A Few Words on Minority Governments

Alex Salmond made headlines yesterday when he said that the SNP could torpedo a Conservative minority government by helping Labour vote down the Queen’s Speech in May. Naturally, this hasn’t gone over well with the Tories. A party spokesman accused Salmond of trying to “sabotage the democratic will of the British people in order to make Ed Miliband Prime Minister,” while Bob Neill, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, called it “a deeply sinister threat.” But contrary to what the Tories seem to think, there would be nothing nefarious about the SNP voting against the Queen’s Speech, even if it brought down the Government.

A government holds office because they command the confidence of the House of Commons. They do not need a majority of the popular vote, nor do they necessarily need a majority of seats in the Commons (though majority governments have traditionally been the norm).  Therefore, it’s a bit rich to claim that a Tory minority government would represent the “democratic will of the British people.”

There is also nothing untoward about voting down the Speech From the Throne. Indeed, it has long been a litmus test for determining whether a government has the support of the Commons. Nowadays, the vote on the Speech From the Throne tends to be a formality—when a government has a majority, there is little chance of the speech being rejected. But for a minority government, the vote on the speech is a much riskier proposition.[1]

One could argue that it is hypocritical of Salmond to oppose a Tory minority government given his own history (in 2007, he argued that the SNP had the right to govern as a minority government due to their status as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament), but at the end of the day, if Scottish Nationalist MPs don’t like the contents of the Speech From the Throne, they are well within their rights to vote against it. If that means the Government cannot continue in office, so be it. That’s how parliamentary government works, and it makes the Tories look childish to rail against it.

The irony in all this is that the Tories are likely playing right into Salmond’s hands, for their histrionics have the potential to undermine the Union on both sides of the border. In England, they advance a narrative where the Scots are constitutional bogeymen who consistently thwart the wishes of the English, while in Scotland, they lend credence to the SNP’s claims that the English are willing to steamroller over the Scots.

If the Tories want to win a majority in May, they might want to stop saying things that make them seem constitutionally illiterate…


[1] The last time the Government was defeated on the Speech From the Throne was in January 1924. Stanley Baldwin was trying to lead a minority government following the loss of his majority in the previous month’s general election, but he was rebuffed when MPs passed a motion of no confidence. Baldwin resigned the next day, and Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister as part of Britain’s first-ever Labour administration.

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