Kate Devlin of The Herald is the guest on the latest edition of the Polling Matters podcast. It's a very enjoyable listen, but I'm more than a tad dubious about some of the specific points that Kate makes about Scottish politics...
1) She starts a sentence with the words "the Scottish Parliament was set up with a slightly strange and unusual PR system, in part to try and prevent..." I assumed that was heading towards the traditional assertion that the intention was to prevent the SNP ever winning a majority, but in fact she claims that it was to prevent a "one-party state" of any sort, which in the early days would most likely have been a Labour one-party state.
First of all, is our electoral system really all that "strange" or "unusual"? It's the Additional Member System, otherwise known as Mixed Member Proportional, which is used in a fair few other countries. Most famously, it's been used in Germany for decades. If there is something slightly odd about the Scottish (and indeed Welsh) variant, it's the fact that list seats account for less than 50% of the total number. But that makes the system less proportional, not more so, and therefore increases the chances of one party winning a majority.
The process that led to an agreement on the peculiar ratio between constituency and list seats ought to remove any doubt that the intention was to bolster the prospects of Labour dominance, not reduce them. Labour publicly argued for a parliament of 113 members, which would have been comprised of 73 constituency seats and just 40 list seats. Their Constitutional Convention partners in the Liberal Democrats wanted a parliament of 145 members, which would have had the roughly 50/50 split between constituency and list seats that is much more typical of the Additional Member System. In the end, there was a straightforward compromise on a figure exactly halfway between the two.
That dispute may well have been slightly choreographed for public consumption, but I don't think there can be any real doubt that Labour ideally wanted a somewhat less proportional system than they ended up with, and were relieved to prevent it being quite as proportional as the Lib Dems would have preferred. That calls into question the conventional wisdom that Labour embraced AMS as a means of permanently blocking an SNP majority - it seems more likely that they discounted the possibility of being overtaken by any other party, and wanted a Welsh-style PR-lite system because they reckoned it would allow them to stay firmly in control. With a parliament of 113 members, it's quite possible that there would have been a single-party Labour government for the first eight years of devolution, rather than a Lib/Lab coalition. It's also certain that Labour would have remained the largest single party in the 2007 election, in spite of being beaten on the popular vote.
2) Kate says that the dramatic turnaround in the SNP's fortunes prior to the May 2011 election occurred around Christmas, or between November 2010 and March 2011. In fact, it happened much later than that. The SNP didn't even begin to make serious inroads until March 2011, and still seemed to be slightly behind by the end of that month. They probably took the lead in April, and then of course continued powering forward into landslide territory. The lateness of that surge is a cautionary tale for us now - it means we shouldn't be too complacent about the SNP's current enormous lead with six long months still to go.
3) Kate says that prior to 2010, nobody thought that an independence referendum would take place within their lifetimes. That's obviously wrong, not least because there was a period of a few weeks in mid-2008 when an independence referendum looked inevitable by 2010. Wendy Alexander had committed Labour to backing it (until her leadership was brought to an abrupt end). And even after Iain "the Snarl" Gray took over, there were plausible scenarios that still left us with genuine hope of a referendum - we thought that the Liberal Democrats might eventually tire of being in opposition and do a deal, or that the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald might just about cobble together a pro-independence majority between them.
4) Kate points to the fate of the PQ in post-1995 Quebec as proof that "you only get two shots" at an independence referendum (a familiar refrain that we've also heard from one or two commenters on this blog). In fact, the PQ have won two elections since the "Oui" campaign narrowly lost the 1995 referendum, and the first of those - in 1998 - was an outright majority win. In retrospect, that was the golden opportunity to hold a third referendum, and many in the sovereigntist movement now bitterly regret allowing the momentum that had been built up to dissipate. So the lessons from Quebec are far more ambiguous than some people would care to admit.
5) Kate also argues that the PQ's shock defeat in last year's provincial election came about because the very mention of the word "independence" now turns off voters. Well, that's the mythology that has sprung up about that election, but it's wrong. The real undoing of the PQ was lack of clarity - their leader Pauline Marois wanted to shut down talk of a referendum, but a leading maverick within the party decided to hype the prospect up for all it was worth, allowing the opposition to make hay about the uncertainty. Nobody can say for sure that the PQ would have won if they had got their story straight about a referendum, but it's certainly possible that they would have done. And the very fact that they went into the election as the incumbent government ought to tell you that it's not beyond the wit of man to find the right form of words.
6) Kate's third Quebec example is supposed to give heart to Scottish Labour. She claims that the PQ enjoyed an SNP-style surge in the immediate aftermath of their first referendum defeat in 1980, but that it later fizzled out. In fact, there wasn't really any surge of that type. The PQ did hold onto power in the 1981 election, which was a solid achievement in very difficult circumstances, but they won the popular vote by just 3%, and there was a net swing in favour of their main anti-independence opponents (the Liberals). So there's no meaningful comparison at all with the SNP's astonishing breakthrough in the UK general election this year.
7) Kate claims that public opinion in Scotland on EU membership "isn't really all that different" from English public opinion, and that there's only "a couple of points in it". With all due respect, that's complete and utter rubbish. The gulf is very substantial, as umpteen polls have confirmed.
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