Saturday 7 March 2015

Scotland Calling

[The stats on this blog show the majority of my readers are in the USA, so for UK readers this post may seem to explain the obvious at times.]

We live in interesting times. The UK is a couple of months away from a general election, and we're looking at the most fractured and unpredictable split in voting for a very long time.

Since around 1930 British politics has consisted of two main parties, the right wing Conservatives (aka the Tories) and the left wing Labour party, plus lesser support for various incarnations of a middle-ground Liberal party.  We've always had other minor parties too, the far right British National Party, the Raving Loonies (a surprisingly long running "joke" party) and parties specific to the member nations - Plaid Cymru (PC) in Wales and the Scottish National Party (SNP) up here north of the border.  (Northern Irish politics is immensely complicated in its own right, I'm going to leave those issues aside for the moment.)

The last time the UK had a government that wasn't either Labour or Conservative led was in 1918, when the Liberals won. We're currently in the unusual position of having a coalition government of the Conservatives being supported by the much smaller Liberal Democrat party, but for the last hundred years or so the UK has basically been Conservatives versus Labour, and they've never seen eye to eye.

But Scottish politics has always been a bit different. We've consistently voted for left wing parties, traditionally Labour but with the SNP becoming more and more popular over the last thirty years. Since 1999 Scotland has had its own government which deals with purely Scottish matters (similar to the State v Federal split in the US), and despite being designed to prevent majority governments the SNP managed to win a majority of seats at the last Scottish election.  It should be pointed out that unlike most parties with "National" or "Nationalist" in their name, the SNP are on the left of the spectrum, generally described as social democrats - major policy splits from the main UK parties include providing free university education, a focus on renewable energy investment (Scotland currently produces over 40% of its energy needs from renewables, mainly wind and hydro), and crucially, a pro-independence stance.

As you probably heard, we held a referendum last year, asking "Should Scotland be an independent country?", which resulted in a roughly 55% to 45% vote in favour of staying within the UK, and saw an enormous turnout of over 84% of voters go to the polling booths, a figure unheard of in British politics.

During the hard-fought campaign most UK parties campaigned for a "No" vote (eg Scotland staying in the UK), and we saw the extraordinary sight of senior Conservative and Labour politicians stand shoulder to shoulder against the SNP (who were supported by minority Scottish parties including the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party).

This has caused a collapse in support for the Labour party north of the border. Now, while Scotland only return 59 MPs to Westminster (around 9% of the total), these seats are crucial to the Labour party. But now this support seems to be evaporating in favour of the SNP, who are predicted to win the majority of them at the next election.

All good for the Conservative party, you may think, but they've got their own woes in England, with the UK Independence Party threatening to take a lot of their support.

So we're in the odd situation of a predicted general election looking something like this:

Conservatives - 286 seats
Labour - 280
SNP - 38
Lib Dems - 24
Others (~6 parties) - 22
(Source -, figures at the time of writing)

In this situation no party has a majority, and under UK law the largest party must try and form a coalition. The SNP are opposed to Conservative policies to such an extent that they've already ruled out any kind of support, the Conservatives would have to gather the support of most of the Lib Dems and "others" to form a government.

If this option fails, Labour could form a government with the SNP, although the SNP have already ruled out a formal coalition, preferring to offer support on the basis of "confidence and supply" - if Labour propose policies the SNP support, they'll vote with them, but there's no guarantee.

Or, of course, there's the option of a Con/Lab coalition, something we've only seen before during wartime, and could cripple the support for the two main Westminster parties for years to come. This is generally seen as unlikely, but as we get closer to the election more and more people are putting it forward as an option.

So we've reached the weird point where the balance of power in the UK government could be held by a party who do not want to be part of the UK government.

So what's the SNP position on the continued fight for Scottish independence? It's not 100% clear. Their statement immediately after the referendum was that they would "continue to work for Scotland's interests as part of the UK", and it would clearly be a bit odd to hold referendum after referendum until they get the "right" result, it would make a bit of a mockery of the process.  At the same time, however, the close result last year and rise in SNP support has spooked the main parties to the point where they may never agree to another referendum anyway.

I suspect we'll see a gradual slide toward a federal UK, with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments gaining more powers and Westminster slowly being relegated to dealing with only UK-wide matters such as foreign policy and the military. This does leave the obvious gap of an English parliament, although the shout of "English votes for English matters" has become common ever since the referendum

After winning a vote to keep Scotland as part of the UK, the UK government now feel their greatest threat is Scotland - and the Scots, having voted to remain, find they have flipped the tables and have a new-found and far more powerful role at Westminster.

Who "won" the Scottish independence referendum? I'm really not sure, but the next five years are going to be interesting.

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