that James.

    If you are right it is a pretty fundamental flaw.

  2. My guess is that it's a 'deliberate flaw', as those sorts of things must have been gone over in a fair bit of detail before the parliament was established. The intention was presumably to remove a barrier to government-formation, but it's not hard to see how it could backfire in certain circumstances.