By Michael Keating
The Scottish Election of 2011 represents a watershed in Scottish politics. For the first time the Scottish National Party has come convincingly in first place, securing the absolute majority that was supposed to be impossible under proportional representation. Labour, having dominated Scottish politics for over fifty years, suffered a crushing defeat, losing seats even in its industrial heartland of Clydeside. Both of the parties of the ruling coalition of Westminster are reduced to minor players at Holyrood, without even the leverage that small parties enjoyed in the last parliament.
The immediate reason for the SNP triumph is clear; the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote to less than half the previous level. What is less clear is why these voters should shift to the SNP and not to Labour. The answer lies in the changed nature of Scottish politics and the failure of Labour to adapt. They seemed to think that this was a ‘second order election’, in which voters use the opportunity to reward or punish the central government, irrespective of the local issues at play. Doubtless this was influenced by their good performance in Scotland in the UK election last year. So Ed Miliband and Ed Balls arrived in Scotland to tell electors that this was a chance to send a message to David Cameron and the coalition in London. This was not, however, a UK election and Scottish voters have learned the difference, being prepared to vote one way for Westminster and another way for Holyrood. Three of the four main parties in Scotland represent varieties of social democracy, so they have plenty of choice and nobody can take their votes for granted. Add to this the greater pulling power of Alex Salmond and the rather unplayed SNP message that they have done quite well in office (‘nae bad’ in Salmond’s words) and the campaign became quite one-sided. In the course of a six-week campaign, a Labour lead of 13 per cent, carried over from the UK election, was transformed into an advantage of nearly 20 per cent for the SNP.
If the result of the election is clear, its consequences are much less so. The SNP commands the political landscape, with support across all parts of the country and all sections of society, but has still to decide exactly what sort of party it is. Its policy prospectus combines support for more universal services with tax cuts for business in an impossible combination. Its social democratic and neo-liberal wings have lived so far in harmony, but there are now hard budgetary choices to be made.
Similarly, on the constitution, there is a historic division between fundamentalists, who want independence tomorrow, and gradualists, many of whom would settle for stronger devolution or some kind of confederal arrangement. Since the victory of 2007 there has been a truce between them, made easier by the fact that the party lacked the parliamentary majority to bring an independence referendum about. The present strategy is to pursue both strands. The SNP have already stated their demands for more tax powers, beyond those in the Scotland Bill currently before Parliament, control of the Crown Estate, and higher borrowing limits. At the same time, a referendum is promised in the latter part of the Parliament’s five-year term.
The UK government has already indicated that it will not make an issue of the legality of a referendum but will fight hard on the matter of independence. The SNP, for its part, has to define just what independence means. In the past I have argued that this is by no means an easy question in modern Europe, where many nationalist parties have adopted a ‘post-sovereignty’ stance, emphasizing shared sovereignty and interdependence. My recent OUP book applied the argument to Scotland, showing that most Scots want more self-government but recoil from the risky business of independence. In its papers on the question during the last Parliament, the SNP government progressively watered down the meaning of independence with talk of joint regulatory institutions, shared embassies, a common travel area and even keeping the Pound sterling.
Scottish opinion on the independence question has barely shifted in the last twenty years, coming in a little under 30 per cent in most academic polls; but in media polls it fluctuates according to the wording of the question, sometimes exceeding 50 per cent. If the SNP can define independence in the most gradualist and least threatening form, a referendum might just pass. Otherwise, Scots are likely to hedge their bets by electing nationalist governments to speak for Scotland, while saying no to their defining policy.