Scotland's Parliament: More Fringe Than Festival

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THE Scottish Parliament and its Labour-Liberal coalition Executive both got a less than resounding vote of confidence on May Day at the end of their first four-year term. After a campaign which inspired little emotion or excitement, only half the electorate voted and the results made continuation of the coalition the only practicable basis on which Scotland's devolved affairs could be managed. There was none of the festival spirit which marked the opening of the first Parliament in 1999 and the most conspicuous gains were by fringe parties and independents.

The proportional representation system designed to prevent the constitutional uncertainties of a Scottish Nationalist (SNP) success ensured that First Minister and Labour leader Jack McConnell (with 50 seats out of 129) continued to depend on the support of his Liberal deputy, Jim Wallace. He will have to pay a higher price for it in job allocation and influence on policy.

Although the left-wing Socialists and the Greens did well (six and seven seats respectively), the SNP fell back by eight to 27. Liberals and Conservatives (17 and 18 seats) did no more than hold their share of the vote, though the Tories continued their crawl towards recovery by talting three of the seats settled by first-past-the-post polls on Westminster constituency boundaries. Four successful independents, including a hospital campaigner and a pensioners' candidate, also profited from the drift away both from Labour and its SNP challengers. Scotland has now a political system where swings have to be judged on a quite different scale from those of British parliamentary elections.

Yet even these unspectacular results have considerable significance. McConnell, in spite of losing six seats, could claim a reasonable defensive victory in difficult circumstances, though not nearly such a clear one as his Labour colleagues in the Welsh Assembly election held on the same day. The most immediate difficulty was the unrest on the left side of his party over Tony Blair's leadership in general and over the Iraq war in particular. That probably accounted for some of the move towards the Reds and Greens, though there were no signs that the Scottish voters were impressed by the SNP attempt to use the Parliament for anti-war protests and to debate matters wholly beyond its remit of devolved Scottish government and legislation. But McConnell had also to cope with a mixture of disillusionment and scepticism about the quality of Labour leadership in Scotland after the death of the original and very able First Minister, Donald Dewar, whose near-canonisation has been assisted by comparison with his success ors. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that McConnell himself is greatly admired or entirely trusted by Scottish public opinion. His problems ranged from the ignominious departure of his immediate predecessor, Henry McLeish -- there had been no personal corruption but improper use of allowances for local Labour benefit -- to the staggering cost (now grown to about [pounds sterling]375m from an original estimate of [pounds sterling]40m) of the still unfinished Parliament building opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

In the dull election McConnell, a skilful party manipulator, emerged far more successfully than the only obvious alternative First Minister, the drab but earnest SNP leader, John Swinney. But the real defensive success for Tony Blair's New Labour Government was less in the campaign or even the results of the election than in the mood surrounding and following it. That could be summed up as a mildly sceptical contentment with the first term of the devolution experiment and a reluctance to abandon or endanger it.

There is probably a decided preference among non-party and lightly committed opinion for making the new system run smoothly rather than to encourage the SNP's instinct to use devolution to put new strains on the Union in the hope of breaking it. …