Scotland on the Brink?

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Scotland on the Brink?


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


'SCOTLAND has changed for good and for ever', said the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond after his party edged ahead of Labour in the elections for the Scottish Parliament on 3 May. 'Never again will we see the Labour Party assume that it has a divine right to rule Scotland'. But it will take months, perhaps years, to work out the implications of the election and the extent and permanence of the changes it reflects or may make possible.

This SNP elation is understandable and up to a point justified, even if its victory was only by 47 seats to 46 in a Parliament of 129 (with a hairsbreadth lead on the total constituency popular vote) on a turnout of 52 per cent. Even after the result there were mutterings about legal challenges because faulty electronic counting and complicated ballot papers had produced uncertainty over many spoiled votes. There are also 17 Conservatives, 16 Liberals who were previously in coalition with Labour, and a pair of Greens. The 20 SNP gains went with a Labour net loss of only four seats and reflected not only the Nationalists' advance but the poor showing of small parties and independents who had done well in 2003.

It was a better showing for Labour than the heavy defeat in the English local elections, and not much worse than their damage limitation in the Welsh Assembly elections (which left them the largest party there) but it was an outward and visible symbol of the trouble which the last years of Tony Blair's Premiership have stored up for his Scottish heir. The Scots thistle is likely to be a thorn in the flesh for Gordon Brown.

But it was a result which ensured that no conceivable coalition could force through a programme, even when it could agree on one. In its internal affairs (with education, law, transport, health, and much economic development controlled by the devolved Parliament and Executive) Scotland will oscillate between finding consensus and stumbling into chaos. Labour was left uncertain whether to yield gracelessly or mount a rearguard action in the Parliament.

Salmond is a leader who combines some verbal style and personal flair with economic grasp and occasional impetuosity, a far more impressive presence than Labour's previous First Minister, Jack McConnell, but not necessarily so adept at handling a coalition or minority administration. But he will see both his difficulties and his opportunity. He claimed the result showed that Scotland had 'a thirst for change', though it could also be interpreted as a vote of two to one against the main change sought by the SNP, a move from devolution within the United Kingdom towards independence.

His real aim is to use the SNP's position as largest party, and his own role in the First Minister's office and high profile, to create that 'thirst' and to spread in Scotland, at Westminster, and beyond the idea that Scotland is on the brink of independence. He commands no majority even to force through the SNP's bid for a referendum on independence by 2010, but he will want to play a double game, difficult but not impossible. On the one hand he will want to show the SNP can adjust to the responsibilities of office and a share in power. That is quite possible, given the way that he marshalled some business support for his election campaign and that his party handled both parliamentary opposition and election campaigning. But he must also sustain in the SNP the zealotry which makes revolutions possible when a determined minority imposes its will on a divided or uncertain majority.

For the moment the unionist majority in Scotland is divided by its old political allegiances but uncertain only about what changes, if any, might be made to ensure better working of the devolution introduced in 1999. The SNP is well placed to exploit that uncertainty among its opponents as well as any possible coalition partners. It will promise to try to make the present system work better but suggest that it would work better still if Scotland had more power--as a prelude to independence.

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