Assess the role of the First Minister of Scotland. (15 marks)
The first Minister of Scotland has a varied role in which he has many important duties within the Scottish Parliament and within the devolved Scottish Government. This essay will explore the various different roles of the First Minister.
The First Minister is head of the devolved Scottish government, which means he is in control of Scotland’s devolved powers. The present First Minister, Alex Salmond, is the leader of the SNP and is the first nationalist to be elected First Minister of Scotland in comparison to the three previous Labour First Ministers. The First Minister also maintains close contact with the Scottish Secretary of State, who at present is the Liberal Democrats Michael Moore. The Secretary of State also represents Scotland in issues such as defence and Foreign affairs which are reserved to Westminster. One might say that the relationship between Alex Salmond and Michael Moore is strained as they both have very different views on Scotland’s future. On the other hand, Alex Salmond is pushing for a ‘yes’ vote in the independence Referendum next year as he believes that Scotland can be fairer and more equal country if it were to break away from the union, whereas Michael Moore is profoundly against independence and stated that the SNP would “pretty well say anything and do anything” to win the referendum. Furthermore, it is believed that the previous Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, had a better relationship with the MSPs in parliament that with what Alex Salmond has now, as many of Jack McConnell’s initiatives had won cross party support. To add to this argument, when Jack McConnell was First Minister, there was a much closer relationship between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster as the Labour Party had a majority in both parliaments. In comparison, Alex Salmond’s relationship with Westminster is stained as he hopes to break away from the union, which is something Westminster is highly opposed too. Also, Alex Salmond is very keen on expressing his opinions on reserved issues, whereas, Jack McConnell failed to make statements on these matters. This proves that the Scottish First Minister plays a very important role in Scotland as he is not only the head of the devolved government, but also liaises with the Secretary of State.
However, the First Minister is also responsible for the presentation and implementation of devolved powers. This means he has to outline his governments programme for government for the next year to the Scottish Parliament, which is then followed by a debate on the plans. For example, on 5Th of September 2013, Alex Salmond announced the details of the SNP government’s plans for the year 2013/2014. He also told his fellow MSPs that the government is planning to bring forward 13 new pieces of legislation. One of which is the ‘End of Automatic early release from prison Bill’, which will bring an end to prisoners being released early from prison and it will also protect society from people who could be of threat. Other Bills proposed by Alex Salmond include; the ‘Budget Bill’, the ‘Bankruptcy Consolidation Bill’ and the Scottish Welfare Fund Bill’. This highlights the First Ministers responsibility to present and implement plans for Bills concerning devolved powers, which is an example of another role in government.
On the other hand, the first Ministers power is limited, as he cannot influence decisions made by the Prime Minister at Westminster nor does he or his devolved government have any control over reserved powers. Despite this, the current First Minister, Alex Salmond, has made it very clear that he profoundly against Trident and having any nuclear weapons stored in Scotland. He also vowed that “an independent Scotland would see an end to Nuclear Weapons on Scottish soil”. In contrast, previous Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, was reluctant to debate or express his views on reserved issues such as the highly controversial invasion of Iraq. In addition, Jack McConnell refused to get involved with debates over the Iraq War, as he knew he had no authority over these issues nor would he have any binding effect on them. It can be argued that Jack McConnell refused to debate over Iraq war as Tony Blair’s Labour party had a majority in Westminster which meant that there was a very close relationship between the two parliaments and Jack McConnell didn’t want to over step his authority. This again shows the other varied roles that a First Minister has, as he is responsible for debating issues in parliament and expressing his views on reserved issues when he feels it is necessary to do so.
To add to the argument, the First Minister is also accountable by the Scottish Parliament and the First Minister must answer questions put forward to him by MSPs in parliament which is carried out once a week during First Ministers Question Time.
Most recently, Alex Salmond has been criticised by Scottish Labour Leader, Johann Lamont, who stated that the “SNP government is failing to run the country”. She then accused the SNP of having a “separation obsession that most Scots reject”. During First Ministers Question Time, Alex Salmond also had to answer questions from the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie. Most recently, Ruth Davidson asked Alex Salmond to justify his cuts to the education budget which saw an end to 614 college courses. In addition, Willie Rennie accused Alex Salmond of denying 2 year olds the opportunity to go to nursery. Therefore it is clear that MSPs hold Alex Salmonds government to account for the decisions they are making for Scotland. To add to this argument, the First Minister is also accountable for the cabinet as it is his own personal choice who he selects for the job. Therefore, if a Cabinet Minister displeases the public or other MSPs, the First Minister is held accountable as it was his decision to make that person responsible for that particular issue. For example, during the extreme weather conditions of 2010, Travel Minister Stewart Stevenson, was forced to resign after his poor handling of the travel chaos caused by bad weather. Alex Salmond accepted his resignation and stood by his word that Stevenson had done a good job as Transport Minister. This proves that the First Minister has several varied roles, as he is responsible for both answering questions proposed to him by MSPs and he is also in charge of who he appoints as Cabinet Ministers which again shows the variation in his job.
Another role of the First Minister is to have a vision for Scotland. Each First Minister has a different vision for the country. Being the First nationalist First Minister, Alex Salmond has a very clear vision for Scotland – Scottish Independence. Alex Salmond stated in an interview with Raymond Buchanan that, “it’s better for all of us if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by those of us who care the most about Scotland”, which is something he believes is a very compelling course for Independence. Alex Salmond also believes that the Scottish Parliament have made a success of running health and education and argues that Scotland is more that capable of running the economy also. As Ales Salmond has a majority in parliament, he feels confident that he could pursue his vision and achieve a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum next September. However Alex Salmond has been criticised for his vision. One critic being, Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont who raised the issue of whether Scotland is being put on hold because of the SNP’s personal ambition. She also accused Alex Salmond of putting” Scotland on pause” and that “Scotland no longer had a Government, but a campaign”. She then closed her argument by stating that the SNP would say anything for a ‘yes’ vote despite the challenges that Scotland is facing. In addition, Alex Salmond is currently promotion Independence and is leading the YES Campaign, however, Alex Salmond has hit out at the Better Together Campaign and accused them of “scare mongering” the Scottish people as their campaign published leaflets stating that “Scots save millions on their mortgages every year due to the UKs AAA Credit Rating”, when actual fact the UKs credit rating was downgraded to AA+ for the first time since 1978. Furthermore, the First Minister has a role of promoting Scotland. For example, Alex Salmond has been at the forefront of Glasgow’s preparations for hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games. This is part of the Scottish Governments strategy to promote Scotland Internationally and to encourage healthier living and increase participation in sport. This further demonstrated how varied Alex Salmond’s role as First Minister is, as he is not only in charge of the YES campaign and having a vision for our country, but he is also in charge of promoting Scotland as well.
In conclusion, it therefore could be argued that the First Minister has a varied job as he is in charge of so many different things. The First Minister is held to a account by MSPs and has to answer to any questions proposed to him during First Ministers Question Time. He is also responsible for the Cabinet Ministers and presentation and implemention of devolved powers. In addition to that, the First Minister is also responsible for having a vision for Scotland and promoting Scotland Internationally. This shows that the First Minister does not sit around and carry out the same job every day when actual fact the First Minister has a very versatile routine and has various different roles and responsibilities.