Why a good government needs a good opposition

The result of the Scottish election might be a foregone conclusion. But the real fight is for second place, says Merryn Somerset Webb. Governments need effective oppositions.


Ruth Davidson: the SNP doesn't really have a proper opposition

I went to the pub to interview Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson this week. That's just the way we do things in Scotland. The other thing we do in Scotland is not talk much about next week's Scottish election. We are a bit politicked out after the referendum; and, of course, we already know who is going to win. No suspense there.

However, those who are concentrating will know that this is a more exciting election than it looks: the real fight is for second place for the right to be the official opposition. Labour have had the role for nine years and have proven themselves utterly useless in it (despite trying out six different leaders). Davidson is campaigning to get a shot at proving she can do a better job.


Take the Named Persons Scheme a nonsensical business that will appoint a state employee of some kind as an effective state guardian for every child in Scotland. It's intrusive and administratively nightmarish. A good opposition would have sent it back to the drawing board. Labour did not.

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The result is that this is the first policy to make SNP voters think the SNP isn't all that. The next, as voters begin to feel the consequences of it, will be the silliness of making Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK (Scottish taxpayers won't be seeing the raise in the higher rate tax threshold the rest of the UK will be seeing).

Davidson reckons that businesses are already "worried that they are going to have different payrolls for employees in different parts of the UK" and that they will have trouble persuading people worried about tax rates moving north to take up jobs to move north.

This is a perfectly reasonable worry. Both Davidson and I can come up with anecdotes to suggest it is happening already (as can most business people in Scotland). And as for those here already, all too many say that if asked now they wouldn't come.

Good governments (and democracies) need good oppositions.

Back to Davidson and the real point of this election. She's not asking people to vote for her so that she gets to implement Conservative policies. That won't happen. Instead, she wants to make a transactional deal with the electorate: she wants to "do a very specific job to hold the SNP to account". That means "saying no to a second independence referendum" and pushing for the SNP to do what we "actually pay them to do" run the country efficiently and effectively.

Look at it like that and you'd think that if Nicola Sturgeon had any sense she'd be giving Davidson one of her votes (you get two up here) if she could be forced to run the country well she might get to run it for longer. But on the assumption she isn't going to vote Tory (Davidson thinks it unlikely but would, she says, "be delighted" with any and all SNP support), any of our Scottish readers might like to redress the balance by giving Davidson both of theirs. I'm going to.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.