THE NEW BRITAIN: Voters of all hues make up for 20 years of deficient democracy


"NEW SCOTLAND starts with a fiasco," declared Edinburgh's Evening News as the Holyrood Parliament began to take shape.

Yet the headline writers were not lambasting the politicians. Scotland's fiasco was relatively minor: a walk-out by vote-tellers which left Edinburgh slower than Orkney in declaring its results. In fact, the transition to home rule has been remarkably smooth.

The result roughly fits the desires of Scotland. In opinion polls just before this week's election, fewer than 40 per cent of Scots said they wanted independence. But neither did they want the Parliament to be a one-party state, a Labour-dominated "big toon council" writ large.

Most Scots - 55 per cent according to an ICM poll for the Scotsman - wanted a Labour coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, two-thirds of Labour voters preferred such a coalition to soldiering on with a minority government tacitly supported by the Tories.

The new system has resolved the democratic deficit under nearly two decades of Tory government, which Scotland consistently rejected in ever clearer terms. Diversity has also been acknowledged with the election of three independents - two left-wing candidates, Tommy Sheridan and Dennis Canavan, and Green politician Robin Harper.

It has also ended a profound if unnoticed injustice - the disenfranchisement of Tory voters in Scotland. Despite reports to the contrary, there are still plenty of Tory supporters. In the last general election, the party secured 17 per cent of the vote, but no Westminster seats, whereas the Liberal Democrats, on 13 per cent of the vote, won 10 seats. This time, the Tories won 18 seats, more than the Liberal Democrats, despite gaining a lower vote than in 1997.

It is expected that the 129 MSPs will elect Donald Dewar as their First Minister, probably on Thursday, via the new electronic voting system. Polls show that Mr Dewar would be the first choice of more than half of the electorate - only a quarter want Alex Salmond, the SNP leader.

The MSPs will be seated in their party groups when they are sworn in on Wednesday at the Parliament's temporary home, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In recognition of Scotland's ethnic diversity, they will be able to swear allegiance to the Queen in Scottish Gaelic, Cantonese, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati or Hindi. The MSPs' time will be spent on procedural issues until the state opening on 1 July, when the Parliament will be invested formally with legislative and tax-raising powers.

The horseshoe shape of the Parliament is meant to signal a move away from Westminster-style antagonistic exchanges. Those who have watched this first election campaign suspect that may be wishful thinking.

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