The latest opinion polls in Scotland show the nationalists leading Labour by about 20 points, with other parties trailing way behind. If these voting intentions for the UK general election in May were realised, the Scottish National party would hold between 40 and 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Most of these gains would be at the expense of Labour, giving that party very little chance of an overall majority in the UK.
The SNP’s share of the UK vote is less than 4 per cent. But that could still enable it to displace the Liberal Democrats as the third-largest parliamentary group, and hold the balance of power in the UK parliament. On the other hand, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party could poll 15 per cent of votes across the UK and win no seats at all. There could hardly be a more striking illustration of the vagaries of a first-past-the-post voting system. The logic, or illogic, of an electoral system that rewards concentrations of support was how the Irish question came to dominate British politics — and rarely in a constructive way — for half a century. There is now a possibility that the Scottish question will have similar consequences.
When David Cameron, prime minister, and Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, agreed the terms of an independence referendum, both believed, from different perspectives, that the vote which took place in September would settle the issue for a generation. It did nothing of the sort. Each side both won and lost: the No campaign won the vote but lost the campaign, with a traditional 25-30 per cent support for independence turning into a 45 per cent electoral outcome, while the Yes campaign failed to gain independence but affirmed the SNP as the dominant political force in Scotland.
Anyone who thinks that the Smith Commission proposals on further devolution for Scotland will defuse the remaining issues lives in a political bubble distant from the interests of ordinary voters. When pollsters asked Scots what they thought of the Smith recommendations, they encountered the
predictable result that people had very little idea which these recommendations were, but thought that whatever they were, they did not go far enough.
Dealing with these proposals is one of the first problems that will face whatever government is in power after May. The essentially intractable “West Lothian question” — the illegitimacy of the authority of the UK parliament on matters which are of relevance to England alone, because relevant powers in Scotland have been devolved to assemblies there — is no longer a minor anomaly of interest to constitutional theorists, but a campaign issue of “English votes for English laws”. It is a matter on which Labour and Conservatives are unlikely to agree; now add to the mix a substantial bloc of SNP MPs with every incentive to make mischief.
Mr Salmond, having resigned as first minister, plans to return to Westminster as leader of these mischief makers. He has floated the possibility of a coalition with Labour, but that outcome is hard to imagine: such an agreement would probably destroy any chance of Labour’s own recovery in Scotland. And which cabinet posts could be given to SNP members? Only UK-wide functions, and while an SNP minister for pensions is possible, a tartan waving foreign or defence secretary is another matter.
Tacit SNP support for a minority Labour government is more likely. But consider the potential for resentment in England against a Labour government sustained in office only by Scottish support, especially when that government becomes unpopular. And it is more likely to be Ukip than the Tories which benefit from that resentment.
Within Scotland itself, the new leaders of the main parties — Nicola Sturgeon, SNP first minister, and Labour’s Jim Murphy — are vying to proclaim their commitment to social justice. Admirable though this sentiment is, what it means in practice is less clear. No one can doubt the seriousness of deprivation in some depressed areas of Scotland, and this has been one of the factors behind the strength of the independence movement. But the persistence of the problem is not the result of lack of will; it will remain easier to put the blame on insufficient powers and cash than to identify solutions.
Two weeks of September panic, in which Westminster politicians revealed themselves as alien figures on the streets of Glasgow, followed by a narrow defeat for the independence campaign, represented about as bad a result as could have been imagined. British politics will live with the consequences for some time.
This article was first published in the Financial Times on January 2nd, 2015.