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A breathing space in Scotland.

IT is not easy to say whether the discontents that have given British politics a |Scottish Question' have been eased, inflamed, or merely redefined by the Conservative victory in the British General Election, Politics will have to settle down again before it is clear whether the question of Scotland's future will be posed again in the same terms as at this year's General Election or in some new and even more dramatic form.

At first sight the situation has not greatly changed. John Major's new Government still faces the Scottish problem he inherited from Mrs. Thatcher. It has only 11 of the 72 Scottish MPs (as against 10 in 1987 and nine at the dissolution) and a slight swing towards it only increased the Conservative share of the Scottish poll from 24 to just under 26 per cent. 752,584 votes as against 713,089 in 1987.

Labour holds on the 49 Scottish seats, having regained the Govan constituency it lost to the Scottish National Party (SNP) at a spectacular by-election won by the SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, still far better known than party leader Alex Salmond. The Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists (with nine and three seats respectively) remain where they were in 1987, though the SNP vote rose from 14 to 21 per cent and the Liberal one fell from 19 to 13 per cent -- giving them the share of seats they could expect under proportional representations.

The Conservative still face the practical problem of having to find their team of Scottish Ministers from a dangerously weak parliamentary base and the political one of countering the claim that they have no |mandate' to govern Scotland. Their scope for making use of Scottish parliamentary committees remains very limited. And at a time when all the Opposition parties are committed to some form of Scottish Parliament -- though there is a world of difference between Labour's devolutionary scheme and SNP claims for independence--any modest scheme the Conservatives might consider for an Assembly subordinate to Westminster and without tax-raising powers would divide their own party and win little support outside it.

Yet the Conservatives are so mightily relieved at the Scottish election results that their modest satisfaction can be mistaken for euphoria. They not only escaped the destruction threatened if a swing to Labour had gone with an SNP upsurge, but were spared what might have been the most harrowing prospect for them, the task of governing Scotland with a handful of MPs in a hung Parliament.

In the circumstances of the 1992 election in Scotland, given the strident mood of the Scottish media, the expectations of the other parties, and the talk of a |Tory-free zone', even Conservative survival seemed like a famous victory. It was not merely a case of Opposition politicians believing their own propoganda, encouraged by the anti-Conservative line in the Glasgow Herald as well as the Scotsman and by the contorted and unconvincing conversion of the Sun Scottish edition to nationalism. Public opinion polling, among its other 1992 errors, not only underestimated Conservative support in Scotland but got the order of the parties wrong, suggesting that the SNP would run second and, though frustrated in industrial Labour seats, would probably humiliate Secretary of State Ian Lang in Galloway. It came third overall and Mr. Lang survived.

But if Scottish Conservatism is relieved, and the Union reprieved for the time being even without devolution, the other parties are frustrated. It will take time to see how far this frustration extends in Scottish public opinion, how deep it goes, and how it is handled by the Major Government. John Major arouses none of the personal hostility which Mrs. Thatcher provoked. He is probably even a more acceptable face of English Conservatism than the one presented by the more aloof Edward Heath in the days when Tory policy took more account of Scotland's industrial problems. The Scots will now grudgingly but realistically accept the most painful of recent decisions, the impending loss of the Ravenscraig steel strip mill, as a Labour Government would probably have had to do anyway. There may be concessions in other areas. Whatever Michael Heseltine does at Trade and Industry will be presented to his party's maximum advantage (and his own) and Malcolm Rifkind will be expected to prove less awkward than Tom King over defence installations and threatened regiments, especially if his Ministry has had second thoughts anyway about the number of infantry battalions needed in a troubled world.

None of this, however, addresses the argument which was heard even in the first sting of Labour defeat and SNP frustration: that 75 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted for parties which had committed themselves to major constitutional change, even though the Lib-Lab devolutionary approach is totally inconsistent with the Nationalist policy of |independence in Europe.'

A coalition of left-wing Labour MPs, trade union officials, and pop singers emerged overnight on a |Scotland United' label and hoped rather optimistically for demonstrations after the style of Prague and Leipzig. Scotland's least convincing Vaclav Havel, the left-wing MP George Galloway, wanted to |mobilise and examine passive civil disobedience'. He and others talked again about the parliamentary disruption which was mooted in 1987 and never really materialized. And while this radical coalition agreed to campaign for a |multi-option referendum' about devolution and independence, with rather uneasy backing from the main body of Scots Labour MPs and Shadow Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar, it seemed uncertain whether to attempt to take over or to bury the Scottish Constitutional Convention which, in the absence of the SNP as well as the Conservatives, had become a Lib-Lab front organisation.

There were, however, two much more significant but contradictory themes in Scottish Opposition politics. The election result had shown even more emphatically than before that Labour hopes of eventual return to power at Westminster were closely linked to the survival of the Union and even the retention of a complement of Scottish MPs larger than a strict population quota might suggest. The result also seemed likely to enhance the power within the Labour Party of Three Scottish politicians more formidable than the earnestly likeable Mr. Dewar: John Smith, Robin Cook and (youngest of the three, with more time to wait) Gordon Brown. Whether or not John Smith moves smoothly from being Shadow Chancellor to Leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party, the Scots triumvirate ensures that Scotland will be prominent, even at this dominant, in Labour's bid to remain an alternative Government and in any moves towards an accommodation with the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Cook has long appeared Labour's most convinced convert to proportional representation at Westminster.

The other dominant theme is likely to be the SNP's attempt to play pall-bearer at a Labour burial and to argue that Scotland's only alternative Government is an independent Government. The SNP had hoped to exploit both the motions which would have accompanied the creation of a devolutionary Scots Parliament and the frustrations and possible conflicts which would have followed even under a Labour Government. It eagerly welcomed and exploited Labour's anguish.

But until misled by the atmosphere created in the campaign and enhanced by the public opinion polls, the SNP had doubted the prospects for a Labour victory. Long before the election results were complete it was drowning its own sorrows by gloating over Labour's defeat and eagerly seizing on every claim that Neil Kinnock's departure would still leave Labour unelectable. It even explained away its own failure and Scotland (as measured against its hopes and expectations) by arguing that the Scots had been misled by Labour's over-confidence and the polls which sustained it. It claimed, and probably believed, that if Scotland had known Labour would lose it would have moved decisively to the SNP; and it looked forward to local election gains at a time of low Labour morale, though its modest advance in the district councils fell far below its hopes.

Such claims need to be weighed with caution, whatever immediate advantage the SNP exacts from Labour confusion after defeat. A substantial Labour vote held up even in the Scottish Tory seats where their own party had no chance and the SNP were the main challengers. The 39 per cent of Scottish voters who gave Labour its great majority of Scottish seats seemed more responsive to Labour's line on the National Health Service, unemloyment, welfare, and pensions than on a Scottish Parliament. The SNP has failed to hold on to any of the seats it has captured from Labour at various times since Mrs. Winnie Ewing's Hamilton by-election victory 25 years ago. Its main political achievement so far, apart from its success with the Scottish media, has been to take a leftish social demoract line and still, with the help of fishing and farming discontents, hold on to three traditionally Tory seats in the North-East. But even that is a tribute to its skill in being "agin" the Government' rather than in carrying conviction as a Scottish Government-in-waiting.

It can still argue that is has built a more solid base of support and has more appeal to young voters than its share of the vote would suggest. Even the |rogue polls' before the election campaign which suggested half the Scottish voters favouring independence cannot be wholly ignored, despite the failure of public opinion polling in the more precise business of predicting shares of the vote. A decade ago a readiness to support Scottish independence (or at least to consider it) tended to lag behind the inclination to give the SNP a protest vote. Now, even though such polling evidence needs to be taken with caution, the situation might even be the other way round. Some Scots may have an emotional hankering after independence but still incline from tradition or realism to support Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

If there has been a change what caused it? The SNP's stock answer will be |13 years of English Tory rule' while Labour remains allegedly |unelectable' and ineffective in defending Scottish interests. A profounder answer may be that Scotland could not be wholly untouched by the fashion for nationalism which has asserted itself all over Europe, from the Basque country to the Baltic and the Balkans.

And how can or should British Government respond? Back in the late 1970s the Callaghan Administration took the course which proved politically disastrous at the time but which has since made it impossible for Labour to change direction: to risk the consequences of conflict between a devolved Parliament and Westminster. It was a political impossibility for Labour to reverse that policy in the 1980s and remains so.

Since Edward Heath's impulsive flirtation with devolution in the late 1960s--when he proposed a Scottish Assembly with no tax powers and explicitly subordinate to Westminster, but did not follow up the scheme in Government--Conservatism has become even more unionist. A strong unionist line seemed to make Mrs. Thatcher's problems with the Scots even more acute. But it did not prevent the very modest recovery under John Major and may even have helped it, giving Scottish Conservatives something to fight for and consolidating the support for them in Scottish business and finance.

Now the Conservatives have a fresh breathing-space but little new room for constitutional manoeuvre. Any return to the Heath Assembly policy would split a party enjoying its first modest success for years. It would also fail to satisfy the Tories' media critics, far less any of the Opposition parties. There is little scope left for further administrative devolution, for the Scottish Office is already in effect a federation of Scottish Ministries dealing with health, home affairs, agriculture, education and development, while the separate legal system has long given Scotland the equivalent of what Continental Europeans would call a Ministry of Justice. And though Scottish Ministers profess themselves anxious to develop more devolution-within-Parliament (at Westminster, with excursions to Edinburgh) through greater use of Commons committees, their practical freedom of action is limited. They cannot devolve real power to committees when they have so few Scottish MPs, especially MPs free of ministerial responsibilities.

When John Major said he would |take stock' after the election, the probably meant that he would want to see how bad the situation was before deciding how to respond to it. Even the notion of a referendum has crossed Tory minds, though perhaps mainly as a contingency plan to save the Union if it were threatened by the advance of the SNP at Labour's expense. The kind of referendum demanded by the Scotland United movement is obviously ruled out.

Now Tory thinking will be conditioned by hopes that the worst is past, at least in coping with the decline of heavy industry. It will probably turn (as it did after an earlier but vaguer upsurge of nationalism in the 1950s) to a search for practical improvements in Scottish government and for gestures to affirm that the United Kingdom is not just an extension of England, even of London. The style may be set by the European heads of government meeting in Edinburgh at the end of the year. Edinburgh also remains a possible location for any new European institutions that may be wholly or partly based in Britain. Wilder notions that flash across Minister's minds may include consideration of whether English peers and MPs could be induced to come North for a State opening or special session of Parliament.

The future mood of Scotland will be much more influenced by the condition of Britain and the way the Major style of Conservatism is applied in Scottish conditions. The Conservative victory will take some of the tension out of health and education reforms, though entrenched trade union hostility to them is probably even more powerful in Scotland than in England. Other reforms (in British Rail for example) offer scope for an appeal to Scots enthusiasm and sensitivity -- and for disaster if wrongly handled. The tragedy of Ravenscraig and the Lanarkshire steel country might have been averted if privatisation of steel had been able to revert to the old structure of the industry before nationalisation, with its vigorous Scottish element. Perhaps that warning will have been heeded, especially now that Labour's failure ensures a clear run for the only distinctively Scottish privatisations, those in electricity.

If the Conservatives are to make effective use of their breathing-space to ease Scottish discontents -- and turn back the nationalist tide -- they will probably have to depend more on the general success of their economic and social policies than on specifically constitutional initiatives. However, one substantial (and controversial) possibility is a reform of Scottish local government to base it on a single tier of all-purpose authorities, abolishing all or most of the present regional councils. These would be more mourned by councilors and officials than by the voters of any party. The reform might also yield some scope for an Assembly with a more formal role than the present convention of local authorities, even though such a body would rouse little public enthusiasm.

The future of nationalism and particularly of its political manifestation, the SNP, will also be influenced by the unpredictable course of events in the Labour Party and in the development of its flirtations with PR and the Liberal Democrats. A Lib-Lab alliance would be a dominant force in Scottish politics, assuming the SNP makes no dramatic progress during Labour's post-election difficulties.

But one of political life's little ironies should be noted. Such an alliance would, on the 1992 voting figures, hold about 60 of Scotland's 72 parliamentary seats. On the |fairer voting system' which the Liberals would demand (but could not expect till the election after next) it would take about 38.

Editor's Note:

The results of the local council elections on 7 May in much of England -- London did not have any elections -- and in all of Scotland followed the main trends of the General Election. The Conservatives increased their share of the popular vote. In Scotland Labour's vote decreased and they lost overall control of Edinburgh.

R. D. Kernohan is the former editor of Life and Work: The Record of the Church of Scotland.
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Title Annotation:victory of the Conservative Party in the 1992 elections
Author:Kernohan, R. D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:2685
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