The Battle for Scotland and How It Can Change Britain

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Times, April 11th 2010

The Scottish election has begun – a contest taking place in a different land, terrain and politics from the rest of the UK.

This is a nation with two Parliaments and two Governments (one Labour, one SNP) where a Westminster election comes at another point in the Holyrood election cycle: three years into a relatively popular SNP Government. Westminster issues for England such as health and education are debated in the UK media as if devolution never happened, and Scotland along with Wales and Northern Ireland ignored or reduced to token coverage.

Scotland has a four party system different from the two and a half party system at Westminster – the Lib Dems squeezed by the adversarial culture of Labour v. Tory. Scotland even has four different electoral systems: FPTP for Westminster, Additional Member System for Holyrood, regional list for Europe, and Single Transferable Vote for local government.

While the Labour v. Tory battle is the big news story down south, Scotland is shaped by a much more subtle and nuanced set of party contests, the most important of which is Labour v. SNP.

Underlying all of this is the question of what happens to Scotland if the Conservatives win at a UK level, who most effectively speaks for Scotland, and what this means for the constitutional question?

The SNP have had three years of minority, mostly effective and popular administration at Holyrood. They have a host of policy achievements from freezing the council tax to building more council houses, to their opponents claim, an array of ‘broken promises’ from abolition of the council tax to more teachers in classrooms.

At the height of its popularity, the SNP set itself the ridiculous target of twenty MPs, when it currently holds just seven. What Salmond’s and the Nationalists honeymoon disguised is that for all the relative popularity of the SNP in office, Scottish politics have not yet been transformed, and no fundamental realignment looks like it is on the cards in terms of Scots voting intentions.

The SNP’s intention in this election is to portray itself as ‘Scotland’s party’ supporting ‘local and national champions’ who increase Scotland’s voice, portray ‘the London parties’ as that and put them on the defensive, and in a hung Parliament, act as a force with Plaid Cymru for more powers and monies for Scotland and Wales.

Scottish Labour is fighting a defensive campaign focused on holding the 39 seats it has and 39% vote it won last time. It is in part on familiar and comfortable ground, raising the spectre of the bogeyman of a Tory Government, and Labour as the only possible vehicle which can stop it.

This allows Labour to return to one of its favourite themes – that a vote for the SNP is either an irrelevance or a danger and an indirect vote for the Tories.

The Conservative campaign in Scotland has to find a new kind of voice and identity from the one which annoyed so many Scots between 1997-97. The problem is that the Tories have to develop a different voice from their past – and be heard by Scots – which requires change and a will on the part of both.

Already there have been low-level skirmishes in the party, similar to that elsewhere between Mods and Trads with the Glasgow South West candidate resigning a few days ago. What is different north of the border is the perception the Scots Tories are not interested in ‘change’ and ‘modernisation’, and that there is no visible ‘Cameron bounce’.

The Lib Dems start from a high of 22.6% in 2005 and 12 seats. Whatever the national picture the Lib Dems have consistently been able to make an impact locally where they are the clear challengers and have organisation, and this politics of ‘local heroes’ and working FPTP to their advantage will continue.

The battleground of Scottish seats reflects the mosaic of multi-party politics and the absence of many true marginals. Of the 116 seats the Tories need to have a majority of one, only six are in Scotland (1).

The first possible Tory targets are the SNP seats of Perth and North Perthshire (target no. 30 across the UK) and Angus (no. 39), which the party has to overcome the Nationalist high tide to win. Victory in either of these seats would be a major scalp for the Tories and a setback for the SNP.

The Tory/Labour marginal of Dumfries and Galloway (no. 51) offers the party their best chance of adding to their sole MP, David Mundell. Peter Duncan is trying to re-enter the Commons he represented until 2005 for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, while a more distant prospect is Stirling (no. 100). The Tories need to win two Scots seats, Edinburgh South (no. 76) and Ochil and South Perthshire (no. 87) from Labour, where it starts in third, to have a majority of one.

There are few SNP/Labour marginals. The most realistic possibility is Ochil and South Perthshire which Gordon Banks holds for Labour 688 votes ahead of the Nats. Dundee West and Kilmarnock and Loudoun are possible gains, while the party has hopes in Livingston given the Jim Devine scandal, and victory in these seats would signal a decent election, taking the SNP into double figures in seats, although well short of twenty.

The Lib Dems have a number of target seats, the most likely of which is Edinburgh South which Labour hold by a slender 405 votes. Edinburgh North and Leith is another possibility, albeit a more distant one, which illustrates the growing weakness of Labour’s appeal in Edinburgh. Other possible gains include Aberdeen South, and as an outside bet, Glasgow North, the sole seat in the city where Labour is under serious threat.

Scotland had five by-elections in the last UK Parliament. The story is of two Labour losses – to the Lib Dems (Dunfermline and West Fife) and SNP (Glasgow East), and one ‘notional’ Labour gain (Glasgow North East) from ‘the Speaker’. The pattern has been of Labour recovery after Glasgow East, holding on to Glenrothes and decisively rebuffing the Nationalists in Glasgow North East. Labour should retake Glasgow East, but will encounter more resistance in Dunfermline.

This points to the continuation of the West of Scotland/Central Belt hold of Labour across a range of FPTP seats, and the consistent inability of the Nationalists to decisively breakthrough. Labour’s vote is slowly declining, but it is still the largest vote, held up by a mix of loyalty and a sizeable vote dependant on the state.

Scotland’s voice and influence at Westminster has been changed by Holyrood. Pre-devolution Scotland’s voice was often expressed through the Secretary of State for Scotland and politicians such as Thomas Johnston and Willie Ross who would use the threat of a nationalist rebellion to win more monies.

This balancing act required politicians such as Johnston and Ross to engage in bridge-building: selling the merits of Westminster to the Scots, while representing Scotland’s interests in Westminster.

Since devolution this historic role is less viable. A number of factors have aided this such as the dilution of the Secretary of State post and reduction of Scots MPs. More important is the degree to which Scotland has just fallen off the Westminster and Whitehall radar.

Across a range of policy issues: education, health, law and order and the entire public sector agenda, the mantra of how the UK election is conducted and its language and detail will be alien to Scots voters. Tory policy on ‘free schools’, the English debate on social care, much of the public sector agenda, are not relevant north of the border, but will still get coverage in our media.

This is complicated by the confusing mix of reasons voters will make their minds up on, bundling together devolved and reserved issues. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, Labour lost significant numbers of votes on a range of reserved issues: the Iraq war, nuclear power stations, and Trident missiles in the Clyde.

This is all aided by the state of the media. The UK media, like its political classes is focused on a narrow bandwidth of what is possible politically, and its fixation on the marginal seats of ‘middle England’. Scotland is written off as a permanent ‘restive nation’ or just forgotten.

Much of the Scottish media has not risen to the challenge not just of devolution, but a changing nation, economically, socially and culturally. There is a lack of public spaces for serious discussion and debate post-devolution, which can be seen in the absence of comparable websites to Conservative Home, Compass and OpenDemocracy. There is a suffocating ‘Scottish consensus’, which some see as social democratic, but which is more accurately institutionally dominated by vested interests. Devolution has entrenched it even more, and it urgently needs challenging.

There is underlying all this the constitutional position of Scotland in the union. To many observers this is a non-issue, given its lack of salience and traction with voters. However, this does not explain the complex dynamics at work, such as the widening chasm between the Scottish and British states which point to different philosophies and the continuation of a market-led corporate agenda in England. Then there is the decline of Britishness and unionism, a form of nationalism which doesn’t see itself in such terms, and the submerged question of the English dimension.

The entire raison d’etre of the SNP is the campaign for Scottish statehood and independence. Despite this, the energy and momentum behind independence seems to have weakened. It has been qualified by the economic crash which killed off the bankers case for independence John Swinney and Jim Mather had been making, and sidelined by parliamentary manoeuvring which forced the SNP to shelve publication of a parliamentary bill.

This points to a vacuum in the SNP about what independence means, its implications, and the different kind of Scotland which could come from it. Yet, at the same time at the heart of the Nationalists this absence also provides an opening for radical thinking which could reshape the political landscape.

Just as the challenge to Scottish Labour’s leadership is to renounce the old Labour methods and practices which resurfaced in the Glasgow City Council scandals around Stephen Purcell – which would electrify Scottish politics – so the opportunity for the SNP is to redefine the constitutional agenda and independence.

Old-fashioned ideas of sovereignty and independence are increasingly ill suited to the modern world. This is a major challenge to the British state and political classes with their obsessions about parliamentary sovereignty and anxieties over Europe.

Independence could involve different kinds of co-operation between the nations and territories of the UK. This could entail the Scots recognising the relevance of Britishness, economically, culturally and politically, and how this finds institutional forms of expression.

A whole new language could be invented to aid this. There could be a post-modern version of independence, where Scotland assumes some of the trappings of a separate state, but remains a devolved nation. In many respects, this is close to where we already are. Another could be to embrace inter-independence, acknowledging the scale of interdependence in today’s world, but Scotland’s desire to become more autonomous and more independent.

If the goodwill and imagination was present, the British archipelago could invent new forms of political co-operation, sovereignty and statehood between the four nations with Scotland and the SNP at the forefront of this revolution. We don’t actually need to live our lives by 19th century notions of statehood. The European Union does not conform to that model, while who knows where such a journey may ultimately take us. People forget that it took Ireland over 25 years to become fully independent from the UK, from 1921 to 1948.

And here lies a huge paradox. The coming election result could mark the end of Britain as we have come to know it and the demise of Britishness most of us have grown up with.

Instead, what could emerge from the end of Britain is a new set of arrangements and politics in post-Britain which give birth to a new, more fluid Britishness. That would be a major achievement of the Scottish Nationalists, but one that would equally frighten and excite some of its followers.

This is the unspoken agenda of a country, the UK, in deep crisis, holding on to the status quo, both desperate for change and not knowing what it means. It would be fitting if Scotland in the UK’s hour of need came to the rescue.


1. Conservative ranking of target seats is taken from UK Polling Report,