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10 May 2007 Edition

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End Of The Union?


“Changed, changed utterly” was how one commentator described the state of Scotland following last weeks Holyrood election. Such hyperbole was to be expected as the Scottish National Party had emerged the largest party for the first time ever. While the system of proportional representation means it is not quite accurate to say the SNP had won the election it was clear the Labour party had lost the election. The result was only decided when the SNP took the last list seat giving them 47 MSP’s and leaving Labour on 46. Following some way behind the Tories emerged with 17 and the Liberal Democrats on 16.  
This was a personal triumph for SNP leader Alex Salmond who had returned from Westminster and predicted the party would gain 20 seats and become the largest party. That is exactly what happened and he now seems destined to be installed as First Minister. Declaring victory he announced “There may well be Labour governments and Labour First Ministers in the decades to come but never again will we see the Labour Party assume that it has a divine right to rule Scotland.”
The strange thing about this election was that it had almost nothing to do with the Scottish parliament. The Labour Party campaign, run from London, made the disastrous decision to focus all their attention on attacking independence. This negative approach was supposed to scare the Scottish electorate into sticking with the devil they know rather than risking the potential constitutional upheaval of a nationalist administration.
This was almost an exact re-run of their campaigns in the 1999 and 2003 Holyrood elections. Labour strategists decided to stick with a winning formula. The problem for them was that Scotland has changed and Scotland’s attitude to the Labour Party has changed. After ten years in power at Westminster and eight years at Holyrood the idea of an SNP administration does not seem so frightening a prospect. The repeated high profile excursions over the border by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown foretelling of the disastrous consequences of voting nationalist merely served to remind people who really runs Scottish Labour and it’s not Jack McConnell.
And what of their central argument that a vote for the SNP meant a vote for separation and an end to the union?  For the first time the SNP, backed by high profile multi-millionaires, were able to match Labour’s campaign spending. They used their boosted funds well, successfully arguing that the issue of independence should be resolved by referendum which they announced at the beginning of the campaign would be held in 2010. This tactic allowed the party to argue that unionists could vote SNP in the election and then vote against separation in the referendum. Having successfully parked the constitutional question the SNP concentrated on the general dissatisfaction with the government over the Iraq war and the proposed renewal of Trident nuclear weapons based on Scotland’s west coast.
One consequence of such a close campaign has been the near obliteration of the smaller parties and independents. Scotland’s “rainbow parliament” now has a very familiar look. Following a split, the Scottish Socialist Party lost all six seats having committed the political equivalent of hari-kari. The Greens’ representation was reduced from seven to two seats and of six independents only Margo MacDonald was returned. While in previous elections the protest vote had been dispersed among various candidates this time it coalesced around the SNP.
If losing the Holyrood election was bad for Labour then the local authority election results were a disaster. Using the Single Transferable Vote system for the first time, the Labour party lost control of all but two councils in Scotland. In places like Edinburgh not only did Labour lose seats and control of the council they also saw the SNP increase its representation from one councillor to twelve. The Labour Party’s hegemony is over.
While the Labour leadership has been quick to call this a mid-term blip and it is clear the SNP gained from Labour’s unpopularity there is something more fundamental happening in Scotland. George Robertson, a former Scottish Secretary, once famously said that devolution “would kill the SNP stone dead”. I hope he’s not a gambling man!  Rather than strike a fatal blow, the establishment of the Scottish parliament has breathed new life into Scottish nationalism. The centre of political gravity has shifted decisively from London to Edinburgh.
So what happens now? Talk of a unionist block of Labour, Tories and the Liberal Democrats keeping power even if the nationalists were the largest party have abated. Such a move would create a constitutional crisis likely to hasten rather than delay independence. For the SNP to take control they must either form a coalition to reach the magic number of 65 seats which represents a majority in the parliament or go it alone in a minority government. Their preferred option is coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. However the Liberal Democrats, having been in coalition with Labour for the past eight years, are playing hardball. They are refusing to work with the SNP unless it drops its pledge to hold an independence referendum. The parties have 28 days to vote in a First Minister or we have to do it all over again!    
The political landscape in Wales and Scotland has been transformed over recent years. While these changes have not been as dramatic as in Ireland they have moved us all closer to the break up of Britain and self determination. We must now recognise that political power no longer solely rests in London but also in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Tony Blair’s ‘devolution all round’ strategy has weakened the union and opened up new vistas for republicans and nationalists. The opportunity for building tactical alliances and greater co-operation between Celtic nations has never been greater.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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