The breakup of Britain?

Author:Gall, Gregor
Position::Behind the News - Report


The tectonic plates of Scottish politics underwent a further and seemingly decisive shift on 5 May 2011, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) landslide in the Scottish Parliament election. The return of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, after an absence of some 300 years, was destined in the minds of its 'new' Labour architects to have made such an SNP advance impossible. Indeed, during his time as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Labour MP George Robertson declared in 1995 that 'Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead'. But after languishing as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2007, the SNP has made a remarkable breakthrough. The SNP started off with just 35 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in 1999, compared to Labour's 56. By 2003, the SNP had dropped to 27 (with Labour at 50). For the first two Scottish Parliaments, Labour formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats as junior partners. But by 2007, the SNP gained 47 MSPs to Labour's 46. It formed a minority government for the Parliament of 2003-2007 with the help of two Green MSPs and an independent (former SNP) MSP. Although Labour had an early and commanding lead in the polls for the 2011 election (of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent), the media believed its negative, lacklustre and misdirected campaign allowed the SNP to take votes from it to add to the droves of Liberal Democrats voters coming its way. Come the election count, the SNP gained 69 MSPs to Labour's 37. For the first time since 1999, a single party has formed a majority government, but--at the very least--it was not supposed to be the SNP. Indeed, no single party was supposed to be able to dominate in this way. Now the SNP is arithmetically able to push though much of the legislative agenda that it could not in the 2007-2011 parliament. This includes a bill to undertake a referendum on whether Scotland should become a separate nation state. Consequently, this article examines the possibility of a breakup of not just the United Kingdom but also of Great Britain. If British citizens look at the cover of their passports, they will see that the former is the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland while the latter is the union of Scotland, England and Wales. Given the overall situation in 2011, neither is the UK particularly 'united' nor is GB especially 'great' any more. The key points for debate in radical circles are what can and will replace these entities, and what will be their social and political composition. But before we get there, some basic arithmetic on Labour's performance and an examination of the nature of the SNP are needed.

Labour implodes?

Labour won only 15 first-past-the-post constituency seats in 2011 (as against the SNP's 53). It is this in particular which makes it seem that Labour has imploded in its former heartland of the urban areas (especially Glasgow) and the west of Scotland in particular. The corollary is that Labour was then saved by the correcting mechanism of the list seats, where it gained another 22 MSPs. Under the Scottish Parliament elections system, 73 seats are fought on a first-past-the-post basis in which votes are cast for a named candidate, while the remaining 56 are determined by votes for a party across eight regions, to each of which is allocated 7 MSPs. This system does not use the single transferable vote but establishes a minimum threshold of votes (around 6 per cent) to secure an MSP, and, where a party does very well in the first-past-the-post constituencies, its ability to pick up further MSPs in the list regions is substantially reduced no matter how high its vote on the list. But when the percentage and number of votes are examined, Labour has stayed relatively steady since 2003. In 1999, it gained 0.9m (38.8 per cent) votes in the constituency seats and 0.79m (33.6 per cent) in the list seats, while in 2003 these figures went down to 0.6m (34.6 per cent) and 0.56m (29.3 per cent), respectively. Come 2007, the figures were 0.65m (32.2 per cent) and 0.59m (29.2 per cent). The 2011 figures were 0.63m (31.7 per cent) and 0.52m (26.3 per cent). This suggests that Labour did not quite have the meltdown that the media (mainstream and alternative) noted in its election analysis. Yet it does show that Labour's premise that the Liberal Democrat vote would come to it was very much unfounded, not least because Labour was not offering a credible anti-cuts position, and the Scottish elections were Scottish elections. By contrast, the SNP's number...

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