”œScotland has changed for good and forever. There may well be Labour governments and Labour first ministers in the decades to come, but never again will we see the Labour Party assume it has a divine right to rule Scotland.”

SNP leader Alex Salmond, May 4, 2007

Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead. So said George Robertson, erstwhile NATO secretary-gen- eral, when he was the British Labour Party’s shadow Scottish Secretary in the House of Commons in the mid-1990s. Indeed, this was the Labour Party’s gamble: grant a degree of self-government to the people of Scotland within the United Kingdom and, they hoped, support for Scottish independence and the Scottish National Party (SNP) would dwindle. Eight years after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, has Labour’s gamble paid off?

In one sense, it seems not. I have just returned from a BBC studio where we were witnessing the election of SNP leader Alex Salmond to the post of Scotland’s First Minister, effectively the Premier of Scotland. His election by his fellow parliamentarians follows the SNP victory in the Scottish Parliament election of May 3. This was an his- toric election. For the first time in its 73-year history, the SNP won a Scottish national election, beating the Labour Party in terms of both seats and vote share. It is the first time that the Labour Party has lost an election in Scotland in almost 50 years.

It is difficult to convey to a Canadian audience how sig- nificant a change this signals for Scotland’s political establishment. Canadians are familiar with the politics of multi-level government. Provincial governments are often led by parties of a different political and ideological persua- sion from that of the federal government. Nationalist gov- ernments in Quebec have also been a fairly regular feature of Canadian political life since the 1970s. But for the past 50 years, the Labour Party has been the establishment party in Scotland. Even during the 18 years of Conservative rule in Britain, and espe- cially when the successive election vic- tories of Margaret Thatcher left the Labour Party defeated and demoralized in England, Labour held firm in Scotland, and even grew in strength. That’s why so many of the leading lights in the current British Labour government are Scots ”” Gordon Brown and John Reid chief among them. They climbed up the ranks of the Labour Party in the 1980s and early 1990s, and were approaching the height of their political and party careers as Labour approached its 1997 general election victory. The Labour Party remained the dominant force in Scottish and British politics in the first eight years of the devolution era. But the party’s control of Scottish political life ended on May 3, ironically on the eve of Gordon Brown’s elevation to the office of prime minister of Britain.

The recent Scottish election was a close-run thing, however. Most opin- ion polls had predicted that the SNP would win by some margin. In the end, it was only marginally ahead of the Labour Party in its share of the popular vote, and just pipped Labour at the post in the share of the seats. The two parties had been neck and neck until the final result was declared from the Highlands and Islands some 20 hours after the polls closed.

That the SNP dominated the elec- tion campaign is without doubt. But the party also has the electoral sys- tem to thank for its victory. Under Scotland’s mixed member proportion- al system, 73 members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected in con- stituencies on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis, and a further 56 are elect- ed from regional lists. Had we still relied on a purely first-past-the-post system, Labour would have won com- fortably. The concentration of Labour’s vote in the densely populated urban areas of west-central Scotland saw the party secure just over half of all con- stituency seats, on 32.1 percent of the constituency vote. The SNP won less than a third of constituency seats (sig- nificantly more than it has ever won in previous elections) with 32.9 percent of the constituency vote. Once the regional seats were allocated, some of the disproportionalty of FPTP was removed. Overall, the SNP has 47 of the Parliament’s 129 seats. The Labour Party has 46. The other par- ties are far behind, having been crowded out of one of the most heated and closely fought election battles in recent memory.

Even before this elec- tion, it was clear that pro- portional representation (PR) had dramatically altered the political land- scape in Scotland. In the first two Scottish Parliament elections, PR exposed Labour’s minority status in Scotland; in spite of Labour’s dominance of Scot- tish politics, the party has never won over 50 percent of the Scottish popular vote. Although Labour emerged as the largest party in 1999 and 2003, it was forced to join in coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. PR also helped to bring the SNP from the electoral fringes to the centre stage of Scottish politics, elevat- ing the party to the position of a gov- ernment-in-waiting in the 1999 and 2003 elections, and ensuring its transi- tion to a party of government in 2007. The potential for the electoral system to alter the political landscape may be something for Canadians to ponder as at least some provinces embark upon the path of electoral reform.

Yet proportional representation is a double-edged sword for the SNP. With 47 seats, the SNP is some 18 seats short of a majority, and coalition partners have been hard to find. An informal alliance has been agreed with the Scottish Green Party, whose two MSPs lent their support to Salmond in the election for First Minister, and who will seek to collaborate with the SNP govern- ment on shared policy commitments, particularly on measures to tackle cli- mate change. The most likely key coalition partner is the Scottish Liberal Democrats (with 16 seats) but it refuses to even enter coalition negotiations with the SNP unless the SNP ditches its key commitment to hold an independ- ence referendum, a concession Alex Salmond was unwilling to make. Even the offer of a multi-option referendum, strongly hinted at by the SNP leader- ship, could not entice the Liberal Democrats into a negotiating room. Such a referendum would have seen the SNP’s preferred option of Scottish inde- pendence appearing on a referendum ballot paper alongside the Liberal Democrats’ preferred option of a parlia- ment with enhanced devolved powers but still within the United Kingdom.

So the SNP must assume the respon- sibilities of office as a minority government. While Canadians have experi- ence of minority government, especial- ly in recent years, these are uncharted waters for Scotland. Moreover, the new SNP government doesn’t have the option open to Canadian governments of calling an early election in the hope of returning with greater representa- tion. The Scottish Parliament has fixed four-year terms and can be dissolved only when two-thirds of its members vote in support of its dissolution. And in any case, given the PR system, the next election is likely to reproduce a parliament of minority parties, where the options available to the winning party are to govern alone in a minority or to try to form a coalition or alliance with other parties.

Clearly, the new SNP govern- ment’s minority status will severely curtail its ability to implement key manifesto commitments. Most notably, the party’s commitment to hold a referendum on independence within the four-year term of the Parliament will be shelved in the fore- seeable future. To hold such a referen- dum would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who together make up a comfortable majority in the parliament, have pledged to vote against any legislative pro- posal to hold a constitutional referendum.

The FunctionaryThese are challenging times for public servants.

Get news and insights into the workings of the public service from veteran journalist Kathryn May. Delivered to your inbox.

Is this to deny the people the right to choose their consti- tutional future? In one sense, the answer is yes. Survey evi- dence presented during the election campaign showed very clearly that Scots would like the right to choose the country’s constitutional future, regardless of their views on independence. Yet the SNP has not entered office on a wave of support for Scottish independence. If we are to draw parallels with the sover- eignty movement in Quebec, this election is more reminis- cent of the Quebec election of 1976 than the election of 1994.

Surveys suggest Scottish independence is the constitutional preference of between one-quarter and one-third of Scots. To that extent, devolution may not have ”œkilled nationalism stone dead,” but it does appear to have contained support for Scottish independence. There is, however, clear and consistent support among the people of Scotland for the powers of the devolved Scottish Parliament to increase. I expect we may now see the SNP government attempt to generate consensus for developing and strengthening devolution, perhaps by establishing a new constitutional con- vention, or by setting up a consulta- tion process with the people to seek support for change.

This election was not primarily about Scottish independence or constitutional change. This was in spite of the Labour Party’s best efforts to place the threat of independence at the heart of the campaign ”” using what Conservative leader David Cameron called ”œbone-chilling” lan- guage to describe the doom and tur- moil that the ”œbreak-up of Britain” would entail. The SNP campaign focused much more on presenting an alternative program for government. Its slogan, ”œIt’s time,” was suitably vague so as to appeal to those who felt it was time for independence as well as those who felt it was time for a change of government. In this respect, we can draw clear parallels with previous Parti Québécois elec- tion campaigns.

The election campaign was also very much centred on leadership, on who would make the best first minister, and on who could elevate the status of the Scottish Parliament to a national parliament capable of representing and defending Scottish interests in the UK. The SNP ran a near presidential style of campaign, presenting Alex Salmond as the first minister in-waiting. This was politically astute as he clearly outpolled Labour leader Jack McConnell, Scotland’s previous first minister, in perceptions of leadership strength and credi- bility. We can expect to see the new administration engage in symbolic politics, presenting itself not just as ”œthe Scottish Executive” (the official name), but as ”œthe government of Scotland,” perhaps seeking more presence on the European and international stages.

The Canadian experience suggests we might also expect a rockier road in Scottish-UK intergovernmental relations. The UK’s transition from a broadly unitary state to some- thing approaching a federal system has been very smooth so far. In the first eight years of devolution, very few disagree- ments emerged between cen- tral and regional governments. Potential areas of tension were either avoided completely or easily managed via intra-party relations. The Joint Ministerial Committee, designed to bring together ministers from the devolved administrations with UK government ministers, has rarely met and it has never been called upon to resolve a single intergovern- mental dispute. The preference has clearly been for informal intergovern- mental relations between departmen- tal officials and, where necessary, between ministerial colleagues from the same party. This informal system may have worked when the Labour Party was in power at every level, but it is unlikely to be sustainable in the new political environment. Canada’s wealth of experience in negotiating intergovernmental relations between competing party governments with competing agendas will help to inform our understanding of develop- ments in the UK.

A side from the SNP victory, the biggest story to come out of these elections was the extraordinary level of spoilt ballot papers. In all, 142,000 votes were rejected ”” 3.5 percent of the total votes cast. The Scotsman newspaper called this ”œthe biggest poll debacle in the history of British democracy,” while others have portrayed it as Scotland’s ver- sion of Florida’s hanging chads. It is a deeply embarrassing episode which may have undermined the credibility of the Scottish Parliament, yet under the devolution settlement, responsi- bility for running elections to the Scottish Parliament lies with the Scotland Office, a department of the UK government. An investigation is now underway, headed by Ron Gould, formerly Canada’s assistant chief electoral officer.

The probable causes are obvious and numerous. The Scottish Parliament election was held on the same day as the local government election. Following the reform of the local government electoral system, those participating in the May elec- tions were asked to vote for their par- liamentary representatives, using a relatively new voting system (the additional member system), while voting for their local councillors using a completely new and signifi- cantly different system (the single transferable vote). The potential for voter confusion is evident.

Electors were also presented with a new ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament elections, combining the constituency vote and the regional (party list) vote on the same ballot paper. Although it was modelled on New Zealand’s, the poor design of the Scottish ballot paper meant that instructions on how votes should be cast, and where voters should place their X, were either difficult to read or entirely absent. The design, it seems, was com- promised by a need for ballot papers to conform to the requirements of vote counting machines. The process of e-counting, used for the first time in Scotland in 2007, will also come under investigation given its manifest prob- lems. Vote counting had to be suspended in various counting centres across the country as a result of technological breakdown.

The furor over spoilt ballot papers has cast a shadow over what is in truth an historic election. The transition from a unitary state to devolved government has been easy so far, given the predominance of the Labour Party at all levels of gov- ernment. The election of Scotland’s first Scottish nationalist government may not pose an imminent threat to the unity of the United Kingdom. But an SNP government ”” even a minority government ”” does repre- sent a significant test for devolution. 

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License