Holyrood's MSP editorial panel on the 'what ifs...'

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 28 March 2018 in Inside Politics

Holyrood introduces our new editorial panel, made up of interested MSPs from across the parties

Holyrood's editorial panel - Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

The Scottish Parliament will be 20 years old next year and its presence and practices have become an established part of Scottish society.

There will be politicians standing in 2021 who weren’t even born when the parliament was founded, who will probably take for granted their lowly place on a regional list or, if they really make their mark, will have a shot at a first-past-the-post seat.

They would have been in primary school when Alex Salmond formed a government out of a few extra votes, just too young to vote in the independence referendum, and still too young to vote in the Brexit referendum that is likely to dominate their campaign.

All these political twists will seem like milestones on a straight road that brought them to the ballot box, but there was nothing inevitable about the devolved parliament, or the voting system which will hand them their seat, or even the building they will sit in. 

Holyrood asked our editorial panel what could have happened if these hard-fought ideological battles had gone the other way – and how the battles to come might play out.

What if… Tony Blair had never backed devolution?

Pauline McNeil: “I never thought we would actually see a Scottish parliament.

“Labour wasn’t always in favour of devolution but Donald Dewar was an early convert, and he became this big father figure and we used to discuss what devolution would be like.

“I was part of a faction called Scottish Labour Action, formed specifically to change Labour Party policy.

“It was led by Bob McLean and Ian Smart, and I was one of the founders alongside Jack McConnell, Jackie Baillie, Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon – it shows how the world has changed so much.

“Bob and I were also members of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA), the precursor to the Constitutional Convention.

“We should also recognise the people that brought this parliament about, like Alan Armstrong, Jimmy Boyack and Isobel Lindsay, non-party political people who kept this going from the 1979 referendum right through.

“Without their determination, I do not believe we would have got this far.

“It basically split the Labour Party because there were still people who opposed it, and then at some point in the early 1990s, the Labour Party voted to support devolution but it was a really tough fight.

“By the time of the 1997 election, Donald and Wendy Alexander, his assistant, were into Blair’s officials, night and day.

“I don’t speak much in favour of Tony Blair’s years, but I tell you, there should be some recognition that him and his officials listened to Donald and Wendy.

“When Blair’s officials saw it, they were trying to talk it down, but they were key in making sure that didn’t happen so the first Scotland Act was pretty much a replica of what the convention had put together.”

Kate Forbes: “I don’t have any strong memory of the parliament not existing. I was nine when the parliament was established, and I have these vague recollections of being told about it in school, so I think it’s incredible to hear this conversation about when it didn’t exist.”


What if… Scottish Parliament elections had been won by first past the post?

Pauline McNeil: “Labour were predominantly wedded to first past the post but other parties wanted a proportional system. We [in the CSA] supported proportional representation for the parliament which was against the grain – and I tell you there were some interesting Labour debates about it.”

Tavish Scott: “The day I really warmed to [former Scottish Conservative leader] David McLetchie was right at the start when he sidled up to me in the canteen and said, ‘This proportional representation is a wonderful thing, Tavish’.

“He made me laugh, because every Conservative member was in on the PR system.

“We had people like the late Phil Gallie making these grand speeches about the ‘iniquities of the PR system’, so there was quite a bit of gallows humour from the Conservatives after that.

“One of the arguments of the steering group – that people like Henry McLeish, Jim Wallace, Canon Kenyon Wright and others were on – was to stop the untrammelled power of any political party, and at that time that party was Labour.

“I couldn’t have conceived back in 1999 that there would be a majority government, and if there was going to be a majority it would be Labour.”

Neil Bibby: “I was 15 and still at school, and during the 1999 election my friend’s dad said to me, ‘You’re interested in politics, can you explain this voting system to me?’
“I couldn’t do it. I’m still trying to get to grips with the system, to be honest.”

What if… the Scottish Parliament building had been abandoned because it was too expensive?

Tavish Scott: “What was the alternative? It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, a fantastic building, and it’s not even a debate now.

“We got through those years when we were being murdered on the cost of this building, but I keep reflecting on the Sydney Opera House, which was ten times over budget and the architect died – striking parallels with the sad passing of Enric Miralles during the construction of this place.

“The Sydney Opera House recently launched the Sydney Olympics – and this place is now part of Scotland.”

Pauline McNeil:  “If we didn’t vote for this parliament, even at that price, what would that leave for future generations?

“We definitely lost seats during the election because Labour and the Liberals were so slated with the sky-high price of this parliament, which had just gone out of control, but there was nothing we could do about it by then.”

What if… Donald Dewar had survived his heart attack?

Pauline McNeil: “His death was devastating for the Labour group. We lost a lot of confidence and the parliament lost a lot of gravitas.

“Salmond was also a big figure and there was a huge dynamic between Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond in the chamber and we lost that.”

Tavish Scott: “It was real gladiatorial stuff, they both respected and loathed each other in equal measure.

“It was one of the most powerful funerals I have ever been to in my life. Gordon Brown gave a magnificent piece of oratory about Donald, classic Gordon.

“I remember seeing Peter Mandelson, who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, walking in with more security than I have ever seen in my life, even more than Blair or Brown. I remember wondering who these guys were with earpieces and bulging pockets.

“You forget how much the world has changed in our political lifetimes.”

What if… Dave Thompson hadn’t demanded a recount in the 2007 election?

Kate Forbes: “Dave Thompson was the reason that the SNP got that one extra seat.
“The returning officer was almost on the stage, by which point, it would have been too late, and Dave Thompson said the figures didn’t add up, and it was remarkable that he called it right.”

Tavish Scott: “It was a knife edge, one seat in the Highlands which absolutely wasn’t a given.
“If it had gone the other way, Labour would have had one extra seat, and then we would have been in some interesting territory. Who knows what would have happened?”

Pauline McNeil: “We expected to be back. There were a few people in our group who have always voted against coalition, and that was growing, and I think more people were beginning to question, as we were going into 2007, whether or not it was in the best interests to go into coalition.
“I think we would have probably ended up with another coalition.”

What if…the Conservatives had refused to deal with the SNP minority government?

Donald Cameron: “I don’t think it would have made any difference [to the rise of the SNP], I think there were other much stronger factors at play.

“Everyone is slightly embarrassed by it now, but it’s a matter of record that the Conservative group did reach agreement with the SNP on certain things. Annabel Goldie had a particularly good relationship with Alex Salmond. We had certain asks in our manifesto, for example, police numbers.

“That dynamic was completely changed by the result in 2011 and the independence referendum.”

Tavish Scott: “The other dynamic, of course, is that Patrick Harvie brought Alex Salmond’s first budget down by saying he was going to vote for it but then voted with the opposition. They were fuming, but fast forward to today … [the Greens are propping up another SNP minority government].”

What if…the UK Liberal Democrats had refused to go into coalition with the Conservatives?

Tavish Scott:  “[The 2011 Holyrood election] was the worst six weeks of my life because I was trying to lead a party that was disappearing in front of me, and the only good day I had was in Shetland because I knew I was fine at home.

“I remember going to St Andrews to support Iain Smith and going round places we would have taken around 60 per cent of the vote in previous years, being Ming Campbell country, and finding nothing but SNP supporters. It wasn’t that they were committed SNP supporters, but they just said, ‘You lot went in with the Tories.’

“It was just visceral, and the Lib Dems were bloodsport at the political hustings.”

What if…Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown had backed Wendy Alexander’s challenge to bring on the independence referendum in 2008?

Pauline McNeil: “Wendy claimed she had a discussion with Gordon Brown the night before and that Gordon was OK with her saying, ‘Bring it on, let’s just have this’.

“Some people thought, ‘Oh my God’, so Gordon basically kind of denounced it the next day and said he had said no such thing. People look back now and think Wendy was right.

“The country changed after the financial crash in 2008, and I felt that people out there were looking for something. I think that’s why the balance shifted from the rump of 30 per cent who always wanted independence to 45 per cent.

“I also thought Brexit would happen a few weeks ahead of the referendum, although I didn’t want it to happen, because people were so scunnered with a capitalist system in which the banks could bring a country to its knees.”

Kate Forbes: “I agree that 2008 totally changed the country, but I disagree that the vote for independence was totally reactionary.

“Considering the crash in 2008, it is quite remarkable that in difficult years an SNP government with a majority of one managed to build on their success. People who otherwise dismissed the SNP as irrelevant voted for the SNP because they liked their policy platform, not necessarily because they wanted independence.

“Nobody was in any doubt what the SNP stood for, it was in the manifesto, so it made sense to bring that question to the people.

“Change is always scary and there is a tendency to stick to the status quo, and there was a lot of work to do to swing the polls from the high 20s, and I think it’s incredible how much it did swing.”

What if…the Better Together parties had not made ‘The Vow’ of more powers in 2014?

Kate Forbes: “While lots of polls suggest ‘The Vow’ didn’t make a difference, I have sheets and sheets of anecdotes from people who would have loved to vote for independence and ‘The Vow’ gave them a guilt-free reason to vote No.

“It may not have pushed us over the 50 per cent mark, but I think ‘The Vow’ cost us a few percentage points.”

Donald Cameron:  “‘The Vow’ didn’t sway the people that I was talking to. It was the economic fears and insecurity, a concern that they would be less well off, and also a fear of change.”

What if…Nicola Sturgeon announces a second independence referendum in the autumn?

Donald Cameron: “There is no doubt that there is a significant proportion of the population in favour of independence. 

“There is a chunk of people out there now for whom it defines what they are about, and we as a party were beneficiaries of the flipside, but there is a difference between supporting independence and wanting another referendum.

“A lot of people have said they don’t want to heap one huge constitutional change upon another one, and I think the SNP bore the brunt of people’s frustration about that in June.

“It’s now even harder for the SNP to make the argument about a ‘democratic deficit’, because the democratic voice spoke and a lot of those lost SNP votes were a rejection of a second independence referendum.”

Neil Bibby: “The economic case doesn’t stand up. It’s still ‘the economy, stupid’. The positive case for the Union and the argument for the best of both worlds tapped into human nature and the natural psyche of people who want to have their cake and eat it.

“The message of devolution, a Scottish Parliament with more powers, and the safety and the security of the Union was a big positive reason for people voting No.”

Pauline McNeil: “A lot of Labour voters voted for independence, as I saw with my own eyes on polling day, and I think it was because they were so shocked by the economic depression and they thought, ‘what can be worse than this?’

“The big challenge for the Labour Party is to set out an alternative vision, but the reason why the polls are not shifting is because of Brexit, which is so scary and while there isn’t a direct parallel, you can see some of the discussions you would have to have if there was an independent Scotland, about trade agreements and foreign relations.

“People who have always believed in independence are also a little bit canny about the right time, so I don’t think that poll is going to shift any time soon.

“I recognise that events that we don’t know yet can happen that can change that, but I don’t see that in the foreseeable future.” 

Kate Forbes: “There is no doubt that these are weighty matters, not least because some independence supporters voted Remain and others voted Leave. There is a lot of overlap. 

“Of course, Nicola Sturgeon has got to keep independence on the table, because there are many people in Scotland who want to talk about it and consider these matters. 

“Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment – the Scottish Parliament is progressing the Continuity Bill and the outcome of Brexit is still unknown. In light of that, there is a reluctance amongst some to add more uncertainty. 

“I have spoken to people who are still vehemently pro-independence but do not want to make another decision at the moment until they see the full impact of Brexit. 

“On the flipside, there would be a lot of opportunities for Scotland and Scottish business in particular if we were to stay in Europe and the rest of the UK left. 

“June was painful, but the SNP still won 35 MPs in contrast with the Conservatives who won 13 MPs based on a sole campaign slogan of saying no to a second referendum. So while I accept the point about uncertainty, the people who want independence are not going away. 

“Whoever is in government after 2021 will have to recognise the fact that there is still a significant percentage of the population that want independence, and whoever is in power will have to deal with that.”

Pauline McNeil: “If the polls repeatedly show over 55 per cent for independence then any government would have to address it, but we have not been at that stage.”

What if…the Conservatives are the biggest party in the 2021 election?

Donald Cameron:  “It’s perfectly feasible. The SNP had 27 seats in 2003 and four years later, they set the precedent that the party with the biggest number of seats gets the first shot at forming a government.

“I think coalitions are generally out of favour, certainly in a UK context after 2010, but even up here I just think it’s unlikely to be formal coalitions of any sort between any party.

“I wouldn’t rule it out, but I just think that we are in an era of minority government where deals are struck on a day-to-day basis.”

Kate Forbes: “No matter where we agree, and at times there is collective agreement in parliament on a range of policies, I think 2014 will always have an impact.

“I think Nicola Sturgeon will still be First Minister in 2021, because the Conservatives face a challenge developing policies beyond just saying no to a second indyref.

“There was a lack of depth in what the Conservatives were offering in 2016, and Labour needs a clearer vision on Brexit.”

Tavish Scott:  “The Lib Dems have had nothing but pain from the coalition. We had a really good coalition with Labour because we were broadly in the same space on a lot of issues.

“You should never say never in politics, but I will say never on a coalition with the Tories because of what happened in 2010. I lost most of my best friends because of that coalition. All of the people we grew up with in politics are no longer in politics.

“The bitter lesson for the Liberal Democrats of coalition politics is ‘don’t go to the right’ because you get trampled by that big blue car.”

Pauline McNeil: “It’s difficult to see where Scottish politics is going to turn next.

“I predicted the Tory vote would increase 18 months ago, and it’s no secret that Labour lost some of its vote to the Tories because of the Union question versus independence.

“The SNP are on the decline, Labour are doing slightly better but still far from government, and the Tories look to be still slightly on the incline, so it’s too close to call.

“We’ve got three years to go and I think it all hangs on how Brexit plays out. 

“You need to put party politics aside and say what you really feel about what is best for the country, and I think the party that is seen to do that will be the party that wins the next election.

“I hope that will be Labour.”

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