The second elections in Scotland and Wales: issues and verdicts

Stanley Henig

By Professor Stanley Henig

The elections for a second Scottish Parliament and a second Welsh Assembly on 1 May 2003 were each contested by four principal parties: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and SNP/Plaid Cymru. Other participants were the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Campaigns and results alike will certainly be subject to considerable analysis by politicians, journalists and political scientists. This short paper concentrates on two specific features of particular interest to federalists. The first draws largely on the manifestos or programmes of the political parties to look at the extent to which constitutional issues concerning the future structure of the United Kingdom were an issue. Is devolution now an accepted part of British governance? Are there pressures in either Scotland or Wales for further devolution even as far as independence?

An immediate pointer to answering the first of these two questions emerges from the ten principal manifestos presented to the electorate in the two countries. However much dissatisfaction may have been expressed from time to time with the respective performances of the Scottish and Welsh devolved institutions, there was no suggestion in any quarter that the clock should simply be turned back. The concept of devolution has clearly become an accepted part of the political culture in both countries. Put in slightly crude terms there is an unspoken declaration in both Scotland and Wales – “whatever the faults it is OUR parliament/assembly”.

Of the ten major parties, only the SNP fought the elections on a manifesto for major constitutional change. By way of contrast, Labour and the Greens in both countries and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland can be classified as ‘status quo’ parties – seemingly broadly content with current institutional arrangements. Certainly their focus for change does not significantly bear on structural issues. Somewhere in the middle of this particular spectrum, albeit coming from very different positions, are Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in both Scotland and Wales. All posit the need for some institutional change, but only as one of a number of manifesto commitments.

Unlike the SNP, Plaid Cymru was not campaigning for independence. Its formal goal at this stage is for Wales to play a full part in Europe. On the other hand there was no hint in the manifestos produced by the Conservatives in either Scotland or Wales that the party had ever been a staunch opponent of devolution. Indeed, in seeking to make the new institutions more effective and accountable, the Conservative party almost joins the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru in acceptance of the concept of “devolution as a process rather than an event”. Meanwhile, the process favoured by the SNP seems hardly to be gradual, given its commitment to a referendum on full independence during the lifetime of the second parliament. The reaction of Westminster is simply ignored as a potential factor and the implication is that an independent Scotland could be created by the end of the first decade of the twenty first century. The major contrast is with Labour in both countries. Modernizing British institutions could be presented as a kind of institutional ‘revolution’, but Labour can now revert to its more normal constitutional conservatism: the ‘process’ has happened.

Against this general background, the plethora of issues raised by the Welsh parties precluded any notion that the result could be seen as a clear indication of views on institutional issues. The situation was clearly different in Scotland with the SNP commitment to full independence. It is always the case that voters are influenced by a variety of factors. However, some of the post-election analysis of the results in Scotland will focus on the margin separating pro-independence parties (SNP and in this context SSP) from all the other parties. Indeed if the SNP had faired better, it would certainly have claimed that the election demonstrated support for an independent Scotland.

In fact the SNP manifesto actually gave very little space to institutional issues. Given the goal of independence, there was no great concern to make current arrangements work better. The real thrust of the SNP programme was what could be achieved by an independent Scotland. The catalyst for change would be the referendum on independence during the four years of the second parliament. The manifesto contained no discussion as to the implications of a ‘no’ vote any more than it did to the potential reaction of the United Kingdom government to a ‘yes’ vote.

Towards the end of its manifesto, SNP attention focused on Europe – “a partnership of independent states”. Scotland is to be “independent in Europe”. It may be worth noting at this point that the other much smaller pro-independence party, the SSP is seeking an “independent Scottish Socialist Republic” which will be able “to stand up to the power of Brussels”. The European dimension emerges quite differently in the manifestos of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Both demonstrate, albeit in different ways, the impact of European influences. Central to Labour’s commitment to “building a confident, democratic Scotland” is the concept of subsidiarity. To be most effective, decisions should be taken at the appropriate level – European, UK, Scottish, local authority and beyond. In contrast the Liberal Democrats, whilst eschewing any rapid changes in the powers of the devolved institutions, declared their objective “to move to a proper federal system for the UK – of the type that is normal in Europe – in which the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and other institutions have a secure and constitutionally guaranteed status”.

Given the striking contrast between the European policies of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, it is interesting to note that the latter – apart from arguing for a ‘leaner, meaner (and cheaper!) machine’ in the governance of Scotland – want to establish a “proper statutory basis” so as to ensure a lasting settlement between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. This may not be quite the same as a “constitutionally guaranteed status” but it demonstrates a considerable intellectual voyage away from previous outright opposition to the very concept of devolution.

Finally, the Greens had virtually nothing to say on institutional issues either in Scotland or Wales. The elections were in effect new opportunities for promulgation of green ideas; unlikely to win any constituency seats, much of the focus was on gaining ‘second’ votes for those members to be elected by proportional representation. This tactic, also adopted by the Scottish Socialist Party, was to have a significant effect on the Scottish Parliament elections.

As with Scotland, future institutional relations with the rest of the United Kingdom had the potential to play some part in determining the outcome of the elections for the Welsh assembly. However, the issues as expressed by the parties – mostly to do with the powers of the Welsh Assembly and the claim for some kind of parity with Scottish devolution – clearly did not have the salience of the ‘independence’ issue promoted by the SNP.

Both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats argued unequivocally for a Welsh Assembly with primary legislative powers on the Scottish model with the ability to levy taxes. Plaid Cymru are committed to strengthening Welsh status and influence in the EU; the Liberal Democrats would abolish the position of Secretary of State for Wales establishing a new post of Secretary of State for the nations and regions. Interestingly the references to subsidiarity in the Plaid Cymru manifesto were very similar to those of Scottish Labour but barely echoed by the Welsh Labour Party. The entire thrust of its manifesto is concerned with policies: Welsh Labour had virtually nothing to say on institutional issues beyond a commitment to working together with the UK government and the claim that this commitment was not shared by either the nationalists or the Tories!

The Welsh Conservatives, like their Scottish counterparts, have moved smartly to cover their previous opposition to devolution. In contrast to Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives accepted that the Assembly should have only secondary legislative powers. However, the manifesto pointed to a need to strengthen its role by improving liaison with Westminster at the pre-legislative stage and separating the Assembly’s legislative and executive functions. The Assembly government should become the Welsh executive; the Assembly should have strengthened powers of scrutiny over both the executive and the Secretary of State.

Before leaving the manifestos, it is important to recognize that in all cases most space was devoted to ‘bread and butter’ issues. To suggest that the major concerns were focused on institutional issues would be seriously misleading. Even the SNP – alone of the major parties in challenging the basic structure of the new institutions – devoted most of its manifesto to policy issues. In retrospect this clearly helped the SNP to argue post-1 May that its electoral setback did not mean Scotland was turning against independence. After all, the election could never have determined that issue: it would depend on a referendum! For very different reasons both Labour and the Greens eschewed any real discussion of constitutional or institutional issues in their manifestos. This is in contrast to the manifesto documents of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The first two offered relatively coherent philosophies, whilst the Conservative approach is much more episodic. If the party in both Scotland and Wales is indeed on an intellectual voyage away from its anti-devolution position, it may well not yet have reached journey’s end. By way of contrast, Labour, having implemented devolution, seems to have largely exhausted its intellectual ideas on governance.

When I first drafted this paper in late April, my initial feeling was that it seemed unlikely that the outcome either in Scotland and Wales would be determined solely or even chiefly by competing views on constitutional or institutional issues. My initial feeling post the elections is that this is correct, but with the benefits of hindsight, some finesse is possible. Whether or not such issues were important in determining the outcome, attention has to be focused on the sharp losses in seats by both SNP and Plaid Cymru.

President de Gaulle famously described the Assembly of the Fourth Republic as representing France in a cracked mirror. The quip both draws attention to, and in a sense conceals, an important concept in political science. No form of representative democracy produces a government or parliament which exactly reflects or mirrors the views of citizens or voters. That the traditional British electoral system of first past the post distorts those views (in this particular case to the benefit of the largest political parties) has long been obvious. What many would-be reformers have failed to grasp is that the same is likely to be true for any electoral system: it is only the nature of the distortion which changes.

The electoral system introduced for Scottish and Welsh elections is similar to that used in Germany. Parliament or assembly members are elected in two classes, by constituency and by a regional top up designed to give greater proportionality to the result. As a result the smaller parties are virtually certain to secure much better representation in terms of seats (although the system still favours the larger parties) – ‘fairness’ for reformers, the ‘cracked mirror’ for Gaullists! However, there is a further complication. Electors cast a vote in each category and it need not be for the same party. Some commentators have suggested that the choice for the constituency is a ‘vote from the head’, whilst the choice for the list is a ‘vote from the heart’. Certainly the argument against ‘wasted votes’, frequently heard at Westminster elections, lacks the same resonance under such a system. In the 2003 Scottish elections the smaller parties (Greens, Scottish Socialist Party and others) all laid particular stress on the importance of the second ballot and between them won no less than 23% of it compared to less than 10% of the first ballot. The comparable figures in 1999 had been around 11% for the second ballot and barely 3% for the first. The net result is that of the 129 members of the second Scottish Parliament, 17 come from outside the four major parties (in 1999 only 3MSPs were from the minor parties). The big losers in 2003 are the Scottish Labour Party and the SNP. It is a context in which the rather ungainly headline question raised by Scotland on Sunday “Will Independents’ Day bring fringe benefits or chaos to Holyrood” is understandable if not readily answerable. A tentative, pithy and rather ambiguous assessment of the Scottish elections might be that the results demonstrate some dissatisfaction with the status quo/establishment but that the major party offering the most radical solution lost the most ground.

There is very little symmetry with the result in Wales where the arithmetic and the analysis are much easier. The four main parties took around 95% of the constituency vote; 88% of the second vote and 59 of the 60 seats. Plaid Cymru lost four seats; Labour gained three and with it the ability to form an administration without the need for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; a lone independent won the constituency seat in Wrexham. In contrast to Scotland this could be summarized as a vote for the ‘status quo’/establishment despite dissatisfaction with the actual powers and status of the assembly.

A significant feature of the election results was the low turn out in both countries. In Scotland it amounted to 49%, around 10% less than either the 1999 Scottish elections or the vote in Scotland at the 2001 general election. The figures for Wales are even lower but the trend is still broadly similar. Turnout at the 2003 elections was 38%, 8% less than in 1999 and over 20% down on 2001. It may be worth noting that the turn out at the 1997 referendum as well as in the 1999 and 2003 elections was something like 10% less in Wales than in Scotland. It is also the case that the result of the 1997 referendum in Wales was far less clear-cut than that for the referendum in Scotland. Nonetheless, the Electoral Commission is sufficiently concerned about the Welsh figure in 2003 to suggest it may hold an enquiry.

There are many possible explanations for the low turn out in the Scottish and Welsh elections. Commentators have remarked on ever increasing apathy in all elections in Britain. This could in part be a reflection of a culture which barely recognizes the concept of citizenship and in which politics is trivialized by the media and not considered a subject worthy of being taught in schools. The Labour government’s constitutional modernization package, including devolution, had as one of its aims to reconnect people with the political system – in part through bringing government closer. The low turn-outs suggest that in this respect the policy has only enjoyed limited success. There is no evidence in either Scotland or Wales of a significant body of opinion wanting to turn the clock back: devolution is here to stay. In Scotland there is clearly much greater interest in the activities of the Scottish Parliament than there is in Westminster. In Wales there is a general, often unspoken feeling that the new institutions ought to develop in the direction of the more devolved Scottish model. In neither country is there apparently any widespread dissatisfaction with the new political system. On the other hand it would also appear that there is insufficient commitment to that system to prevent the continued erosion in electoral turnout which has for so long been evident. There are other planks to the strategy of reconnecting people with political institutions – not least the concept of stakeholder involvement. However, following the elections one can only conclude that the jury is still out!

This article was written by Professor Stanley Henig, a former Labour MP and currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust, coordinating a project concerned with regional aspects of devolution in the United Kingdom. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First edition, May 2003.

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