Gordon Brown's Kingdom? Scotland between Elections

Article excerpt

ANY parliamentary democracy is always 'between elections', but Scotland is now even more so. One result of devolution in Britain and the autonomy of the Scottish Executive and Parliament in much of Scotland's government and legislation has been to allow no respite from pre-electioneering. Only the low level of interest in elections for the European Parliament--the M.E.P.s' names are virtually unknown except at Brussels or Strasbourg--prevents politics becoming continuous electioneering.

This situation of elections being both recently over and none too far ahead will not surprise countries with strong federal traditions, especially Americans accustomed to mid-term Congressional elections as well as state ones. It is also a vital factor in German politics, as Chancellor Schroder rediscovered in North-Rhine-Westphalia. However Scotland is still adjusting to some of the campaigning consequences of devolution, which include the use of different electoral systems. There will also be different electoral boundaries, now that the number of Scottish M.P.s at Westminster has been reduced, but not the size of the Holyrood Parliament with its mixture of constituency and 'list' members.

But the most important change is that the aftermath of the British General Election, which substantially reduced Tony Blair's majority, is also the time of preparation and pre-election manoeuvres for the Scottish Parliament, in which proportional representation has so far forced Labour into coalition with the Liberals. The timing of British general elections remains a prerogative of Prime Ministers (save for the five-year maximum duration of any Parliament) but the Scots Parliament operates on a four-year term with elections scheduled for May 2007.

The British general election in May was by and large reckoned to be on the dull side. That was also true in Scotland but there the dullness was compounded by confusion. This was not mainly because of the differing electoral systems. Scots voters have learned the arts of tactical voting in the first-past-the-post system (which in some places meant ganging up against Labour and in others keeping the Tories out) as well as in the possibilities for Holyrood of the P.R. system which has given Greens and Red Socialists a foothold and far stronger Scottish Conservative representation at Holyrood than at Westminster. The Tories went into the general election with one Scottish MP out of 72 and emerged with one out of 59, with their vote stuck at just under 16 per cent.

The main cause of some of the dullness and most of the confusion was that both the main parties tended to fight the election on the state of public services in which Whitehall and Westminster have shed their Scottish responsibilities.

Hospital waiting-lists, law and order, police on the beat, class sizes and class-room discipline, university fees, geriatric care--all these in Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. Not surprisingly, parts of the campaign as presented in the national media, not just in the London papers but on the main British TV and radio channels, seemed irrelevant in Scotland. And that may be inevitable while the Westminster Parliament is both the legislature for United Kingdom matters (such as social security and immigration as well as defence and foreign policy) and for purely English questions.

The most satisfied of the Scottish parties were the Liberals, who seemed little touched by the confusion and became the second party in Scotland both in seats (11 out of 59) and votes (up from 16.4 to 22.6 per cent). They emerged unscathed from their Scottish coalition with Labour (whose own vote fell from 44 to 39.5 per cent in Scotland) and claimed the credit for Scotland's more expensive geriatric care policies and the easier terms allowed to Scottish students on loans and fees. They also got most of such benefit as was going (there was some) for their detachment from Blair's policies over Iraq in the war and its aftermath. …