We should probably prepare for a mainstream media blitz today and tomorrow on the breaking news that two SNP MSPs have apparently resigned from the party over the NATO vote at last week’s conference. We have no criticism of John Finnie and Jean Urquhart for doing so, although some will surely call it sour grapes at losing a democratically-debated vote. We don’t agree with any such attacks – both stood for election as members of a party that opposed Scottish membership of NATO, and they’re absolutely entitled to leave the party if it reverses that position.
We also don’t believe that either should stand down and trigger a by-election. They still stand for the policies on which they won the electorate’s votes. (Nor, however, should SNP MSPs who voted for the new policy stand down as a result of the change. NATO membership is not currently a power within the Scottish Parliament’s remit, and as such the policy is irrelevant to anything that happens at Holyrood.)
However, in the avalanche of overheated analysis that’s likely to appear in the next 24 hours – not just in the professional media but also in the shoutier areas of the left-wing blogosphere – it’s worth keeping hold of some perspective.
It’s true that the resignations will technically reduce the SNP’s majority to a precarious single seat. Alex Salmond will be able to command 65 votes in the chamber against a combined opposition of 63. (Bill Walker having been expelled over failing to disclose domestic-abuse allegations and Tricia Marwick becoming neutral as Presiding Officer.) But that assumes that any of the three newly-independent MSPs would actually vote against the Scottish Government on anything.
We can see no grounds on which they would do so. The exception would naturally be any vote on joining NATO in the event of Scottish independence, but that’s a vote which won’t arise until after the next Holyrood election, and in any event the SNP would be supported by the other three main parties who all back NATO membership, so the vote would be carried overwhelmingly anyway.
As far as we’re aware, Finnie and Urquhart still both support all the other SNP policies on which they were elected. (If they don’t, then they SHOULD stand down and contest a by-election on their new positions, particularly as they’re list MSPs.) As such, it seems reasonable to assume they’ll continue to vote with the government on them, and the entire affair will be a kerfuffle about nothing. Just don’t expect that to reduce the amount of column inches and airtime expended on it.
[EDIT: Finnie and Urquhart resigning as MSPs wouldn't in fact trigger any by-elections, because as list MSPs they'd simply be automatically replaced with the next two SNP candidates on the list.]