Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Liberal Democrat MSP proposes an interpretation of politics that is neither liberal nor democratic. Mr Cole-Hamilton (BBC Radio Scotland News, 8th May, 2021) claims that a pro-independence majority in Holyrood (by the SNP and Greens) does not have a democratic mandate, even to hold a referendum on independence. Notice this is not actually an argument about a referendum, at all; this is an argument about the nature of a ‘mandate’ in Parliament. Mr Cole-Hamilton’s reasoning is that the 2021 Holyrood election result means the pro-independence parties have not produced a majority of total votes cast (50% +1), and therefore they do not have a mandate to hold a referendum, even when the policy is passed by a majority in Holyrood of SNP and Greens. Mandates, according to Cole-Hamilton now require that a majority of the votes cast which are to count, are not to be found in a Parliamentary context at all; but only in relation to the total votes cast. This proposition needs only to be stated in this bald form, to see that there is something wrong with it. There is no precedent for this interpretation, and it has no substance whatsoever. Mr Cole-Hamilton has simply ‘made up’ his test of a mandate, presumably because in his wholesale desperation to block the will of Parliament, he has nowhere else to go. Let us inspect this ragamuffin argument.
Notice first, that no Government in either Parliament at Holyrood or Westminster requires to pass Mr Cole-Hamilton’s test (50% +1 of the total votes cast); either to have a mandate to govern, or to pass legislation; particularly in the case of policies declared in an election manifesto, and after winning the election; indeed political parties are generally criticised for the opposite, for the failure of governments to implement their manifesto commitments; not for executing these commitments. This is not a real test. Mr Cole-Hamilton is making it all up, out of nothing; indeed he is confusing and conflating an election mandate with the referendum itself. Mandating the legitimate political delivery of a referendum in a parliamentary system, does not itself depend on the voting rules of a referendum; such an argument is merely to fall into a category error, and an infinite regress.
Mr Cole-Hamilton’s position, however is worse. Westminster itself is constructed to guarantee the execution of mandates based on no more than a minority of the popular support, and an even smaller proportion of the votes of the total electorate; indeed there is not minimum requirement to win complete control of Parliament. In the recent Hartlepool by-election the turnout was 42.7%. Almost 60% of the electorate did not vote. The conservative “victory” was based on the support of only 22% of the electorate. FPTP is no longer a viable democratic system. It can provide victories for government supported by very, very few people. We are moving inexorably toward that outcome. On the same basis, Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority in 2019 was won by the Conservatives with only just under 30% of the total electorate’s support in the UK. Perhaps in ten years, on current trends the Conservatives will do the same with less than 20% support of the people. Parliamentary Democracy in England is slowly dying.
Westminster is based on a flawed, first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system, while Holyrood has a ‘proportional representation’ system, designed to ensure a fairer representation of the whole electorate’s real political preferences, rather than the post-code lottery of Westminster FPTP. A proportional system is implicitly intended to protect minority democratic interests from the misrepresentative electoral biases of FPTP; and also protects electors from a danger acutely described by Quinton Hogg many years ago, as mere “elective dictatorship”; not the legitimate right to govern, but the seizure of absolute rule by the majority ,over any minority in prosecution of its objectives; a crucial matter that is often overlooked. I would therefore expect a genuine liberal and democrat to protect the legitimacy of the parliamentary election mandates under proportional representation from Holyrood, not egregiously to attack them.
The d’Hondt proportional system used in Holyrood is notable, however in deliberately making it extremely difficult to deliver a single Party majority Government in almost any circumstances, by an ‘equalising’ system, pushing elected government’s towards sharing power instead; that is how Holyrood is designed: a majority of coalescing interests governing, rather than Westminster absolutism. The contrast with Westminster is striking, and Holyrood’s d’Hondt proportional system (over other proportional systems, for example, the single transferable vote, STV) was calculatedly chosen by Westminster to ensure, first that power over the choice of representative remained with political parties, rather than the electorate; and to preserve the comparative weakness of power exercisable by Holyrood, compared with Westminster. It was designed not only as a proportional system, but to provide the most convenient proportional system that would hobble Holyrood in relation to Westminster, and reinforce Westminster’s power. Thus Holyrood was placed in a position where it would be, in practical terms, too difficult to achieve majority Government, compared with the untrammelled political power on which Westminster Government typically relies, and which is generally (but not universally) delivered by FPTP. Mr Cole-Hamilton knows all this, because the Lib Dems oppose FPTP; at least until the Lib Dems found that Westminster’s gross misuse of power, and its cynical voting design for Holyrood alone, but not for Westminster suddenly served their own narrow Lib Dem political purposes.
FPTP, on the other hand is a system designed to deliver single party government completely unfettered power; predominately to serve the interests of a single political party (or PM) to execute total control over Parliament. Dicey, probably the most influential constitutional lawyer over the last century and more, expressed this power of the Party (or PM) who controls a majority in the House of Commons as effectively possessing ‘the power of a Czar’; absolute power. The Liberal Democrat Party website has this article on FPTP: ‘Making Votes Matter’, by Wendy Chamberlain, Aug 21, 2020. Chamberlain writes: “First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. Politicians are supposed to represent the people, yet we have a government that the majority of the country didn’t vote for. 56.4% of voters in 2019 backed parties other than the Conservatives.
That’s not even considering that nearly a third of registered voters didn’t vote at all. And who can blame them? In a system where you’re often forced to vote for the ‘least-worst’ option to keep another party out of power, it’s no wonder people aren’t inspired to cast their ballot.
I won’t pretend I’m immune to this. I won my seat on less than a majority of the votes. Try as I might to represent everyone in North East Fife, the fact remains that a majority of my constituents preferred other candidates at the election. How is it fair to them that I still became their representative?”
Let us parse this analysis. This is a statement that is entirely in contradiction of everything Cole Hamilton is now saying on the Holyrood mandate. His argument is incoherent, and unsustainable if he claims to be a Lib Dem. Furthermore, Cole-Hamilton is defending a Westminster system that not only totally destroyed the core pro-EU policy of the Lib Dems (rejoining the EU as current, substantive political policy has simply been dumped by the Lib Dems, Cole-Hamilton and Rennie; abandoned like an old shoe because it is not expedient for a party obviously without scruples about what it believes). Notice that there is a Unionist, Conservative, Brexit, FPTP majority in Westminster, based on a 2019 General Election that produced an 80-seat majority giving absolute control to the Government; which was delivered by only 44% of the popular vote. Not only is that a great deal less than 50% +1; but given that there was also a 67.3% turnout, this means that Boris Johnson has the support of barely 30% of the total electorate. Not only did the Brexit Conservatives exercise total control on this limited support, but they drove through the completion of Brexit, in the middle of a pandemic. Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems have precisely nothing to say about this; or that they have capitulated in craven surrender to this deplorable system, in the particular case of Scotland that voted in the 2016 Brexit Referendum with a decisive majority – over 60% – to Remain in the EU.
This is the standard of politics we are being offered in Scotland by Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems. Let me repeat the Lib Dem “principles” of election:
“That’s not even considering that nearly a third of registered voters didn’t vote at all. And who can blame them? In a system where you’re often forced to vote for the ‘least-worst’ option to keep another party out of power, it’s no wonder people aren’t inspired to cast their ballot.”
Does this sound familiar? Here is the Edinburgh Western election result for Holyrood, with Cole-Hamilton representing the Lib Dems as “victor”:
Lib Dem 16,645 (+14.1%)
SNP 13,685 (-1.4%)
Conservative 5,686 (-0.8%)
Labour 3,754 (-12.0%)
Notice that the Lib Dems have relied on ‘gaming the system’, with Labour voters in particular evidently switching to Lib Dems. The electorate are entitled to vote as they wish; Cole-Hamilton should remember that it is the prerogative of electors, and not merely when it is convenient to the wishes of Cole-Hamilton and the Lib Dems. Notice also that Cole-Hamilton received 41.9% of the vote; on a turnout of 64.5%. That is even less than the Conservatives in 2019, or the SNP in 2021. Cole-Hamilton also represents just 27% of the Edinburgh Western registered electorate; just over 1-in-four of the total electorate. Does Cole-Hamilton have a mandate to represent Edinburgh Western? Given Cole-Hamilton’s chosen electoral principles, does his political mandate from Edinburgh Western even exist?