Scotland: Long Wait for a Referendum?

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Scotland: Long Wait for a Referendum?


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


THINGS have gone badly wrong in Scotland for the British Conservatives for a long time. They have now also gone badly wrong there both for their Liberal Democrat coalition partners and for the Labour Opposition. But they have gone unexpectedly well for the Nationalists, at least in their role of governing party in the devolved Parliament at Holyrood.

The proportional electoral system for the Edinburgh Parliament was partly devised to guard against the risk that an election when Westminster Governments and British parties were unpopular would allow the Scottish Nationalists to slip in and organise a slide towards independence. It was expected to produce semi-permanent coalitions, probably of Labour and LibDems as in its first eight years. Even after 2007, when the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) edged ahead of Labour and opted for minority administration and spoils of office, an informal parliamentary alliance of the British parties kept and used a veto on major policy changes and initiatives designed to provoke conflict with London. But the risks are now realities, for the SNP not only retained office but won control of the Scottish Parliament.

The Labour Party had a very good result in Scotland when losing the British General Election of 2010 but suffered a poor one at the Scottish elections of 2011. The Liberal Democrats, who have eleven of the twelve Scottish coalition MPs in the House of Commons, had a disaster, losing two-thirds of their seats at Holyrood and returning with only 5 members (as against Labour's 37, the Tories' 15, and the SNP's 69). They paid the price for concurring in the Westminster coalition and then trying to distance themselves from the consequences and their London leaders. The Scottish elections also showed that even proportional systems (unless strictly linked to party percentages of the votes) can exaggerate strong swings of opinion. The SNP's triumph under the additional member system was won with 45 per cent of the votes, as against 20 per cent on a much higher Scottish poll in the British General Election.

Scotland clearly chose an SNP Government for its devolved affairs and even more clearly gave a vote of confidence in the First Minister, Alex Salmond, whose popularity and standing ran far ahead of his party's. Salmond ran rings round his Labour and Liberal challengers, Iain Gray and Tavish Scott, both of whom announced their resignation as party leaders immediately after the result. So too did the Tory leader Annabel Goldie, who never had a chance of being First Minister but was the only Scottish politician who even remotely approached Salmond's personal impact on the campaign, and limited the Tory loss to two seats. Scottish public opinion summed her up as 'a decent woman, even if a Tory' but some party opinion thought her style too obviously pre-Cameronian and claimed that changed constituency boundaries should have favoured the Tories. Both Miss Goldie and Mr Gray, however, soldiered on until their parties got round to internal elections in the autumn.

It would be absurd to assume that support for the SNP's policy of independence, even by Salmond's gradualist route, has doubled in a year. Two of the clearest implications of the results (and the difference from the 2010 ones) are that new Scottish voting preferences and patterns have emerged for the Holyrood Parliament's devolved affairs and that, against the usual British run of play, the result was decisively influenced by the course of the campaign, unspectacular though it was. Such an assessment was reinforced by the Westminster by-election in Inverclyde, mainly the port of Greenock. Labour held the seat comfortably, given the political context, and once again the Liberal Democrats collapsed. It had the better of such campaign as there was, despite several visits from Salmond and one from Labour's leader Ed Miliband, and got a result poorer than at the General Election but much better than its Holyrood showing in the same area two months before.

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