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Wings Over Scotland

Scotland for beginners

Posted on May 07, 2011 by

Start from this premise: all things are possible.

You have an advantage over me, English viewers. The chances are that most of you pay very little attention to Scottish politics, so your heads probably aren't spinning like mine still is at the staggering, incomprehensible magnitude of what's just been achieved. But I'll do my best to paint you a picture.

The first and most obvious thing is that the result of the Scottish Parliament election 2011 is one that was never supposed to happen.

First, a brief historical synopsis. (Don't panic, it'll be over by the next picture.) In 1989 a body calling itself the Scottish Constitutional Convention was set up in Scotland (duh), in response to the publication of the Claim Of Right, a document of no legal power but which by virtue of its consensus between all political parties and other organs of society established the demand of the Scottish people for self-determination of their government.

The cross-party group, however, was quickly dominated by the three major Unionist parties, who joined forces and co-opted it in order to pursue their favoured policy – that of of devolution for Scotland within the UK. The Convention refused to consider the Scottish National Party's preferred option of full independence, and accordingly the SNP withdrew from the Convention. The work of the Convention eventually led, under the UK Labour government of Tony Blair, to a referendum on the subject of devolution, which secured a convincing Yes vote and saw the setting up of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The Convention's remaining parties (and in practice almost entirely Labour) had drawn up the Parliament's electoral system, and they did so with a very specific aim: to prevent any one party gaining a majority of seats on a minority of the vote – most particularly the SNP, who would be able to use any such majority as a mandate for independence.

(The latter aspect was not widely disclosed at the time, but was subsequently openly admitted on numerous occasions by the architects of devolution. Famously, one prominent Scottish Labour politician of the time revealed that devolution had been designed to "kill nationalism stone dead".)

To that end, a Mixed Member Proportional Representation System was devised which provided for representation adjusted to be more proportional, but which was also (for technical reasons too complicated to go into here) biased in favour of the large urban areas – most especially in the West of Scotland, where quite coincidentally the Labour Party's support was concentrated.

This weighting can be seen in the results of the first two Holyrood elections. In 1999 Labour gained around 30% more votes than the SNP (1.7m to 1.3m), but were rewarded with 60% more seats (56 to 35), while in 2003 they got 44% more votes but 85% more seats. In 2007, however, a large increase in the SNP's vote forced the system to function more accurately, and the nationalists captured the Parliament with a single-seat plurality.

Phew! That's that over with, you can relax now.

In 2011, in gaining almost half a million extra votes compared to 2007 the SNP have managed to defy all the odds and turn the system to their own advantage, through sheer brute force. By winning large numbers of votes (significantly but not exclusively from the Lib Dems) in Scotland's heavily-populated and urbanised Central Belt – even ejecting several Labour MSPs from constituencies in Glasgow previously thought invulnerable – a 45% vote share has brought them 53% of Parliamentary seats, a comfortable absolute majority of 9 votes in the chamber. What now?

You can find a pretty good cross-section of opinion and analysis of the election and its aftermath here (you'll need to click the Change Date button and select 7th May 2011), and I'd recommend reading everything on that page if you're interested. But I'm going to look for a slightly different angle, because the SNP now faces an extremely tricky dilemma.

It's not, as many commentators have suggested, keeping their election promises in the face of a difficult economic situation. The Scottish Government can't borrow money, and operates with fixed resources in the form of a block grant from Westminster. The SNP have successfully balanced that budget in each of the last four years, despite the problems caused by having to offer other parties concessions in order to secure the support of at least two of them to get the budget through Parliament.

(In the previous administration no one party alone – other than Labour, who pathologically opposed the nationalists on principle and voted against every budget bill even when it contained their own amendments – could give the SNP enough votes to reach 65, the figure needed to pass any legislation.)

They're also helped by some degree to the fact that while Labour were in power in the UK Parliament they kept Holyrood fairly generously supplied with cash (leaving aside for a moment the greater morality of the situation with regard to Scotland's net contribution to UK finances) by regularly increasing the block grant in real terms, in order to keep the Scottish voters who provide Labour with a large block of Westminster seats happy.

That led to considerable profligacy (the Lab-Lib coalition that ran the first two Scottish Parliaments actually returned hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK Treasury unspent), which in recent more straitened times has enabled a substantial degree of slack to be found and cut out with efficiency savings, without damaging frontline services too badly (so far).

Pressure on budgets is even greater now, but David Cameron can't afford to be too stingy with Scotland because with the SNP having the ability to pass their referendum bill unchallenged at whatever time they consider the most advantageous, anything perceived as harsh London treatment of Scotland will increase the chances of a victory for independence.

The problem for the SNP is the Scotland Bill. When the nationalists won in 2007, the Unionist parties panicked and formed an all-new Constitutional Convention, under the banner of the Calman Commission. Calman set out to review the terms for devolution, but once again independence was explicitly excluded from its investigations into the best future for Scotland.

The outcome of the Commission's deliberations was the Scotland Bill, which is currently passing through the House Of Commons but has to be returned to the Scottish Government for final approval. While the bill proposes to devolve some further financial and law-making powers to Holyrood, the SNP consider it inadequate, and it also features controversial changes to the tax-raising system which threaten to significantly reduce the money available to the Scottish administration. The party's leader Alex Salmond has stated that their first priority will be to amend the bill, to eliminate its negative aspects while retaining/expanding the elements of greater devolution it provides.

Why is this a problem? Because opinion polls consistently show that the electorate wants considerably greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, but would still prefer it to operate within the framework of the UK. It's generally accepted that if a referendum offered three options – the status quo, greater devolution or independence – the result would be a resounding victory for the middle choice, whereas a straight two-way fight would offer a significantly better chance of a majority for independence, especially at a time when there's a Tory government in Westminster. (Scotland really hates Tories.)

So the circle the SNP have to square is that if they do too good a job of improving the Scotland Bill, they risk arriving at a situation where the voters are too content with the new improved status quo to want to take the radical and frightening step to full independence. But they can't afford to soft-pedal on it either, because it's simply far too big an opportunity to use their majority to force very significant powers out of Westminster.

And there's one more factor. The SNP has a "gradualist" wing (of which Salmond is a whole-hearted proponent), which is happy to effectively win independence by stealth – that is, by accumulating powers piece by piece over a longer term until the country is already independent in every practical way. At that point winning a referendum to formalise the arrangement would be much easier than a sudden traumatic "divorce", likely to be hideously and damagingly poisoned by the campaigning around it (see the AV vote).

In effect, then, Salmond (a man who enjoys a flutter) faces a gamble. Does he take a chance on winning a referendum by governing well for a couple more years, using the time to put the arguments for independence and capitalise on anti-Tory feeling generated by savage Westminster cuts, but knowing that if he loses it'll destroy all his progress of the last decade?

Or does he play the longer game, seizing as many of the vital levers of the economy as possible from the coalition via the Scotland Bill even though it might make the voters less inclined to full independence, and count on being able to extract more concessions in future until Scotland reaches de facto independence as outlined above?

The SNP are inescapably committed to holding a referendum, but they have a huge amount of control over its nature. If they favoured the latter option, all they'd have to do to fulfil their manifesto promise would be to make it a three-way vote, with the "more powers" option perhaps reflecting the contents of the newly-negotiated and enhanced Scotland Bill. That would almost certainly win, enabling them to claim victory while safely deferring a future two-option referendum to a more favourable time.

(Alternatively, it's also not inconceivable that having three options could split the No camp, leaving the hardcore independence supporters to take victory with less than 50% of the vote, though that might be politically tricky.)

Equally, they could decide that conditions will never be more propitious and go for broke in late 2015. (For various good reasons they'll probably resist the temptation to hold the referendum in June 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Battle Of Bannockburn.) In which case they might consider it prudent in the meantime to obstruct and oppose the Scotland Bill on principle, stoking up feelings that they were fighting for Scotland against a hostile Westminster coalition and increasing support for independence.

(In fact, if the referendum is in late 2015 it might well be taking place against the backdrop of a full Tory majority, as the next UK General Election can't take place any later than May of that year, and the prospect of five more years of unfettered Conservatives might be the final push the Scottish electorate needs to cut itself free from the Tory hordes of Middle England.)

I have no idea which way they'll jump. But in either case, we're all – on both sides of the border – in for a very interesting time in the next couple of years. Next up: where on Earth do Labour (and the rest) go from here?

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    2 to “Scotland for beginners”

    1. Subrosa says:

      What an excellent assessment of the SNP's dilemma. Next time I write about the Scottish government I'll put a link here for my readers outwith Scotland.

    2. Tom K. says:

      Thank you – I learned about Scottish politics, which took my mind off having an interview this week.


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