Vol. 21 No. 11 · 27 May 1999

Clear Tartan Water

Colin Kidd writes about the election in Scotland

3434 words

An embattled oil executive with personal experience of the formidable ‘Scottish lobby’ once observed that you could tell when a planeload of Scots had landed at Heathrow because the whining noise continued after the engines had stopped. For the past thirty years, since Winnie Ewing’s triumph for the Scottish National Party in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, the rest of Britain has become ever more accustomed to hearing Scots drone on about their distinctive identity and needs. At last we Scots have had an opportunity to redress our grievances. On 6 May 1999 we cast our votes for the first Scottish Parliament since the Union of 1707. And almost 42 per cent of the electorate stayed at home. It did rain, I suppose.

Since the devolution referendum of 1997, media attention has largely focused on the threat posed by the SNP to the integrity of the United Kingdom. This in turn has provoked an English nationalist backlash among Tory backwoodsmen, for whom the Union – long championed by their leaders – means little, and to whom the Scots are ‘subsidy junkies’ living high on the hog at the expense of the English taxpayer. Once the Scots vote for independence, so the fantasy runs, a low-tax Tory England beckons. However, it is not only ignorant Little Englanders who have misread the situation in Scotland. The nuances and ambiguities of Scottish political culture have failed to register with metropolitan opinion-formers, who have tended to align Scottish home rule with a global trend towards nationalism. Although it is clearly no Kosovo or Northern Ireland, Scotland has indeed looked, at times, like a potential Slovakia or Quebec. Even now who would bet against a velvet divorce or continuing nationalist agitation – election after election – for a referendum on independence?

Yet the recent election campaign saw the revival of unionist politics, championed by Scottish Labour and its new-found supporters in business, and the rediscovery by the Scottish media, pollsters and politicians that the Scots – while conscious of their distinctiveness – also imagine themselves as part of a wider community of Britons. At the outset of the campaign the SNP declared their intention to put ‘clear tartan water’ between themselves and Labour, but this has served only to highlight Scotland’s enduring allegiance to the UK. For unexpectedly this has turned out to be a khaki election, with the war in Kosovo dominating headlines in the Scottish press. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, who spoke out against the Nato action as ‘an unpardonable folly’, not only found himself denounced by Robin Cook as ‘the toast of Belgrade’, but also saw both his Party’s and his own personal poll ratings fall.

However, the reassertion of Britishness is not a mere by-product of Balkan contingencies. Scottish Labour’s manifesto has trumpeted the achievements and agenda of New Labour at Westminster and its posters and election broadcasts have cast the prospects of an independent Scotland in nightmarish terms, reminding voters that divorce can be an expensive business. Moreover, the SNP campaign for ‘Scotland’s Penny’ – their commitment not to implement in Scotland Gordon Brown’s cut in the standard rate of income tax from 23p to 22p in the pound – has been rubbished by the newspapers, the tabloids in particular, which have fallen in behind Labour and the Union. In the event the campaign did not turn on the national question, but centred on British issues, such as the Private Finance Initiative and university tuition fees. Even the SNP’s manifesto relegated the demand for a referendum on independence to 14th place in its list of priorities. On the other hand, there has been talk of a pan-unionist front to see off the separatist threat. With the SNP looking certain to be the main opposition party in the new Parliament, David McLetchie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, pledged to support a minority Labour administration faced with a no confidence motion, much to the consternation of Tory strategists at Westminster and Labour spin-doctors both north and south of the Border. When the votes were counted, the unionist parties picked up over two-thirds of the seats in the new Parliament. Despite the undoubted drift away from Britishness over the past decade or so, the SNP took a slightly lower share of the vote than the 30.4 per cent it attained in the October 1974 general election.

How do we explain the coexistence of apathy, unionism and genuine nationalist enthusiasm? During the referendum campaign Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, presented devolution as a plan to secure the Union; put another way, in the partisan words of George Robertson, it would ‘kill nationalism stone-dead’. However, others begged to differ. Not only the Tories, but also Labour’s open devo-sceptic, Tam Dalyell, contended that home rule and the resulting potential for friction between Edinburgh and Westminster would only fuel nationalist grievance: Scotland was now on a highway to independence, with no exits. The SNP agreed, its gradualists using the same argument to win over fundamentalists who contemplated a purist sulk in preference to bringing out SNP voters for a rigged plebiscite which ignored the independence option.

Throughout 1998 the hopes of the SNP and the fears of Dalyell and the Tories were confirmed as opinion polls showed the SNP closing the gap on Labour. In November the Labour candidate in the North-East Scotland Euro by-election was beaten into third place behind the victorious Nationalists and the Tories. Moreover an NOP poll conducted during June last year showed that 43 per cent of Scots thought Anglophobia was on the rise, while 51 per cent believed that devolution would ‘inevitably’ lead to independence. Scotland, it seemed, was irredeemably Old Labour and had not taken to the Blairite project. Scottish political culture clearly lies somewhat to the left of the British mainstream, but not as far to the left as Salmond believes. Surveys of Scottish political attitudes do not suggest a significant ideological gulf between the electorates north and south of the Border. Scotland is slightly more collectivist than England, but only in the order of a few percentage points. According to one 1997 poll, if one excluded the topic of comprehensive education (which is much less controversial in Scotland), Scottish policy preferences were ‘not very distinct from those in the rest of Britain’.

Nor do studies of national identity provide a straightforward answer. In surveys conducted at the time of the 1992 and 1997 general elections roughly three-quarters of Scots polled described themselves as British in some measure, though over half described themselves either as ‘Scottish not British’ or ‘more Scottish than British’. Since the 18th century Scots have enjoyed concentric loyalties to both Scotland and Britain, the former more an emotional attachment, the latter involving both political allegiance and economic self-interest. More recently, the pattern has shifted: identification with Scotland has grown in intensity, while the tie to England has assumed an emotive dimension. In general, the elderly and the Protestant tend to have stronger feelings of Britishness than Roman Catholics and younger people.

The reluctance of the middle classes to vote Conservative marks another divergence from the rest of Britain. There are several reasons for the decline of Scotland’s Tory vote. First, between 1912 and 1965 Scotland’s Tories were known as Scottish Unionists, an amalgamation of Liberal Unionists and Conservatives which had the broader appeal of the former, not least with the Protestant working class. The Union in question was, of course, that with Ireland, not the Union of 1707. The decline of sectarianism, the significant change of name to Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the rejection during the Thatcher years of the one-nation ethos which chimed with the godly commonwealth ideal of the Presbyterian middle class, all conspired to undermine the Tory vote. During the 1997 referendum, Scotland’s Conservatives, without a single Westminster seat, urged Scotland to ‘Think Twice’, to reject both a Parliament and its minor tax-varying powers.

However, the Union – now renegotiated – has found new defenders. In the 1992 and 1997 general elections, Labour, the SNP and the liberal Democrats formed a loose nationalist alliance against the Tory defenders of the status quo, a popular front formalised during the devolution referendum. However, with the achievement of home rule, there has been a renversement des alliances, with the separatist SNP now at odds with the unionist parties. The tone of Scottish politics has changed. The Scottish Tories have now embraced devolution, and have begun to resemble their predecessors of the period when Tory support for devolution was enshrined in Ted Heath’s Declaration of Perth (1968). Although the Tories remain unpopular, they have ceased to threaten Scottish identity and, as a result, Britishness has been rehabilitated.

The Scottish media have played a full part in the recent revival of unionism, but, in the longer term, Scottish journalists – bored with parish-pump stories, reluctant to be classed as mere regional newsmen, and keen to cover a national parliament – have done much to stoke the fires of nationalism and to spread confusion abroad about the true state of Scottish politics. Witness the recent campaign for a ‘Scottish Six’, a six o’clock news programme on the BBC covering national and international news from a Scottish angle. As the Scottish broadsheets – the Herald and the Scotsman, joined in 1988 by Scotland on Sunday and this spring by the Sunday Herald – have expanded, copying their London rivals, so they have employed more columnists to fill previously non-existent space with something a lot cheaper than reporting. Unable to reply in kind to Murdoch price-cutting, these papers resorted to emphasising their Scottishness to keep readers and advertisers. The result has been a spate of articles on constitutional issues and identity politics. The red-top tabloids also contributed. In 1992 the Scottish edition of the Sun, largely for commercial reasons, went over to the Nats under such headlines as ‘1603 and all that ... how the Scots got mugged’. The Mirror’s Scottish sister, the Daily Record, retaliated with a ‘Real Scot’ campaign. However, in the 1999 campaign the tabloids, especially the Daily Record, have been virulently anti-separatist. Again, the tone of Scottish political rhetoric has shifted dramatically, though still securely within the established parameters of multiple Scottish-British identities.

Overshadowing all other factors in explaining Scottish politics, however, is the overwhelming dominance of Labour within the first-past-the-post (FPTP) constituency system. During the Eighties, the Union, which had rested on an increasingly unstable faultline during the years of Tory dominance at Westminster, began to cause problems not only for the Tories, but also for Scottish Labour, whose leaders were stung by the SNP description of their group in the 1987-92 Parliament as Scotland’s ‘feeble fifty’. The provenance of the new Parliament can be traced back to this period, when the Scottish Constitutional Convention was set up. The SNP notoriously boycotted the Convention because, at the time, its fundamentalist wing held the ascendancy over gradualists such as Salmond. Dewar’s eventual scheme owed much to the blueprint worked out in the Convention by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and various representatives of Scotland’s wider civil society, including the churches, the Scottish TUC and women’s groups.

The alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats within the Convention accounts for the peculiarities of the voting arrangements adopted for the new legislature, a variant of the Additional Member System (AMS). In the first Scottish general election, 129 MSPs were to be elected, with each voter receiving a lilac constituency ballot paper and a peach list ballot paper. To satisfy Labour’s dominance under FPTP, Scotland’s 73 constituencies were to be contested under traditional FPTP rules. To satisfy Liberal Democrat shibboleths about fair votes, a further 56 additional members were to be elected on a party-list basis, seven from each of eight regions. Within each region a formula was used whereby the number of party votes cast on the list ballot was divided by the number of constituency MSPs already elected within that region by the party concerned, plus one. The party with the highest total after the calculation gained the first additional member, and so on. In practical terms, AMS would act as a necessary corrective to Labour dominance, but this would not in itself help the Liberal Democrats, whose electorate in Scotland is highly concentrated in the rural peripheries, resulting, ironically, in disproportionate Scottish Liberal representation at Westminster. The beneficiaries would be the SNP and Tories, both of whose electorates were fairly evenly spread across Scotland. There might also be opportunities for minority parties to gain additional MSPs should they pick up over 6 per cent of votes in a region. Out of this system, it was piously hoped, a ‘new politics’ of co-operation and diversity would emerge. If, as seemed likely, Labour failed to pull off a majority under AMS, the Party – and this is where the Liberals would benefit – would be obliged to rule in coalition with its Liberal partners from the Convention.

Many commentators hoped that the Additional Member System would put an end to the numpty politics associated with one-party dominance in Scotland (numpty: ‘a foolish or ignorant person’). Those Old Labour incumbents at Westminster and in local government who seem to owe their positions to graft rather than ability are known to the Scottish media as the ‘numpty tendency’. The suicide in 1997 of Gordon McMaster, the MP for Paisley South, and the boorishness of his alleged tormentor, Tommy Graham, the MP for neighbouring West Renfrewshire; the irregularities associated with the Govan consituency represented by Mohammad Sarwar MP (now cleared in the courts of criminal malpractice); the local government scandals associated with Paisley, East Ayrshire, sectarian Monklands (once the seat of the late John Smith); and, above all, Glasgow City Council and its limpet-like Lord Provost, Pat ‘Lazarus’ Lally – all these scandals led to a wave of unwelcome publicity for Scottish Labour. Nowhere is AMS needed more than in Scottish local government, as Labour’s opponents recognise.

Labour responded with the introduction of selection tests designed to exclude proletarian embarrassments from its candidates’ lists. It is not only the gruff, inarticulate and too-identifiably-plebeian who have fallen by the wayside, however; so too have some undeniably competent troublemakers. Dennis Canavan, a former assistant head teacher deemed good enough to sit in Westminster as MP for West Stirlingshire (beating Donald Dewar for the nomination) between 1974 and 1983 and, since 1983, for Falkirk West, was ruled unfit to make the Labour candidates’ pool for Holyrood – against the wishes of his local constituency party. Having taken the decision to stand as an independent, Canavan was stripped of his Party membership. In the election he defeated the official Labour candidate by more than 12,000 votes.

The problem of numpty politics is by no means confined to Labour. Rather it derives from the long-term deformation of Scotland’s political culture – a discourse vitiated by national symbolism and an emphasis on subsidy and distribution. Both Labour and the Tories continue to justify the Union in terms of the Scots’ disproportionate share of UK expenditure. The SNP replies that there have long been vast hidden subventions to the South-East of England in the form of mortgage tax relief, as well as the location of government headquarters and defence spending. Despite a few nods in the direction of growth, such as the SNP’s belated discovery of the Lafter curve, the main topic of Scottish political economy remains the issue of distribution. Grown-up politics of the kind found elsewhere in the world seem as far away as ever.

Throughout the recent election campaign party spin-doctors latched onto various academic reports arguing the pros and cons of the Union, independence and the use of tax-varying powers for the health of the Scottish economy. It does not suit politicians to address the existing strengths and weaknesses of what – regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status – is destined to remain a volatile branch economy, subject to the whims of head offices located elsewhere. The specialisation attendant on the need for production economies of scale, Professor Brian Ashcroft argues, means that Scotland’s economy is alarmingly dependent on four sectors – computers and office machinery; radio, TV and communications equipment; whisky; and chemicals – which together are responsible for 75 per cent of all manufactured exports. External control, whether from England or abroad, merely heightens the exposure of Scottish manufacturing to closures at the first sign of a downturn. Nor, given what Ashcroft describes as Scotland’s ‘abysmally low’ rate of formation of new firms and its lack of an entrepreneurial ethos, is there any likely alternative to a future of stressful economic dependence. The maverick Labour MP George Galloway taunted the Nationalists that Edinburgh could either become a Barcelona or a Vilnius: either the centre of a thriving autonomous region or the capital of a small peripheral statelet. In reality, Scottish workers lack that choice, and it seems unlikely that any constitutional arrangement will do much good – or ill.

Have Scots ever sought to confront the hard choices which would come with full nationhood? The SNP’s ultimate goal remains ‘independence in Europe’. Sentimental nationalism – an earlier manifestation of which Nicholas Phillipson described as ‘an ideology of noisy inaction’ – has served for two centuries as a tolerable substitute for the real thing, much to the disgust of a minority of constitutional nationalists. One of them, Jim Sillars, the former SNP MP for Govan, famously dubbed the people ‘ninety-minute patriots’. In the 1850s, during the pedantic dispute over irregular heraldic quarterings which gave rise to modern Scotland’s first national movement (the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights), the Times complained that ‘the more Scotland has striven to be a nation, the more she has sunk to be a province.’ Provincial indignation about the status of Scottish banknotes (an issue as early as Sir Walter Scott’s campaign of 1826 and revived this year by Tory Eurosceptics); quibbles about the use of ‘Scotch’ for ‘Scots’ and ‘England’ for ‘Great Britain’; the location of the Stone of Destiny stolen by Edward I (eventually repatriated by the pseudo-nationalist Braveheart, Michael Forsyth, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, in 1996); the numbering of monarchs (an issue at the accessions of Edward VII and Elizabeth II); and the official neglect (usually philatelic) of Scottish history and achievement have marked the wayside of the long march to devolution. The creation of the new Parliament itself gave birth to another spurious controversy: should the old Royal High School on Calton Hill, a site of nationalist pilgrimage, house the new legislature. Labour decided, in the end, to tuck the new Parliament away from public view on the site of a former brewery at the bottom of the Royal Mile. A suspicion lingers that the widespread popular desire for an indigenous parliament amounts, in some quarters, to little more than a provincial demand for dignity.

However, the repercussions will be tangible and long-lasting. Sceptical commentators feared that the Parliament might cruelly magnify the failings of Scottish local government. Could Scotland escape the revenge of the numpties? With two weeks to go the polls indicated an SNP collapse, and it began to look as though Labour might win a majority, that no minority or independent candidates would be elected, and that the vision of the Convention, and most especially of its Executive Chair, Canon Kenyon Wright, of a new style of co-operative multiparty politics would be dashed. In his somewhat pompous memoirs, Wright – known affectionately as the Grand Kenyon – argued that it was of ‘critical importance that we create a new kind of parliament rather than a pale imitation of the rejected and outdared Westminster model’.

As it turned out, the election produced a mixed result. Counterbalancing the apathetic turnout, the failure of the parties to place any member of an ethnic minority group high enough on their lists to win election and the failure of the 11 per cent vote for minority parties and independents to be translated into more than three seats, there has been relief that Labour with 56 seats fell 9 short of an overall majority and – after fraught negotiations – will have to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, that the high-profile victories by Robin Harper of the Greens and Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party will force the main parties to raise their game, and that women MSPs will make up 37 per cent of the new Parliament. In addition, the presence of an elected anti-tuition-fee majority, including the 17 Liberal MSPs (torn between their promises to the electorate and the whip of a fragile coalition), 18 Tories and 35 Nationalists, means that ‘clear tartan water’ might be on the horizon after all, not between the SNP and New Labour, but between a Scottish consensus and Blair’s party at Westminster. From misunderstood causes spring unanticipated consequences. The landscape of British politics has changed.

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