Election 2011: Devolution and the Unionist parties

by May 13, 2011 No Comments

State of the unionCoping with the challenges devolved politics presents to the Unionist parties

For the Unionist parties in Scotland, the election post-mortem will be about looking at why their parties could not match up to the SNP.

Over the next weeks and months, there will undoubtedly be much navel gazing about whether or not seat losses were down to negative campaigning, the effect of the coalition in Westminster or the calibre of the candidates on offer. But what the parties must also step back and make an honest appraisal of is their understanding of the Scottish political landscape 12 years on from devolution and whether or not it actually matches the reality.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, head of the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh says that the most interesting thing about the way the Unionist parties have handled devolution is “probably the way they’ve mishandled it”.

“In failing as quickly as they might have done to understand the particular dynamics that exist when you establish powerful sub-state institutions without a state-level glue to hold everything together. I don’t think anybody has really understood that terribly well.”

Jeffery says that this in turn created an environment in which the SNP could thrive, and when the party came to power in 2007 and launched the National Conversation and White Paper on independence they really began to set the agenda.

While the Unionist parties’ decision to set up the Calman Commission might have seemed like a knee-jerk response to the SNP’s proposals, Jeffery believes it also served a wider purpose.

“It would also be too simplistic to say this was simply a reaction to the SNP. I think it was in [former leader] Wendy Alexander and in other key figures in the Labour Party in Scotland, a recognition that Labour needs to define itself in a different way in Scotland or at least when it is presenting itself in ‘Scotland only’ mode in and around the Scottish Parliament, than it does at UK elections.”

The struggle that Scottish Labour has faced in terms of self-definition can be traced back to the “Gordon Brown era”, in Jeffery’s view: “They had a very dominant Labour politician at the UK level, first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister who made it very difficult for Labour in Scotland to produce a distinct extent to itself, partly because Brown thought he was Labour in Scotland; I don’t think Brown actually understood the challenges faced by Labour in Scotland terribly well but I think he was also a pretty strong blockage in helping Labour to think itself into the post-devolution situation.”

Current Labour leader Ed Miliband’s response to Labour’s Scottish election defeat has been to appoint MPs Jim Murphy, Anne McKechin and Douglas Alexander to conduct a review, with only Sarah Boyack MSP providing input from the party in the Scottish Parliament. This could be taken as an indication that he does not feel MSPs are up to carrying out their own review, and Jeffery says that Miliband’s understanding of Scottish politics is not much better than Brown’s.

“I do think there was some understanding at a fairly abstract level among all the candidates for the Labour leadership that Scotland’s a different place and you have to go there and say different things; I’m not sure they’ve fully grasped what that means,” he says.

As for how Labour might turn their fortunes around and win some ground back at the next Scottish elections in 2016, Jeffery says the message needs to change in order to help the party avoid “dwindling into a marginal force in the Scottish Parliament”.

“Probably what we’ve seen from Labour in this campaign is the last hurrah for an old style of thinking because it hasn’t worked,” he says.

“Labour opted, certainly for the first few weeks of the campaign, for a message which was focused on opposing Westminster and I don’t think Scots wanted particularly to hear a message about Westminster when there was a Scottish election focused on what the Scottish Parliament can or should do.”

As for the Lib Dems, Jeffery feels their fortunes are likely to be determined by events at Westminster, with a breakdown in the UK Coalition Government being the one thing most likely to put things back on track north of the border.

State of the union“Tavish Scott knew [the campaign] was hopeless. I think he looked desperately uncomfortable throughout and knew that he had a pretty impossible situation in which to play his ideas.

“And you can see he’s been very low key, he probably wished he could just disappear, really, rather than fight an election because the ground on which he was fighting was so difficult.”

Given that the Tories were the major opposition to the campaign for devolution, that they have been the Unionist party best able to make devolution work for them has been a surprise. Jeffery puts this down to the fact that they have had to distance themselves from the toxic legacy of Thatcher. Although the election results this time around were a disappointment, the Lib Dems undoubtedly took the brunt of the backlash against the UK Government with the Scottish Tories still retaining the ability to put clear blue water between themselves and their UK counterparts.

“They have come partly for Conservative-specific reasons to a rather fuller realisation of how to do politics in a multi-level setting than Labour and the Lib Dems have.

“They’ve done that reasonably well, they’re not really benefiting from it at the moment, partly because the sense of a coalition in Westminster doing bad things and echoing Thatcher but I think generally speaking, they have tried to profile themselves and I think have succeeded in doing so, much more as a Scottish component of the wider party than have Labour or the Lib Dems.”

So what advice would Jeffery offer to Labour and the Lib Dems as they try to pick up the pieces and rebuild?

“The trick is to be both separate and not at the same time. It is to understand that some issues are going to be UK-wide issues which require UK advice and others are not,” he says.

“The biggest challenge is probably for the UK-level party in accommodating itself to more robust Scottish-level positions which may actually, in some respects, conflict with what the UK party is saying, but that’s not a contradiction, that’s just the necessity of playing in different arenas at the same time and it’s what you see in other multilevel states – it’s normal politics in multilevel states, really.”

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