Party pieces: British politics will pay a price for the failure to honour Scottish referendum pledges

Post-referendum Scottish politics presages the chaos that could follow the general election

Friday 31 October 2014 22:59 GMT

The Westminster parties, and British politics in general, will pay a terrible price for what seems set to be a historic failure to honour the promises given to the Scottish people just before the referendum vote a mere few weeks ago.

Scottish voters have already made their views plain, in a referendum with an 85 per cent turnout; now the polls show they have lost patience with Labour’s failure to do its bit to deliver on the pledges Gordon Brown made.

Much of the blame for the prospective loss of 35 Scottish seats at Westminster is being pinned on Ed Miliband, an increasingly hapless figure, and justifiably so. Whether he has treated the Scottish Labour Party as a branch office of Westminster, he is one of a number of Labour leaders, including some well-known Scottish ones, to have taken Labour’s heartland north of the border for granted. After Donald Dewar, the first First Minister after devolution, no Labour (or Liberal Democrat or Tory) personality of any weight saw fit to abandon a Westminster career for their homeland, a clear enough message.

Most damagingly, Mr Miliband has failed to engage with the “English Question”. True, it was David Cameron’s blunder to link further Scottish devolution with its English complications, but Labour should have made its point and then got on with it. Instead, it has boycotted William Hague’s efforts to find a solution, all too obviously because of naked fear of losing “its” Scottish seats. Well, as Gordon Brown might put it, those seats do not belong to Labour but to the Scottish people, and they can take them away if they think Labour is betraying them.

That, though, is not the end of the agony. If, as seems increasingly likely, what used to be patronisingly termed the “minor parties” make the big gains next year many are predicting, the work of governing Britain will become near impossible. A solid bloc of SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green MPs will constitute a sort of red‑green veto on any legislation proposed by a minority Conservative or Labour government, or either of those in coalition with what remains of the Liberal Democrats.

Some of the SNP-Plaid-Green bloc’s demands will be progressive and welcome: the living wage; a more humane attitude to migration; and a firmer push towards environmentally sustainable economics. Other policies, especially where the red-green parties themselves are split, such as the EU, are more dangerous to the national interest. Indeed, the Greens might find common ground with Ukip over Europe, if nothing else. Factoring into the equation a bloc of perhaps a dozen or so Ukip MPs led by Nigel Farage, plus the usual quota from Northern Ireland, and we will see in May 2015 a Parliament not so much hung as strangulated, and completely unable to function effectively and support a government. A second election would soon follow – but with no great hope of the situation being resolved.

Ironically, perhaps, the lesson of all that is the one that all the smaller parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens, Ukip and Scottish and Welsh nationalists too – have been pressing for years: proportional representation would be a much saner and more rational approach to electing a House of Commons. First past the post, in other words, will fail, even more dramatically than in 2010, to deliver stable majority government of the kind it managed for many decades before, but will still randomly over and under-represent parties in different parts of the country, such as Scottish Conservatives, whose votes count for almost nothing.

If the people want a fairer, multi-party democracy they should be given it, and with an electoral system that works. It will not just be devolution that is the big political story next year.

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