Magazine article Public Finance

Ghost of Elections Yet to Come

Magazine article Public Finance

Ghost of Elections Yet to Come

Article excerpt

A spectre is haunting Scotland - the spectre of nationalism. Recent opinion polls have shown a Scottish National Party surge, and although the latest shows Labour back in the lead, there is a widespread feeling in Scotland that Alex Salmond's party is in contention for the Scottish parliamentary elections in only eight months.

All of which suggests that the best way to achieve success in the Scottish Parliament is to leave it. For the SNP leader has, of course, spent the past five years in the Imperial Parliament in London, as a matter of his own free choice. Whatever, the SNP are on the march again.

The party everyone had written off three years ago, when it lost badly in the Scottish parliamentary elections, is making progress again. With Scotland's oil soaring in price, and with the Westminster government mired in sleaze and division, the Scottish Nationalists think their time might have finally come.

Suddenly, old arguments are being dusted down about whether or not Scotland could secede from the UK as a result of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, or whether Westminster would have to give its say so. The formal answer is that Westminster would have to endorse independence because constitutional matters are reserved. But, in practice, it seems unlikely that a Scottish Parliament dominated by nationalists would take a blind bit of notice of what Westminster said. The Scottish Parliament represents the people's will, and so it would likely pass an Enabling Act giving itself sovereign powers to dissolve the union.

However, it's never going to happen like that - not in a Parliament of minorities elected under proportional representation. The prospects for the SNP gaining an absolute majority in next May's Scottish parliamentary elections are practically zero. Nothing short of a Lebanon-style invasion by an English army would cause Scots to vote in sufficient numbers to give the SNP more than 50% of the popular vote.

Labour insiders used to say that this was precisely the point. Stuck in a proportional Scottish Parliament with limited powers, the SNP would never be able to break out of the limits imposed by the Additional Member electoral system. The nationalists would be condemned to impotent fulmination on the backbenches of Holyrood, a secessionists' faction permanently deprived of power. Ha! Fiendishly cunning, that Donald Dewar.

This belief that the Parliament was 'sorted' led Jack McConnell and his predecessors as first minister to believe that Labour was likely to be in government indefinitely. Ten-year plans abound. McConnell ruminated in public a year ago about whether or not he should linger in office for a decade, or step down to give another Labour figure a chance. …

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