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The political scene in Scotland.

THE Conservatives in Scotland were not, as they feared and their assorted opponents hoped, exterminated at the 1992 British General Election. They improved their position, though lagging well behind Labour. But they did not overcome the difficulties of governing Scotland with a weak parliamentary base and only minority support in a part of Britain where a four-party system is now well established. Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists (SNP) compete there both for the 'protest vote' and to speak for farming and fishing areas that feel remote, neglected, or ill-used -- whether by London, Edinburgh, or the European Commission in Brussels.

This poses problems for the Government and choices for the voters different from those of London, Bournemouth, or Yorkshire. It also makes Labour's Scottish dominance, based on the voters of the industrial central belt and control of the most important local councils, less absolute than it appears at first sight. This is especially so now that Scotland is the part of Britain where Labour faces most harassment on the Left from various militant tendencies. Scotland has been consistently 'agin the Government' since Margaret Thatcher brought the Conservatives back to power in 1979. Yet successive Secretaries of State -- George Younger, Malcolm Rifkind and now Ian Lang -- have never found the acute difficulties in legislation and administration that might have been expected. The Scottish Office has been no graveyard of reputations. Younger and Rifkind moved successfully to broader Cabinet responsibilities and Lang, who began by looking more vulnerable, has settled confidently into the job.

This has been achieved by a mixture of luck and judgement although, as financial investment houses add after their glowing reports, 'past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future'. There has been an element of luck as well as irony in the way that Labour's ablest Scottish leaders -- John Smith, Gordon Brown, and Robin Cook -- have been too busy elsewhere to devote themselves to day-to-day harassment of the Government on Scottish issues, except perhaps in Brown's role as a constituency campaigner for the Rosyth dockyard. Labour has taken up the cause of a Scottish Parliament but has seemed to pick its second or third team to handle Scottish affairs at Westminster -- at least until the recent appointment of George Robertson. It may also have been lucky for the Scottish Conservatives that the unpopular poll tax (or 'community charge' for local taxes) never became a distinctly Scottish issue once the scheme ran into difficulties over the level of non-payment. Originally introduced in Scotland, to meet Conservative fears over soaring local-rate taxes, it was extended to England after Margaret Thatcher was persuaded of its wider value. It eventually foundered after her deposition, to which it was a major contributory factor, because of the alarm of English Conservative MPs and the resentment of many of their normal supporters. The Scottish reversion to a house-based council tax (as in England) passed off fairly quietly, with the main lingering resentment probably directed against those responsible for the accumulation of poll-tax arrears which has added to the already high level of local taxation.

Sometimes the Conservatives' judgement in the handling of Scottish affairs has amounted to knowing when discretion is the better part of valour. Scottish water services (run by local councils) were not privatised along with the English ones. Forced to restructure the industry by a looming need for large-scale investment, as well as by his own plans to reorganise local government, Mr. Lang has again opted out of privatisation -- moving towards a system of ad hoc water boards which will retain public ownership but seek private investment. Although the Opposition parties denounce the scheme as an interim stage on the way to privatisation, it will be difficult for them to distil a simple emotional issue from the detailed argument and practical difficulties which lie ahead, despite unsympathetic Scottish media and a suspicious public opinion. Nor are complicated issues of local government reorganisation likely to prove as hazardous for the Government as may appear at first sight. Mr. Lang proposes to sweep away the two-tier system of regions and districts (65 councils in all) bequeathed to Scotland by the Heath Government of 20 years ago and operated very much to Labour's advantage. Instead, he wants 28 all-purpose local authorities, including the present Highland, Fife, and Dumfries and Galloway regions and most of the Borders.

Although his plans will be slightly amended to appease some local protests, they will be the basis of the new system, provided the Government survives a full term. Many small councils will disappear, but the most spectacular casualties will be the vast Strathclyde Region (a Greater Glasgow stretching to the Inner Hebrides and containing half Scotland's population) and the Lothian Region including Edinburgh. They will not be greatly mourned, except by their councillors and officials, though the break-up of education, social work, and transport responsibilities will cause considerable problems.

However the Government faces a charge of 'gerrymandering' from the Opposition parties, even though many of their local councillors are already sizing up their prospects in the new authorities.

Translated into less emotional terms, the argument has some basis -- to the extent that Mr. Lang gave a friendly ear to his party's councillors and local activists. The Conservatives control few Scottish councils (six relatively small ones), and had new boundaries been drawn up in an unfriendly way some of those might have been absorbed in larger Labour-dominated areas, notably in the prosperous Glasgow suburbs of Eastwood and in Ayrshire. There are also complaints from Liberal Democrats and the SNP, whose progress in local government has been patchy, that in the redrawing of the local government map the difficult decisions always went against their apparent interests.

In fact much more will depend on the political climate in 1995, when the new councillors will be elected, than on the more debatable of the new boundaries. That will reflect how the Government recovers or fails to recover from its acute troubles in the year of the Maastricht argument and the recession, which did not affect Scotland in the same way as it did the English Midlands or South-East. The Scottish economy, far less vigorous in boom times, was less disrupted, though scarcely heartened, by the adverse trends.

The future direction of local government in Scotland, as well as of parliamentary elections there, will also be affected by distinctively Scottish arguments and moods -- in particular how rampant Scottish nationalism proves to be and whether the grass-roots militant revolt among Labour supporters in the poorest areas will forge ahead or fizzle out.

To some extent both the nationalist and the militant factors are unpredictable, because parliamentary by-elections are unpredictable. No-one can say when or where they will come -- or even if they will come at all. Of the two, the nationalist factor is still by far the more important, for the SNP stands to do well in by-elections almost anywhere in Scotland. SNP successes would build-up a climate of excitement comparable to that before the 1992 General Election, both through giving the party itself new hope of a major parliamentary break-through and by the effect such a mood would have on restive elements still within the Labour Party, including a few MPs who would like to belong to a harder Left than now exists at Westminster. In an emotional atmosphere they might also be susceptible to SNP campaigning for such gesture-politics as 'the recall of the Scottish Parliament' or the bid for a united front against the Conservatives which flourished and quickly faded in the weeks after the General Election. Meanwhile SNP and Labour are wary of each other and eager for points-scoring at each other's expense. Labour managed to exploit SNP dissensions over a tactical vote that went wrong when the Nationalist MPs voted with the Conservatives at one stage in the Maastricht saga. It has also (like the Tories) relished the SNP's embarrassment over small fringe groups campaigning against English 'settlers'.

The SNP is now both a major factor in Scottish politics -- though its impact is limited by the single-member first-past-the-post constituency system -- and the Scottish expression of a phenomenon found elsewhere in Europe, notably in Catalonia and the Basque provinces, Wales, parts of Italy and (in a different political context) Belgium. The new militancy on the Left is neither a major factor nor part of a pattern identifiable elsewhere. For example it cannot be equated with the power which militants held for a time on Merseyside through their control of the Labour Party in Liverpool.

The handful of local government successes it has won, the most important of which give it an appreciable presence in Glasgow's local council, have not been through exploitation of Labour's machine but through protests against all the powers that be, including those of Labour-run authorities, some of which draw their participating support from comparatively small groups of activists. They depend on the readiness of a vast but passive support to vote for whoever carries the label. This has also been evident, in rather different circumstances, in the allegations of favouritism and even sectarian bias which have haunted the Monklands council in industrial Lanarkshire. Mr. John Smith is well aware that local government in his own constituency is no model for internal Labour Party democracy.

The immediate boost to the 'Militant Labour' campaign came from the anti-poll tax campaigns and its one significant figure, now a Glasgow councillor, is Mr. Tommy Sheridan, who contrived to overcome the obstacles intended to ensure that protestors did not go to jail. He built up a local following on the South Side of Glasgow, and has extended it to other housing estates where unemployment is high, dependency on welfare benefits is a way of life, and the crime and drugs problems are intertwined. He also used the bitter and forlorn Timex industrial dispute in Dundee to maintain a high public profile and widen his influence. Mr. Sheridan had planned to repeat some of the anti-poll tax tactics in the event of water privatisation, but is for the moment reduced to calling for a council refusal to nominate members to the proposed new water boards. If water charges are (as planned) collected along with the new council tax there will be less scope for protest than the poll tax provided, especially as the Government seems inclined to rule out any disconnection of water supplies.

Of more concern to Labour -- and to the Conservatives too -- is the wider Scottish malaise which the SNP both expresses and exploits. Neither major party can feel at ease. Labour depends on Scottish support to challenge effectively for power in Britain. It is committed, despite silent misgivings in some of its own ranks, to a Scottish Parliament whose powers the SNP will denounce as inadequate and hope to use as a stepping-stone to independence. In Opposition it has encouraged the idea that Scotland should be able to follow different courses from England on major economic and social matters. Were John Smith to be Prime Minister and Gordon Brown at the Exchequer there would be a different perspective on these matters.

But the Conservatives have won more tactical successes than strategic ones. They have given a new coat of paint to the old structures of administrative devolution, and did it earnestly enough to win some grudging good-will from the Scottish media. Yet they are still trapped in a situation in which, if and when they lose power, even to a 'hung Parliament', the system of government which they have developed in Scotland will be drastically and perhaps irrevocably altered. Once any kind of Scottish Parliament is set up, whatever the conflicts and tensions it might provoke, it will not be easy to dispense with it as if it were merely a Greater London Council, for the arguments will become even more emotional and irrational than they were in the Thatcher years. If the long-term aim of a Government is to induce Opposition parties to accept at least some of its assumptions, then the admirably improvised Conservative administration of Scotland has not been as successful as it looks. Developments far from Scotland, and outside Government control, have also altered the context of debate about the maintenance of the United Kingdom, despite the solidity of Scottish business support for the Union. While the Cold War lasted, Scotland's industrial structure, strategic position, and military traditions ensured that a very substantial part of the British defence budget would be directly or indirectly spent there. The SNP cut a poor figure arguing for a non-nuclear semi-neutralist position but expecting that expenditure to continue. Matters look rather different when a run-down of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force means less work for what remains of the shipbuilding industry and for some sectors of electronics, and when in these new conditions earlier naval policy has been reversed to give the Trident nuclear submarine dockyard work to Devonport and not Rosyth. There is also an emotional sting in the threat to great Scottish regiments, reduced though it now is to an enforced amalgamation of the Gordons and Queen's Own Highlanders -- assuming that the Ministry of Defence does not eventually have to revise again its assessment of the need for infantry battalions.

There was some incongruity in Labour (and SNP) opposition to the Trident policy and the unsuccessful insistence that it should benefit Rosyth. But Rosyth is a major source of employment and there are doubts about the long-term value of the assurances of naval surface-ship refits with which Mr. Rifkind softened the blow. Who knows what either the Royal Navy or the world situation will be like at the end of the decade? Some of the uncertainties may help secure Rosyth's future, even if there is no regimental reprieve. But part of Scotland's malaise is about the loss of so many of the old certainties: first the certainties of Empire and of shipbuilding; then of a heavy industrial base with coal-fired electricity, diversifying into strip steel and vehicle production. Even the apparent certainty of super-power rivalry for the foreseeable future created a kind of stability.

It is likely that Scotland is moving into more alarms and excursions of the kind which preceded the last election, but until all the mist still lingering after Maastricht has cleared it will be hard to judge their likely intensity and the decibel rating of the Scottish arguments. Mr. Major may or may not survive by-elections and party in-fighting till the next General Election. But neither he nor any possible successor is likely to provoke the intense ill-feeling which, however unfairly, became the predominant Scots reaction to Margaret Thatcher. The lion may not turn out to be all that rampant but is still feeling both discontented and out of sorts. And a by-election or two North of the Border could put a roar into Scottish politics.
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Author:Kernohan, R.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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