Sunday, May 8, 2011

A toast to Nick Clegg, the accidental midwife of Scotland's independence referendum

I have a kind of cherished personal memory of the moment on 2005 general election night when it suddenly dawned on me that the unfolding result was almost ideal for the SNP. That would have seemed a peculiar thing to say out loud at the time - in spite of a couple of constituency gains, Alex Salmond's resumption of the leadership had failed to prevent the party recording its lowest share of the vote since 1987, and unexpectedly slipping behind the Liberal Democrats on the popular vote for the first time since the same year. The political X Factor everyone was marvelling at in Scotland was not the Alex Salmond Factor, but the Charles Kennedy Factor. However, as we all know, Scottish Parliament elections are a very different proposition, and looking ahead two years it just seemed to me that a perfect storm was brewing. By the time of the 2007 Holyrood vote, a tired UK Labour government would be bang in the middle of its third term, with the SNP the obvious recipient of any protest vote. Better still, Labour had done just about well enough in 2005 to make it likely that Tony Blair, weighed down by the baggage of Iraq, would still be in harness as Prime Minister. And of course that's exactly how it all played out - the timing really couldn't have been better. If Blair had called it a day even a few weeks earlier than he did, the 2007 election would have been fought in the midst of a Brown honeymoon, and it seems likely that Labour would have clung on to power.

But while my crystal ball was almost uncannily accurate in 2005, I must admit it couldn't have been more faulty in 2010. I'd been convinced all along that, once again, the SNP's Holyrood hopes hinged almost entirely upon Labour somehow clinging on to power at Westminster. It seemed obvious that with (to coin a phrase) "the Tories back", many of the disgruntled 2007 switchers would revert to the Labour fold in 2011. On that fateful day in May that began with expectations of a Labour-Lib Dem deal, but ended with David Cameron walking up the steps of Downing Street, I felt a sense of hopelessness welling up inside me twice over - firstly because I quite simply despaired at the thought of a Tory-led government, and secondly because it seemed to me that the SNP's period in office was about to draw to a close through no fault of their own. I dearly hoped I was wrong - but the opinion polls in subsequent months followed a depressingly predictable pattern.

Yet here we are a year later with - almost unbelievably - an SNP majority government in place, and with the benefit of hindsight it's now clear that, just like 2005, the cards dealt by the 2010 general election prepared the ground for that outcome in almost ideal fashion. With either a Tory or a Labour majority at Westminster, the shift of the Lib Dem vote en masse to the SNP would never have happened. With a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, any backlash against Nick Clegg's party may well have seen a lot of the votes move in the obvious anti-Labour direction of the Tories. There was of course a direct swing from Labour to SNP on Thursday anyway, so perhaps a second term for Alex Salmond would still have been on the cards without Lib Dem assistance. But would there have been anything like 69 SNP seats if Clegg hadn't fallen for Cameron's charms twelve months ago? I doubt it.

So here's to you, Nick. You made a catastrophic decision, but just as Margaret Thatcher was the unwitting midwife of Scottish Home Rule, so it appears the hapless federal Lib Dem leader is the midwife of the independence referendum that so many thought could never happen.


  1. Don't forget Tavish's contribution, James. Four years ago, the Lib Dems had a chance to continue helping to govern Scotland, and even get plaudits for helping increase Holyrood's powers into the bargain. The price? Allowing a referendum for doing so to also have a full independence question, for which there was no public appetite (or so they tell us), and thus would guarantee a positive response for devolution max rather than full independence. But Tavish's obstinance (because we all know Tavish was the main obstacle) meant the Lib Dems never got the chance to take credit for helping increase Scotland's powers.

    The result? The public have given the SNP a mandate to do it by themselves - meaning they have no obligation to offer a "soft option" in the referendum and can offer a straight "status quo or independence" question if they so wish - and the Lib Dems have been completely marginalised, with Tavish suffering the indignity of having to step down because of his disastrous campaign.

    On the surface, I suppose the Lib Dems are damned if they do and damned if they don't in terms of forming coalitions. In reality though, it's about knowing who to side with and when. Nicol, Tavish and Clegg all made bad errors of judgement there.

  2. That's very true, Doug. I have a feeling the SNP may still go for a multi-option referendum in the end, but the point is they can now reach that decision entirely on tactical grounds, rather than on the basis of negotiations with the Lib Dems. Tavish missed a huge opportunity to help shape the constitutional future of Scotland in 2007.

  3. I agree to a point (third attempt at posting a comment as the others have been eaten - ?is Wordpres in the trall of the UK establishment)?
    But I think the analysis excludes the role of the growth of Scottish political maturity from childhood to adolescence, and now we emerge on our adult independence.
    The truth is that Scotland is tired of voting for governmental representation in vain and being governed by powers they did not represent (the Thatcher years - yes and the whole Forsyth independence-weapon that he was) and the wholesale sellout of principle by the Labour Party (for the sake of English gold or for American oil in the case of Iraq...a parcel o' rogues in truth).
    For me, however, it was the belief on the part of America, the Whitehouse and the common or garden patriot, that they had the right to try to influence and overturn our sovereign legal system with Megrahi. That little bit of dominion we retained.
    We have a lot to thanks due to those in the political establishment (Donald Dewar and his cronies) who did campaign for Holyrood and gave us a chance to grow. The confidence to see we could make decisions - and good decisions - for ourselves.
    The irony is that the Labour Pary campaigned against AV system which all these years syne might have made this crawling, walking and now running towards self-determinating adulthood such that we would have sat forever content in our playpen being fed not porritch but ReadyBrek.
    The double irony that in this election - even without AV or list candidates and in a system designed to prevent this very outcome - the Scottish voice broke beyond treble tremolos and the occasional gruff syllable to assert itself in adult roars.
    Rosa Alba Macdonald

  4. Sorry about your difficulties posting. I'm not sure what happened - I thought maybe they had been caught by the automatic spam filter (which seems to remove comments at random sometimes) but they're not there. A bit troubling!

    Glad you succeeded at the third attempt, though, and I agree with a lot of what you say. I still think, though, that an outright majority under a PR system might have been a bit too tough without the Lib Dems pushing the self-destruct button.

    Incidentally, I know I'm going to have to let go of the AV issue now, but I don't think there would have been any question of AV thwarting the SNP on Thursday. This would have been one of those occasions (like 1997) when AV would have made the result even more lopsided - the SNP would probably have picked up enough Labour second preferences to take Galloway from the Tories, for instance.