What the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats share is an umbilical association to a southern patriarch which tends to hinder rather than help their electoral prospects. The late Margaret Thatcher’s early introduction of a poll tax before other devolved nations in 1989, Tony Blair’s illegal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and Nick Clegg’s backsliding on electoral pledges when agreeing to a coalition deal in 2010, devastated all three main UK parties in Scotland.
The egregious effect of each decision ricocheted north as Conservative MPs dwindled from 11 to zero in Scotland within a decade, Scottish Labour lost their grip on power in Scotland and Scottish Liberals shrunk from 17 to five seats in Holyrood. It is ironic both governing bodies of post-devolution Scotland have floated from the mainstream to the margins. They now occupy third and fourth position in Holyrood respectively as the party which opposed its creation is now become the official opposition.
During this time, the Scottish National Party advanced in diametric proportion to the disintegrating prospects of their political counterparts by occupying vacated spaces. Scotland’s governing party have their own patriarch – he just happens to be married to their party leader rather than attached to the teat of a remote overlord orbiting the M25. The SNP’s high point was neither 2007 and 2011 but when their membership soared beyond 100,000 in 2015 and they grew from six to 56 MPs in Westminster.
Sadly, Holyrood’s vision of a more cooperative institution appears to have failed as power has become contained and stasis entrenched. What Iain Macwhirter dubbed as the “rainbow coalition” of parties and personalities populating Holyrood in 2003, representing the views of socialists, senior citizens and independents free from party whips, now seems very distant. One wonders, then, is the Scottish wing of each UK party cutting the umbilical cord what is needed to break our political deadlock?
Peter Duncan, a former Scottish Conservative MP and chairman, seems to think so. In The Sunday Times, he wrote: “After a devastating sequence of disastrous missteps [last] autumn, from Owen Paterson to Downing Street parties, from northern rail U-turns to Covid strategy division, the PM heads into 2022 under pressure like never before. And, once more, it’s hurting the Conservative cause in Scotland.” Mr Duncan forecasts heavy losses in May and proposes a separate centre-right party in Scotland.
Former Scottish Conservative MSP, Adam Tomkins, appears to sympathise. In The Herald, he wrote: “None of the opposition parties are going to get near power until they break free of the millstones around their necks…” He says they should “divorce themselves from their London parties” and goes further than Duncan by proposing a “seat-by-seat [and] single opponent” strategy to dislodge the SNP. It is an interesting proposition assuming the electorate bought into it. Let’s assume they did.
Had such a plan been successfully applied in May 2021, there would be 29 less of 66 sitting SNP constituency MSPs, affecting five ministers, four cabinet secretaries, two conveners, the deputy First Minister and SNP deputy leader. Had the SNP done the same, it would have affected seven sitting Scottish Conservative, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrat constituency MSPs. A strategic three-way “seat-by-seat” pact would bring 14 constituency seats into play and a two-way pact another 15.
In a week when a former SNP policy development convener lit a fire by proposing a “devo-min-max” approach in any future referendum, it is a good time for unionists to get their act together. The biggest questions remain whether gaming the democratic system is something the people of Scotland would stand for and whether it is a price they would pay for a more representative Scottish Parliament.