Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Britons: the future's Scotland-shaped (unfortunately)

Not weather-wise, you'll be glad to hear, but in the sense that the two-party system is breaking down, due to the on-going demise of the Tories. On the Tory Trouble website, admin points out that, with the defection of Robert Jackson, Tory representation at Westminster is at the lowest point since the Liberal landslide of 1906. Amusing enough perhaps - but it means that, at present, there simply is no electoral threat to Labour at the moment - with any opposition coming from the media or from within the Labour Party itself. The reasons for this are quite straightforward: far too many people simply can't provide a convincing answer to the question, "what are the Tories for, exactly?" It's a safe prediction that Michael Howard's proposed tax cuts aren't going to impress the electorate; the Tories, as I've said before, have never regained their reputation for economic competence since the collapse of the ERM - and on the other key issues, education, crime and health, Labour are miles ahead in the polls.

Is there any reason to think that the Tories won't continue to slide to the electoral position that they now enjoy in Scotland? So dismal was their position after the 1997 General Election, where they won no seats at all, it took the Scottish Parliament's PR voting system - which the Tories opposed - to revive their fortunes.

I'm a PR pragmatist in that I don't buy all this Lib Dem nonsense about "fair votes"; as Prof. Bill Miller of Glasgow University used to say, what voting system you choose depends on what you want it to do. I supported it in the case of Holyrood because I hoped it might get across to the Labour Party that they don't have a divine right to rule Scotland. It did this to a certain extent; watching Labour politicians coming to terms with the fact that they had to govern in a coalition was quite amusing at the time.

But it hasn't really broken Labour hegemony and the reason is the same as in the country as a whole, with regional variations. The key problem is the weakness of the main opposition party - in Scotland's case, the SNP. Different, in that they oppose Labour from the left but the same in that I think a lot of people now ask, what is the SNP for? Nationalism is weak at the moment in Scotland- a good thing, as far as I'm concerned - but it leaves the Labour/Lib Dem coalition without any serious opposition.

True, the SNP aren't in the same state as the Tories but bad leadership and incoherent policies have damaged the party's position. Add to this the problem that many voters, although perhaps preferring the nationalists' slightly more leftist agenda, wouldn't support them because they don't want a divorce from the UK. Given the at times sometimes astonishingly inept performance of the Executive (I'm thinking in particular of Malcolm Chisholm's impressive feat of making increased health spending look like cuts, with the centralisation of clinical services), I think any nationalist party is going to have a job persuading voters that what they need is more of the same. Also, apart from the Tories (also deeply weakened from association with Thatcherism and the fact that they opposed devolution outright - as did the SNP) - all the other parties are nationalist too. When you add to that, the recent fratricide in the SSP, it's not looking good.

Labour has been the party of the establishment in the old Tory sense in Scotland for many years now. As anyone who lives in the West of Scotland could tell you, their network of patronage in local government and in quango-land, and now through the Executive, is far-reaching and very entrenched (nowhere more so than education?) and the interesting feature from a pol sci point of view is the way that they have displayed that traditional Tory habit of preferring established institutions and traditions instead of principles.

The worrying thing for Scotland - and now for the rest of the country too - is that both Parliaments are bound to fail, for the foreseeable future, to facilitate what should be one of their primary functions in a democracy - to produce a change of government from time to time.

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