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First Principles

It’s been often said over the past few months that the Covid experience has changed what we thought was our hard-wired behaviour. We’re getting used to not travelling as much. We’ve discovered that actually many of us can work from home, at least some of the time. Meetings that took hours of journey time are completed during an hour long zoom session.

In this election, Covid restrictions meant that the time-honoured overnight vote count is taking place yesterday and today during normal working hours, which allowed political geeks like me to enjoy a proper night’s sleep before following the results without the constant need for caffeine.

After a campaign that was generally considered dreicher than a wet Sunday in Stranraer, the mostly excellent coverage as the results come through has belatedly made it fascinating.

At the start of today’s Radio Scotland coverage, the presenter Gary Robertson presented an excellently framed question to ex-Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell.

“Do you agree”, he asked, “with the principle that winning parties should be allowed to enact their manifesto commitments?”

Mr Mundell has been too long in the game not to know where the presenter was going with this. He was, of course, referring to the pledge of the two main pro-independence parties to call a second plebiscite on self-determination in the (likely) event of a nationalist majority being returned. So he stuck to the party line – you had your vote, 2014 was a once in a lifetime vote, constitutional issues are reserved. Get back in your box.

Two things come immediately to mind.

Firstly, here’s today’s fun fact. The 2021 Holyrood election is the forty-eighth national election in a row that the Conservatives have failed to win. And you can hardly miss the irony of a party that won precisely zero seats in the last election – 1997 – before the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament, only having any presence at all because of a voting system in a legislature that they always opposed and would frankly rather didn’t exist.

And, secondly, what does winning look like? With 129 seats available, the pro-independence parties therefore need 65 to give them the fresh mandate afforded by their manifestos.

The author and ex-MP Stephen Gethins today wrote an excellent online piece which put these numbers into clear perspective.

In a multi-party democracy, governments can take far-reaching decisions on the basis of a minority of seats. Indeed, since you’d have to go back nearly a century to when a single party won an overall majority, this is what nearly always happens – especially in Westminster.

So the received wisdom is that the SNP / Greens coalition needs 51% of the seats to trigger a fresh vote. That sounds narrow, but in the context of very recent history, that’s a really high bar.

For example, in 2015 David Cameron’s Conservatives got in with less than 37% of the popular vote – and that was considered mandate aplenty to deliver on his manifesto commitment to a vote on EU membership.

For his successor, Theresa May, 42% was enough of a mandate to trigger the withdrawal, without a plan on EU withdrawal, something that Scotland roundly rejected and which will have far reaching consequences for many years. And so badly did her snap election go that she actually had to bung some money to the DUP – who won 0.9% of the vote yet who now held the balance of power – just to get her legislation over the line.

Then, two years ago, Boris Johnson secured just 43.6% of the vote, but the eighty seat majority it delivered means, particularly with an opposition that doesn’t oppose, that he can do pretty much whatever he wants; including the rolling back of a devolution settlement voted for overwhelmingly by Scotland and the undermining of a parliament whose almost universal support transcends narrow party allegiance.

Scotland, of course, has a voting system that makes it hellishly difficult for a single party to dominate, which is of course the entire point of a method designed, in the words of George Robertson to “kill independence stone dead”. So if and when Scotland’s largest party falls just short later tonight, the reaction should not be disappointment (or glee, depending on where you are politically) but, given that it came so close this time and other occasions, and even delivered an actual majority ten years ago, utter astonishment. And, in truth, what the system delivers, a government that needs to factor in other parties’ views is actually quite desirable.

So if the quite likely outcome of a coalition emerges a few hours from now, its ascension based on its manifesto commitment means that a further plebiscite is the settled will of the people who elected them.

So. To go back to the original question. “Do we agree with the principle that winning parties should be allowed to enact their manifesto commitments”? Because, bear in mind, all three unionist parties had, in their manifestos, a commitment to oppose a second vote. And the two main nationalist parties had, in their manifestos, a commitment to holding one.

And there’s two things we can say for certain about the election.

The former have lost.

The latter have won.

We can’t have this both ways. If we agree to the basic principle of keeping our word, then it falls on all of us, of all persuasions, to make sure that the incoming Scottish governments delivers on its promise of a second independence referendum and takes us further down the road to the better, greener, fairer Scotland that we all aspire to and deserve.

Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.

3 replies »

  1. Alec,

    Never caffeine usually a good Irish or Scottish amber brew – caffeine came later in the day, like tea-time, LOL. But again another great piece.

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