Anger Management

Talk of a ‘lack of a mandate for change’ for the SNP are vastly missing the point.

The SNPs historic victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections has met one of the conditions of transformative politics (transformative economics is a different matter altogether), that is, it has “raised the temperature” of politics as Roberto Unger once put it. From many supporters of independence, there is talk of a ‘Scottish Spring’, change is in the air and, in anticipation of the independence referendum – that constitutional catharsis that looked as if it was never going to be retrieved from the long grass – there is a growing awareness of at least the first part of Marx’s old aphorism, that people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. For unionists/British nationalists in Scotland, on the other hand, all this heady talk needs to be nipped in the bud. The SNP needs to be reminded of the low turnout in 2011 (50.8%) and the low share of support it received from the total electorate (22.8%).

This isn’t quite the decisive response to what unionists see as the inflated claims of the SNP on the basis of their 2011 victory. For one thing, the turnout at the 2011 election was not historically low, with the obvious exception of the turnout at the first Scottish parliament election in 1999 (59.1%), the turnout in 2011 was slightly higher than in 2001 (49.4%) and slightly lower than in 2007 (51.7%). Moreover, the high share of the vote that the SNP received (45.4%), in an electoral system that was devised to prevent any party obtaining an overall majority, was both politically and electorally significant, as was the 54 per cent of seats won by the SNP.

But there is another reason why the turnout and the SNPs share of the total electorate in 2011, if anything, strengthen the SNPs claims rather than weaken them. We can see this if we compare the SNPs performance in these indicators in 2011 with that of British governments in British general elections in Scotland since 1970. This was the year that the SNP made its significant breakthrough in British general elections, when its share of the vote reached double figures for the first time (11.4%) and elections in Scotland ceased to be the largely two-party contests that they had been prior to this. The table below presents the comparable data for British governments in this period, for ease of comparison those for the SNP are highlighted at the bottom.

Summary data of British general election results in Scotland (1970-2010)

Year Govt Share ofelectorate(%) Share of vote(%) Turnout(%)
1970 Con 28.1 38.0 74.1
1974 (Feb)(1) Lab 28.9 36.6 79.0
1974 (Oct) Lab 27.1 36.3 74.8
1979 Con 24.1 31.4 76.8
1983 Con 20.6 28.4 72.7
1987 Con 18.0 24.0 75.1
1992 Con 19.4 25.6 75.5
1997 Lab 32.5 45.6 71.3
2001 Lab 25.6 43.9 58.2
2005 Lab 24.0 39.5 60.6
2010 Con 22.7 (10.7)(2) 35.6 (16.7)(2) 63.8
2011 SNP 22.8 45.4 50.8

1   No party won an overall majority at Westminster in February 1974 but in Scotland Labour won almost twice as many seats as the Tories (40 to the Tories’ 21).

2  The first figure is the combined shares of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the figure in brackets is for the Conservatives only.

With the obvious exception of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, the SNPs share of the total electorate doesn’t compare unfavourably with that achieved by most British governments in this period. What makes the SNPs performance so striking here, however, is that the SNP achieved this share of the total electorate on a turnout that was markedly lower than the turnouts in most of the British general elections in this period. Here, it is the SNPs share of the vote rather than the share of those eligible to vote that is significant. From the table, it can be seen that, of the eleven British general elections in the period 1970-2010, on only one occasion, again, Labour’s landslide in 1997, has a British government achieved a higher share of the vote than the SNP in 2011 (45.6% to the SNPs 45.4%).

What the table doesn’t show, of course, is Labour’s dominance in Scotland at British general elections. This explains why the Tories, in spite of the high turnouts at British general elections, have been able to govern Scotland so often with such low shares of the vote and low shares of the total electorate. It’s also worth noting the significant decline in turnouts at British general elections since devolution, although a similar decline has occurred in all the British nations. In fact, this secular decline has also been evident in most advanced liberal democracies in the post-war period. Interestingly though, the decline is more marked in the Anglophone, market-oriented and individualistic societies, like Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the US, than in the more social democratic and collectivist ‘Nordic’ societies, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This is an issue worth returning to in the future as it may have a significant bearing on the SNPs optimal strategy in an independence referendum, given the left of centre consensus among the majority of Scottish voters.

The most salient feature of the table though, is the performance of the Tories in Scotland at the last British general election in 2010. Officially, of course, the present British government is a ‘coalition’ government. In practice, few people outside the Lib Dems take this seriously. Indeed, the first opportunity that voters in Scotland had to give their verdict on the ‘coalition’, in the 2011 Scottish election, resulted in the Tories and Lib Dems receiving a combined share of the electorate of 10.9 per cent and a combined share of the vote of 21.8 per cent, not too dissimilar to the Tories’ own performance in Scotland in the 2010 British general election. Moreover, in the 2010 British general election, the Lib Dems received some 460,000 votes in Scotland but in the 2011 Scottish election their vote had fallen to some 158,000, making this, proportionately, the largest collapse in support for any political party in Scotland in two consecutive elections in post-war history.

At the beginning of March 2011, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, expressed his surprise to the British Treasury Select Committee (in the ‘Thatcher Room’ of all places), that there had not been more public anger in response to the financial crisis. In this respect, the muted response in Scotland to the crisis is little different to that in the other nations of Britain. But what is at least as surprising is that there has not been more public anger in Scotland at the absence of a Tory mandate to govern Scotland. We are, after all, talking about a government that was rejected by almost 85 per cent of Scottish voters and that won barely 2 per cent of seats in Scotland at the last British general election. Curiously, many of those unionists who are raising questions about the SNPs 2011 mandate are silent on the absence of a Tory mandate to govern Scotland. It is extraordinary that the party that won less than 2 per cent of seats in Scotland at the last British general election is assumed to have the right to govern Scotland while the party that won 54 per cent of seats at the last Scottish election has its mandate questioned.

To underline the effective disenfranchisement of the vast majority of Scottish voters at British general elections, while the SNP is constitutionally authorised to exercise its decisive mandate using only the limited range of powers available to it in the devolution settlement, the Tories, on the other hand, with the absence of a mandate, are assuming the most wide-ranging powers to inflict policies on Scotland that have not only been overwhelmingly rejected but which will have devastating effects on the lives of millions of Scots for many years to come and that will largely shape the future trajectory of Scotland’s economy. Indeed, should Scotland remain in the union and should the Tories win the 2015 British general election then, in the period 1970-2020, the Tories will have governed Scotland for almost twice as long as Labour, in spite of the fact that the Tories haven’t won a general election in Scotland since 1955.

SNP, Labour and indeed Lib Dem voters in Scotland have many reasons to be angry, not least about the fate that awaits them and their communities under the Tories over the next four years (and beyond) should Scotland remain in the union. But it isn’t only Tory policies that they should be angry about. The Tories have no mandate to govern Scotland and this could, and should be one of the most potent weapons for the independence movement to use in the forthcoming referendum. As for the defence of the Tories’ right to govern Scotland so consistently with no mandate, that’s best left to Scottish Labour.

 

Comments (14)

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  1. Alex says:

    Great analysis – and one with which more Scots need to be acquainted! Sadly none our ‘friends’ in the MSM will be inclined to do that! Keep up the good work!

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Alex,

      Thanks for your comments. If only we did have ‘friends’ in the MSM.

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    I agree with what Alex has just said, but wonder whether last month’s vote for the SNP was the Scottish public’s response to the situation it finds itself in. The Scottish Parliament was perceived at its inception as a kind of protection against Westminster administrations that Scots didn’t vote for.

    This was the role that Tory Scottish Secretaries had reportedly played in toning down Thatcherite policy for Scottish consumption, but when this was clearly seen as an affront to democracy and untenable the Scottish Parliament was seen by Labour and LibDem unionist as a political pressure value; relieving the pressure of public disquiet at Westminster’s lack of mandate under Tory administrations.

    It was with this in mind that George Robertson said it would kill nationalism stone dead because it would remove the grievance around the lack of accommodation for Scotland’s political choices within the Westminster system. Robertson may not have been right about the SNP but he may be proved right in relation to independence,

    The latest Scottish attitudes survey seems to suggest that Scots want to square the circle by having virtually all functions under the control of the Scottish Parliament without having to leave the union. SNP thinking seems to see this as being about not wanting to sever the links but I wonder whether it isn’t more about not wanting to take the economic risk.

    So the lack of anger at the Tory Government in Scotland shows that devolution has performed its function and the Tories “respect agenda” towards devolution and the Scottish Government, along with their putting LibDems into the Scot’s Secretary post, shows that they are all to aware of this.

    In my opinion stressing that Independence does not mean severing links misses the point. Scots seem to want to run more or less everything themselves (thus ensuring their democratic choices are fully reflected in policy decisions) while at the same time not having to undergo the uncertainty and/or disruption of independence.

    If this is the case then two options would seem to present themselves. The first is to demonstrate why this would not ultimately work and the second is to push for maximum powers within the union in the knowledge that this would be resisted and Scots would learn that such a solution was not an option. Even if such an outcome was ever conceded, it would inevitable lead an unraveling of the Westminster system due to the fact that the UK comprises different nations, not different regions. If Scotland all but opted out, the others, especially England, would want the opportunity to review their involvement.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Alex Buchan,

      I agree wholeheartedly with your “pressure valve” argument. In fact, we can’t understand the implementation of devolution without acknowledging this. There may have been some wishful thinking on George Robertson’s part though. I say this not just with the benefit of hindsight – hindsight, like age, doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom on any of us! – but because what Labour, and the rest of us for that matter, underestimated was the extent to which devolution would develop its own momentum and how quickly the landscape of Scottish politics would change. After all, it’s not that long ago that the creation of a Scottish parliament seemed unthinkable and here we are, only twelve years after its creation, with a majority SNP government anticipating the timing and strategy of an independence referendum.

      This feeds in to something else that I think is significant, something that the ongoing Scottish Election Study is starting to bring out, that is, the increasing mobility and shifting loyalties of Scottish voters. It’s difficult to measure the contribution that devolution has made to this in Scotland but there are good reasons for arguing that devolution has at least amplified pre-existing trends. In effect, since devolution, a sizeable minority of Scottish voters seem to be ‘playing the system’ which dovetails into the point that you made in your opening sentence.

      I like your point about devolution effectively serving the function of anger management. Among other things, that begs the question of how long this containment can hold. It also suggests that how Scottish Labour’s substantial core vote views the prospects of British Labour in the 2015 British general election could be an important factor in an independence referendum. That, in turn, depends on how the coalition performs, in England in particular. If the coalition doesn’t mess up and Labour should start to slide in the polls in England in the second half of this Westminster parliament then the SNPs strategy of deferring an independence referendum until 2014-15 could pay off.

      From the perspective of the SNP, it makes sense to extend the period in which independence stays on the agenda in Scottish politics not least because this should enhance the normalisation of independence, helping to exorcise the independence bogeyman. This doesn’t guarantee independence of course, and the more zealous wing of the independence movement should exercise more caution in its frequent prediction that independence is ‘inevitable’, as should Alex Salmond with his predictions about the date of independence, one of his least endearing predilections. But should the Tories succeed in restoring the trend rate of growth of 2.5 per cent after 2012, Scottish Labour will need to come up with an irresistible package of policies or at least a ‘big idea’ to buy more constitutional time with its voters, who’d then be faced with the realistic prospect of another five years of Tory government after 2015.

      I’ve long believed that federalism is the most serious threat to Scottish independence and, so far, the SNP can consider itself fortunate that the only serious federalists, among the largest British political parties, are a hard core of grass roots Lib Dems. However, after the completion of its ‘root and branch’ review, Scottish Labour will not be above recruiting the rhetoric of federalism to, on the one hand, inflate its Scottish credentials (by offering the promise to take Scottish devolution to another level) and, on the other hand, to promote a new model of Britishness for the twenty-first century. Selling this to British Labour however, even assuming that Scottish Labour itself were to seriously adopt it, is another matter and then there’s the question of the sustainability of a federal solution in an asymmetric UK.

      None of this is inconsistent with the scenario that you’ve outlined in your concluding paragraphs. The only qualification perhaps being that federalism might help to prolong the life of the UK a little longer than any ‘make do and mend’ post-Calman constitutional settlement short of federalism.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        On June 11th, on Our Kingdom, Conservative AM David Melding called for a convention to establish a federal system: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/david-melding/uk-needs-convention-for-renewed-federal-union-argument-from-wales

        Tellingly he said the following;

        “There is no need to produce the full plan for a renewed Union at this stage, just as Salmond remains reticent about the nature of independence. If we want the UK to survive the detail of a more formal federation could be worked out later. Federal Unionists need only produce the basic outline of the great federalist tapestry that could be woven into the British constitutional tradition.

        But some essentials should be noted immediately. A written constitution must set clear boundaries between the state and federal (or national) governments. A right of secession needs to be recognised but set at a high level for operation.”

        He presented it, as this excerpt shows, primarily as a way to beat the SNP in the referendum. This fact, combined with the contents of the second para. quoted, indicate what federalism in a UK context would be all about; an attempt, in extremis, to impose control over the processes of change that are already well in train.

        Melding’s ideas will come to nothing mainly because Westminster is wedded to gradualism, not wholesale constitutional change, and also because, after the defeat of the referendum in the North East Region, nobody knows what to do about England, as an English Parliament would bring about the end of the union.

        Pushing for full powers for Scotland is not about federalism, it’s about demanding the repatriation of as much powers as the Scottish public want, which seems to be everything short of defense and foreign affairs. Such powers would never be granted because, unlike Northern Ireland from 1920 onwards, Scotland is too central to the union for the granting of such powers not to bring the validity of the union into question. If they ever were that is exactly what would happen.

  3. Michael Gardiner says:

    Indeed. Excellent paper.

    Quite how New Labour failed to foresee the lack of ‘joined-upness’ between Holyrood and Westminster that would ensue given the next UK Tory victory is mysterious, but then the British system is defined by that kind of mysterious self-blinkering short-termism.

    (I also like Alex Buchan’s response and see it as additional to the analysis, despite the ‘but’ in the first para).

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Michael,

      Many thanks for your comments. It has to be said that former Tory leader William Hague’s response, in 1998, to New Labour’s rolling constitutional reforms in its first term in office, that “Labour has embarked on a constitutional journey without a route map”, has proved more prescient than perhaps even he expected.

      I think that the expectation in Labour was that devolution would ‘stuff the Nats’ and with Scotland safely taken care of New Labour would then be free to continue with its frontline policy of out-manoeuvring the Tories in England. Sooner or later, though, something had to give. What no-one expected was not so much an eventual Tory victory at Westminster but an SNP victory at Holyrood so early into the life of the Scottish parliament. But it’s the perfect storm of the 2010 British and 2011 Scottish general election results that has the potential to accelerate the decomposition of the UK. The politics of accumulating grievances, on both sides of the border, are now so deeply embedded that even many people in England are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish them from a Wodehousean “ray of sunshine”!

  4. Alex Buchan says:

    Michael

    Thanks for pointing that out I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent to which it does follow on and it in retrospect that ‘but’ should have been an ‘and’. Perhaps it is because I don’t accept the basic premise that the Scots can be persuaded of the case for independence without a detour through the experience of trying to get what they want (full powers inside the union).

    Interestingly, on David Torrance’s new blog “Mugwump” he points out that the old Stormont Parliament enjoyed full fiscal autonomy, with NI raising money and passing its share of costs for reserved services back to London. At http://www.mugwump.org.uk/?p=25 he adds:

    “But a surprising lack of interest in the Irish experience was brought home to me last month when a Whitehall adviser confidently told me that there was “no international precedent for fiscal autonomy within a state”. Not one.”

    I would have to say that I don’t share David’s surprise; selective memory in the aid of maintaining Westminster’s propaganda advantage is what I would expect, but it shows that they are having to gear up for a defence of something that no longer than a few months ago looked secure.

    On the issue of New Labour’s short sightedness; given that it was the Govan by-election victory by Jim Sillars for the SNP that is said to have been decisive in Labour’s conversion to devolution then there was definitely an element of looking for a quick fix. Also, given that it was Westminster electoral considerations that was uppermost in Labour’s considerations, then their result in Scotland in 2010, where they bucked the trend everywhere else and actually increased their vote, could be argued as proof that devolution has worked for them in this strict sense.
    .

  5. Donald Adamson says:

    Alex,

    Thanks for the link, this is a very interesting article, particularly given the source. I agree that this has little prospect of being taken up by unionists and this is just as well for the SNP. For if the British Tories, Lib Dems and Scottish/British Labour mobilised around Melding’s idea for a “Convention for a renewed and federal union” or what I called a “new model of Britishness for the twenty-first century”, it would be the most serious threat to the independence referendum.

    What Melding is proposing is a kind of mirror-image (with more serious intent and from a Tory unionist perspective) to the one I outlined for Scottish Labour. In other words, the reason I suggested that Scottish Labour might adopt the “rhetoric” of federalism is because, like the British Tories, I don’t think its heart is really in a federal solution and, even in the unlikely event that Scottish Labour did seriously adopt this, I don’t think that it could be sold to British Labour. But the key point here, as I argued earlier, is that as a strategy for buying constitutional time for unionists as well as an attempt to halt the momentum of the SNP, it would make a lot of sense for both Scottish/British Labour and the British Tories to adopt this. There might even be some in the SNP who would be tempted by the prospect as a second-best solution/stepping stone to independence. Interesting though, that in outlining the “essentials” of the “federalist tapestry” as Melding calls it, that he places particular emphasis on the point you draw attention to, that, “A right of secession needs to be recognised but set at a high level for operation”.

    When you say, “Pushing for full powers for Scotland is not about federalism”, of course that’s true. Some nationalists might be prepared to accept a federal solution in the unlikely event that it was offered but that’s not where nationalists start from, federalism would be a unionist solution. For me, pushing for full powers is about pushing for independence, not in a cavalier way but in a way that carries Scottish public opinion. It’s true that, at the moment, there isn’t majority support for that in Scotland but then, as recently as three months ago, there wasn’t majority support for the SNP in the Scottish parliament either, according to the opinion polls then, Labour was a shoo-in.

    Here, I think a number of points can be drawn together. The mobility of the Scottish electorate creates uncertainty for both sides in the referendum but the fact remains that it is the two main threats to the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems, that have haemorraged most support in the most recent election. Further, this mobility of Scottish voters when added to the pace of change in Scotland since devolution, means that it would be unwise to base any strategy on where majority Scottish public opinion appears to be right now.

    Moreover, related to this, and a point that I tried to make in both the original piece and in my last reply to you, the fortunes of Scottish Labour are closely tied to the fortunes of British Labour in England, on how credible the latter will be as an alternative government to the Tories in the run-up to the next British general election. If Labour isn’t seen as a credible alternative government in England by then, this will have repercussive effects on Labour’s core vote in Scotland in an independence referendum. If this is the case, then the no mandate argument must surely be one of a number of weapons of those seeking a yes vote. For then effectively, Scottish Labour, by default, would be campaigning for yet another five years of Tory government in Scotland.

    Let’s not also forget that the SNP is the incumbent in Scotland. This gives them a unique opportunity to shape the agenda of Scottish politics over the next four to five years, though, obviously, there is a potential downside to this as well. Having said that, five years of competent government might secure another election victory for the SNP (with or without a majority) at the next Scottish election but I don’t think that this is going to cut it for the SNP in an independence referendum.

    That is why I would argue that something more profound needs to happen, more important than any of the points already identified. There need to be fundamental changes in the SNP itself. In fact, of all the parties in Scotland that need a policy review I would argue that it is the SNP that needs this more than the others, at least if it is to win the referendum. This might seem a curious thing to say when the SNP is still recovering from its own shock at its recent decisive victory but I think that what Scottish Labour understands now is that there is a growing appetite for meaningful change in Scotland, as a consequence an ideological space is opening up in Scottish politics and, if the SNP isn’t careful, Scottish Labour will fill it. But I want to come back to this in a series of posts in the summer, in fact the piece here and a few follow up posts are part of a long run up to those later posts, so I won’t say any more about it here, other than to make the general point.

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      Donald

      “But the key point here, as I argued earlier, is that as a strategy for buying constitutional time for unionists as well as an attempt to halt the momentum of the SNP, it would make a lot of sense”

      As I said before a federalist solution is closed off because it would require change at the centre with the inevitable consequence of English governance having to be separated out from UK governance. There is no uncontested nation that the British State can rely on for legitimacy, the British State therefore has to retain governance over England to survive, and the English have rejected regional government, federalism does not buy them anything, it merely exposes their lack of options.

      “It’s true that, at the moment, there isn’t majority support for that in Scotland but then, as recently as three months ago, there wasn’t majority support for the SNP in the Scottish parliament either”

      The turn around was more apparent than real. The approval ratings for Alex Salmond were always much higher than for any of his rivals. The basic issue that stops support for independence, from the evidence of the most recent social attitude survey, is worry over individual prosperity. This is an easy target for the No campaign; to succeed they don’t need to win the argument, they merely need to sow doubt.

      “If this is the case, then the no mandate argument must surely be one of a number of weapons of those seeking a yes vote.”

      Labour are definitely in a bad way at present and will have to ditch Miliband to suceed, and traditionally Labour wait till after an electoral failure to get rid of poor leaders. The No Mandate argument should definitely be made more of, but as we agreed above devolution has blunted the resonance of the No Mandate argument and the majority see more powers, not independence, as the answer to it.

      “That is why I would argue that something more profound needs to happen, more important than any of the points already identified. There need to be fundamental changes in the SNP itself.’

      There does need to be something more profound and not just changes to the SNP, although that could help. Gaining independence is not the same as wining an election. People know that it is of a higher significance and usually there has to be a national resolve and/or crisis for it to happen, neither appear likely at present, unless something profound happens. We don’t even have the level of resolve there was with the less important devolution referendum.

      The biggest danger to independence would not be Labour embracing more powers (which would merely add to the crisis of the British State) it would be the SNP forcing an independence referendum on a yes/no basis when there wasn’t sufficient support. Only this could bolster the British State, because it would relieve all pressure for more powers while demoralising all those in favour of progressive change in Scotland.

      1. Donald Adamson says:

        Alex,

        These are good arguments and I appreciate, in fact I share much of your reasoning. As I stated earlier, I share your doubts about federalism though I’m less convinced that it will remain “closed off”, as you put it, as an option between now and the independence referendum. In fact, it’s not difficult to envisage, precisely because, as you say, the British state – a British state that is itself in crisis – is out of reformist options, that federalism may ultimately be all that’s left to it. This is, in effect, Melding’s argument.

        It’s helpful here to separate the three issues. One, whether federalism would provide a sustainable solution to the break-up of Britain, I think we’re agreed that this is unlikely, though I’m arguing that it does have potential to prolong the life of the UK beyond that of the alternatives. Second, whether the British state and its main political parties would embrace a federal solution. At the moment I’d agree that this is a non-starter but this, I would argue, may change, for example, if there is a Scottish ‘turn’ to greater support for independence. That leads to what for me is the most important issue. That is, the plausibility of Melding’s argument that the acceptance by the unionist parties of establishing a federal convention to explore federalism is the best strategy for unionism to counter the SNP or, as Melding argues, the only strategy for unionism.

        As he puts it, “it is difficult to see how the UK could survive without the use of federal constitutional principles”. I wouldn’t dismiss this so readily. If I was in Scottish Labour, for example, I’d take this seriously not only as a means of countering the SNP but as an option that offers a credible means of restoring its own fortunes in Scotland. Similarly, if British Labour and the Lib Dems, for example, made it known this side of the next British general election that they would support the establishment of a federal convention after the 2015 British general election this could have a significant influence on the outcome of an independence referendum. Again, this is an important part of Melding’s reasoning but this could also be good politics on British Labour’s part in that it would create serious divisions in the coalition and Labour has to find a way to do this before 2015. Or put it another way, if the Tories win the 2015 British general election, it’s difficult to see how the union could survive and this would be a much more devastating result for the Labour party than 2010. This prospect is another reason why nationalists must keep the no mandate argument high on the agenda.

        Having said that, the key point you make about federalism here is your reference to the “inevitable consequence of English governance having to be separated out from UK governance”. It’s the intractability of the ‘English Question’ and its impact on the British state that make a federal solution so problematic. Again though, while it’s true that those English regions that were polled rejected the devolution that was on offer at the time, the promise of a federal convention that may come up with more rigorous proposals might win wider support in England as well as the other nations of the UK.

        “The turnaround was more apparent than real”. This is a point that’s been made by many since May 2011 and the low turnout and the SNPs share of the electorate have been used to justify this. As I suggested in the piece though, and an issue that I’ll return to in the follow-up, it’s important not to look at the 2011 result in isolation. There are some interesting trends that have developed since devolution and while they’re not all good news for the SNP and the broader independence movement, they do suggest that there are opportunities which, given the existence of an SNP majority government, could turn events in its favour. This, too, is something that needs to be returned to. I take the point about Alex Salmond’s superior approval ratings. But I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Scottish voters were endorsing a second-term SNP government rather than Salmond’s second term as First Minister.

        It’s understandable that, in the present climate, many Scots are deeply concerned about individual prosperity and, of course, Scotland isn’t unique in this. Hence, in spite of the SNPs recent success, this is not the most auspicious time to hold a referendum on independence. Fortunately though, the referendum isn’t being held now and just as unionists are right to state the obvious that the SNP will hold a referendum when they think can win it, equally, unionists wanted an early referendum because they believed that they would win that. So if a referendum was being held now I’d agree with you that “this [would be] an easy target for the No campaign”. One of the reasons I’ve consistently supported a referendum later on in this parliament is because if it was held earlier it would only tell us what we already know, that Scots feel insecure, uncertain about the future and, in these circumstances, most Scots would collectively reach for the nearest comfort blanket.

        The point I was making in my last reply, though, wasn’t just to fall back on the vague generalisation that things change, or even that the pace at which events have changed in Scotland since devolution has been remarkable, but that we are in completely different territory now. We need to be careful to avoid wishful thinking, that permanent enemy of nationalism, but we also need to understand that things will look very different as we go deeper in to the second half of this parliament, and a number of domestic and international developments are likely to have a determining influence on Scottish attitudes.

        There are too many factors involved here to accommodate in this post but some of the important ones include: the success of coalition policies at Westminster, and whether their deficit reduction plan does result in the private sector fully compensating for the fiscal retrenchment and returning the economy to its trend rate of growth; perceptions in Scotland of Labour’s prospects in England of returning to government at Westminster; the likelihood of the Tories winning the 2015 British general election; the competence of the SNP and whether it can succeed in protecting Scotland from the worst effects of Tory cuts; the depth of the global crisis in capitalism; the impact of the unfolding EU crisis, particularly in smaller EU countries, and I can think of dozens of others that will help to shape Scottish opinion to a greater or lesser extent than these. I also think that the very presence of an SNP government, which was also a factor in the 2011 victory, will give the SNP an authority and legitimacy in the long run-up to a referendum that could and probably will enhance the prospects of a higher Yes vote as we approach 2014-15.

        We’re also agreed on the ‘anger management’ functions of devolution but, again, that describes the situation up to the present. How might that change two or three years further into this Tory government? One of the crucial reasons that I believe that fundamental changes, including a policy review, are required in the SNP is because it is essential that the SNP doesn’t allow Scottish Labour to claim the electoral rewards of the anti-Tory reflex in Scotland. This is why Scottish perceptions of Labour’s progress in England is still important, even though I think it is true to say that Westminster politics is less relevant for more Scots today than ever before. The SNP, though, needs to drive home its present advantage but this must go beyond competent government if it is to transform the present situation that you’ve outlined (where a majority of Scots seem to want more powers rather than independence) into greater support for independence.

        Your final paragraph does provide a compelling argument – I seem to recall that we’ve disagreed about this before! If the referendum is a straight Yes/No question in a situation where there wasn’t enough support for independence then, by definition, the referendum would be lost, although I think that those who put this argument jump too readily to the conclusion that you have, that this could only “bolster the British state”. Suppose that the vote was close, within ten per cent say, would this really “bolster the British state” and, as others have suggested, put an end to the independence movement and be a terminal blow to an incumbent SNP government? I’m not so sure.

        There are also potential problems, political and procedural, with a multi-choice referendum question. Alan Trench in his ‘Devolution Matters’ blog yesterday made some interesting points here about a multi-choice referendum. I think a multi-choice question has the potential to create even greater confusion and uncertainty and is almost certain to prolong the process, risking constitutional fatigue among Scottish voters. It isn’t the ‘fundamentalist’ in me though, that favours a Yes/No question. It’s the belief that this is winnable.

  6. Alex Buchan says:

    I see George Foulks is pushing federalism again on Labour Hame http://www.labourhame.com/archives/828#comments including an English Parliament.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Alex, I forgot about this and I take back what I said about federalism. If Lord Foulkes supports it, it’s sunk already!

  7. Alex Buchan says:

    Donald

    Thanks for the tip off.

    I found Alan Trench’s article frustrating because he raised some interesting points about bridging the gaps between the Calman Process and the National Conversation only to let these fall by the wayside by the end of the article.

    The Tories are implacably opposed to regional government as the Tory grassroots see it as a Brussels inspired plot to balkanise Britain/England. There is no way that the Tories would ever countenance regions and this has been made clear by Cameron. Opinion polls over a number of years have shown consistent majority support for both an English Parliament and English Votes for English Laws. The Westminster parties are very wary of federalism or anything else that would allow any opening for English nationalism.

    There’s a reasonable possibility that any official endorsement of federalism could ignite a popular campaign against regionalisation and for an English Parliament. it would difficult, to say the least, given the level of anger about tuition fees, free personal care etc, to win public and press opinion in England for the need for radical change in England to appease Scottish desire for independence. The union is not held in as high a regard in England as it is by Westminster politicians, and the English press, particularly the tabloid press, will not give politicians carte blanch to tear up 1000 years of English tradition (federalism would involve a written const. the end of the “supremacy of parliament” the end of Westminster as England’s parliament etc).

    Even if we lost the referendum by just one vote it would still be a victory for unionism. One only has t look at what happened in Quebec. where the margin of loss last time was tiny. Yes the strains on Britain’s rusty system would be there, and even just having a referendum on Scottish independence will probably add pressure to address English grievances. But a defeat, however small, would lead to demoralisation (remember what happened after the 1978 referendum: there actually was a majority but that didn’t stop it being demoralising) and be pounced on by the press in England with demands for measures to stop Scotland holding the rest of the country to ransom in the future.

    I understand what you are saying about the extent of the change there has been in Scotland since devolution and the fluidity of the situation, and I am not saying that under no circumstances could there be a majority for independence, but I still feel that your analysis, regardless of your denials, basically finesses the overwhelming obstacles to a yes vote. However, I’m interested in what you have hinted at about the changing situation re Scottish Labour and the changes needed in the SNP so I’m looking forward to reading the series of pieces that you plan for Bella.

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