“I’m off to buy a hat in order to eat it” so said one prominent media face on Friday morning. When Alex Salmond announced two years ago that he was going to win 20 seats, everyone in the Scottish press, myself included, scoffed at the idea. Pah! the nationalists had come third behind the Liberal Democrats in the 2005 general election vote. “Alex will live to regret that”, we said. Well, the hat shops of Scotland are doing brisk trade this weekend.
Let’s be clear: this was a hugely significant even revolutionary result – and I use that word advisedly. It is comparable to the Labour victory in 1997, which brought to an end the Conservative hegemony of British politics – only this election could have rather more profound implications for the British constitution.
Scotland now has a new political landscape. To understand why, you have to look beyond the headline result, in which the SNP had only a one seat advantage over Labour. Gaining 20 seats was, of course, remarkable enough, given the dominance of Labour in West Central Scotland and the hostility of the popular media, which tried to hijack the election by vilifying Alex Salmond. The Sun should be rightly ashamed of its polling day front page depicting a hangman’s noose as the penalty for voting SNP. This time, the Sun really lost it…
But look across the councils of Scotland. Labour have been reduced to two: Glasgow and Lanarkshire. The SNP have returned 360 councillors, a hundred more than their target. This means that the Labour monolith, which has run Scotland from the bottom up, is now being dismantled from the top down. IN future, in all those councils which were Labour one-party states, there is now a series of coalitions in which the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, where not actually in office, will provide vigorous oppositions.
The new cohorts of non-Labour councillors represent the seed-corn of the political future. They will be working to challenge Labour’s hegemony of the local state, of public appointments, of the local media. It has become a truism to say that Scotland is now two countries: West Central Scotland and the Rest. But even in Labour’s heartland, in its Western fortresses, there is now an SNP presence.
Five nationalist MSPs in Glasgow, for Heaven’s sake. The voters of the West may have responded to the command of the popular tabloids like the Record and the Sun this time, but they may not do so readily once non-Labour politicians are no longer aliens in the West.
Of course, for the revolution to be realised, the SNP must form a government. This will have to be cemented within the week, and the only realistic, and democratically credible solution is a coalition between the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They have the numbers – 65 – they have the policies – trident, local income tax, nuclear power, fiscal autonomy – and they have the “moral authority” – a phrase that Alex Salmond has astutely inserted into the post-election political discourse.
And such a coalition would also have the only credible leader in the Scotland. Alex Salmond has proved in this historic campaign that he has earned the right to be the next First Minister. It is very difficult to see how Jack McConnell could continue to lead Scotland from the back after his dismal outing. Read the devastating comments on the Labour leader from his own campaign team in today’s Sunday Herald.
Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader also had a poor campaign, where he failed to connect, lost two key MSPs in Euan Robson and George Lyon and shed thousands of votes in his own constituency majority. If McConnell and Stephen’s political overlords – Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell – believe they can prevail upon them to cling onto power, with a kind of rump Lib-Lab administration backed by the Tories, then they are simply deluding themselves.
The people of Scotland would not stand for two parties which were given such an electoral pasting attempting to cling on to power. Such a coalition would lack any kind of authority at all, moral or otherwise. It would confirm the worst paranoid fears of Scots that Holyrood was actually run by London. McConnell would appear as a puppet and Stephen as a muppet.
Of course, the Liberal Democrats don’t want to do a deal with Alex Salmond. They don’t trust the SNP leader, think he’s a demagogue who would not listen to them and would run the Scottish Executive as if it were his fan club. But the LibDems may not be in a position to refused to do a deal. The logic of proportional democracy, and their own pronouncements on the need for stable coalition government in Holyrood, may ultimately force them into a coalition, whether they like it or not. It has to be with the SNP because there is simply no reasonable democratic alternative. The people have spoken. They have their ministerial careers to think of too.
What these two parties should do is park the referendum issue in a constitutional convention for the duration of this parliament. The SNP and the Liberal Democrats have both talked favourably about setting up a constitutional convention to review Scotland’s future relationship to the UK, its powers and responsibilities, its financing and taxation. Lord Steel has pointed the way in this paper today. <> They should call on all interested parties in Scotland to join in this convention and allow it to do its work, as did the 1988 Scottish Constitutional Convention, which drew up the blue-print for devolution. Let this whole constitutional issue be taken out of the day to day running of the Scottish parliament, and allow the government of Scotland to be stabilised.
Let the LibDems continue to say they don’t want a referendum, by all means; and let the SNP say they do want one – but farm out the whole debate to the Constitutional Convention. It should decide how and when the Scottish people should be consulted after it has deliberated. I believe that the SNP would agree to do this, and would even accept a multi-option referendum at the end of it, including the Liberal Democrats option of federalism – a devolved parliament with enhanced powers.
The alternative for the SNP is anyway that their bill for a referendum, if they put it to the parliament as piece of minority legislation, would be resoundingly defeated. So, what have the Nats to loose? Gordon Brown may try to prevent Labour taking part in the new Constitutional Convention Mark 2, but that would split the Scottish Labour Party. I have spoken to members of the party who would willingly participate. If Ming Campbell orders the LibDems to stay out, they would split too.
Taking the referendum factor out of the equation would allow a Nat-Lib-Green coalition to honour its democratic covenant with the voters prepare a programme for government. That programme practically writes itself. The Liberals and the SNP are agreed on the need to scrap the council tax, introduce local income tax, lower business taxes, establish a growth target for Scotland, promote enterprise. They are both for renewable energy, against nuclear power and Trident and in favour of liberal policies on asylum and immigration. They want more police on the streets, more teachers in schools, smaller class sizes and maintaining local hospitals.
On crime, they agree on community sentencing, police reform and longer sentences for knife crime. They want affordable housing, promotion of wave and tidal power, carbon emission targets, implementation of the National Gaelic plan. I can also reveal exclusively that Alex Salmond would not object to Nicol Stephen’s number one legislative priority – an hour of physical education a day in schools – just so long as it doesn’t apply to him.
There is such an obvious fit between the policies of these two parties that it seems almost absurd that they are not able to do a deal, and this would not go unnoticed by the people of Scotland. The Greens would certainly support it, especially if Robin Harper were to be given some kind of environmental brief, and even Margo MacDonald, the last of the independence, might be tempted.
What Labour might ask the Liberal Democrats to do, given that the option of a continuation of the Lib-Lab coalition is not credible, is to retreat to the backbenches, let Salmond run a minority administration and join Labour MSPs in a guerilla war against Alex Salmond. Do everything to frustrate the effective operation of the Scottish Executive, and hope that the Scottish civil servants would also sit on their hands and do nothing to assist the nationalists in running an effective administration.
Well, the Liberal Democrats would be entitled to do that, certainly. There is nothing in the rule book that says they have to join a coalition, just as their is no rule that the largest party in the Scottish election should necessarily lead it. But Nicol Stephen would do well to note his own parlous state after this election, where the Liberal Democrats came fourth after the Conservatives. The only way to salvage something from the mess is to try to remain in government and exert some influence on events.. The Liberal Democrats have to ask themselves whether they really want abandon their ministerial posts and their policies just so they could prove that the Scottish people had voted in the wrong way on May 3rd. The people might not be very forgiving.
They should observe how the SNP won this election against the determined opposition of the pro-Labour establishment in Scotland. They might consider whether boycotting the new Scottish Executive might exclude them from relevance to the new political Scotland, and the emerging Scottish consensus on the need for greater autonomy for the Scottish parliament. Might be better to get in there and stake their claim, rather than appear to go down with Labour.
After all, where have Labour been for the last forty eight hours? They ceded the media, and the political initiative, entirely to Alex Salmond, right from the moment when the nationalist leader, after helicoptering into Edinburgh like a President-elect, cheekily delivered his victory speech even before he had won the election. Was it a media coup, or a constitutional coup d’Etat?
Where was Jack McConnell then? If Labour were so convinced of their own moral authority to govern, why did the former First Minister not come out to present his case to the nation on Friday? Condemn Salmond for hijacking the election, pre-empting the nation and assuming the mantle of leadership? I spent much of the post-election period with the international media encampment on the lawns outside Holyrood. The SNP were there in strength throughout, but of Labour there was little sign. Ministers, from McConnell down, simply hid from the cameras because they didn’t know what to say.
More to the point, where has Gordon Brown, the architect of Labour’s campaign, been when his party and country needed him? Playing Macavity again, and pretending not to be there when things went wrong? Leaving it to Tony Blair, of all people, to field the questions on the situation in Scotland, when it was the Chancellor who should have been taking to the airwaves to make the case for a united Britain.
The Labour establishment in Scotland failed to get its post-election act together, and it is important to ask why. Was it for the same reason that the campaign was misconceived from the start? Was it because of the cynical arrogance of a cabinet ministers who believed that Scottish voters could be scared into line by a relentlessly negative campaign expressed in the rebarbative rhetoric of the Sun?
A lot of people in Scotland this weekend have discovered to their surprise that they were closet nationalists. Friends, including long time Labour supporters talk of being astonished by their own elation at the result of this election. There is an unmistakable air of excitement, of optimism even, which has largely blown away the embarrassment felt by the computerised chaos of the count. Scotland doesn’t often feel this way. Beware – it might be habit forming.