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Scotland: A One Party State?

Is another comfortable win for the SNP bad for Scottish democracy?

Stephen Dewar

Naked Politics Blogger 

With a referendum on EU membership looming last Thursday’s elections were for many considered a sideshow, and perhaps understandably. The Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish devolved bodies all went before the electorate, along with London mayor and English councils.  None of these carry the simple binary excitement of an In-Out vote, but events in Scotland may yet shape the debate.

The pro-Scottish independence SNP have been in power in Edinburgh since 2007, holding an overall majority after the 2011 election. As predicted they have held onto government winning a third term, pushing the once mighty Labour party into third place. This is shocking for two reasons:

  • Labour haven’t done that badly in Scotland since pre-World War I
  • The proportional voting system used in Scotland is designed to make such dominance difficult

The strength of the SNP has been growing for a long time, boosted by their impressive campaign in the 2014 independence referendum and ironically solidified by its failure.  Labour’s pro-union stance in 2014 proved a pyrrhic victory from which the party has not recovered. With the main left opposition in disarray the SNP’s grip on power tightens.

The criticism now aimed at Scotland’s governing party is a strange one – the ‘one party state’. As an SNP activist and supporter, I listen to this phrase with as much pride as anger. A huge membership and large electoral support are democratic hallmarks of a job well done.  Nonetheless the large posters of the smiling leader take an ominous turn if political accountability fades.

The suggestion that long-term power, especially based on nationalism, is authoritarian is an irresistible assertion for sensationalist writers, but is it true?  Historical examples are easy, lazy and inapplicable (the SNP are not Stalinists!). Can we find examples in modern day democracies?

In Japan the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power for almost all of the last 61 years. The current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is a member of the Nippon Kaigi group, whose nationalist tendencies make the SNP look positively weak by comparison. Yet the party has not plunged the country into totalitarianism. Indeed they have not even gone as far as establishing a Japanese Army, although this may come. Their mandate comes from consistent popularity at the ballot box! Opposition remains, even unseating the LDP between ’09 and’12.

Holding power for extended periods through the strength of the ballot box is evident in many other current examples including South Africa’s ANC or even Russia’s United Russia.

Democratic electoral systems must ensure the will of the people is actioned. This does not need to be demonstrated by changing the governing party at every election. Nor does it mean that populism and nationalism must be stamped out in favour of apathetic, non-descript technocrats. A well supported governing party, a popular leader and an army of activists advocating sensible nationalism should be appreciated if not applauded.

The scaremongering of a one party SNP state rapidly pulling power to the centre is also strange in context of the EU debate. With Labour and the Conservatives divided, Westminster’s third largest party is unabashedly pro EU. They enthusiastically make a positive case to vote Remain in the upcoming referendum. David Cameron might even welcome the support if it wasn’t for the sting in the tail: a possible Leave vote may be the catalyst for a second Scottish Independence referendum.

Winning elections and welcoming Brussel’s continued influence is hardly the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. Finding a clever new way to seek independence democratically, despite losing in 2014 shows canniness and ideological integrity.

The SNP have now lost their overall majority but remain as Scotland’s government and given their huge popularity, quite rightly so. What happens in June’s referendum is still anyone’s guess.

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