Election year has seen big change to face of politics

A hung parliament in Westminster failed to give Alex Salmond the power he anticipated, finds Ian Swanson

Twelve months has been a long time in politics. A year ago, the idea of a coalition government at Westminster was still an alien concept; Gordon Brown was making overtures to the Liberal Democrats; and First Minister Alex Salmond was predicting the SNP would win 20 seats at the general election and rowing with the BBC over why he was not going to be included in the televised leaders' debates.

The result of the election in May and the arrival of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have dramatically changed the face of politics both in the UK and Scotland.

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Mr Salmond's forecast of SNP gains fell flat. In fact, in one of the most closely-fought elections for years, Scotland produced a most curious result - absolutely no change on the previous general election. While Labour's vote collapsed in key parts of England, the party held on to every one of its seats north of the border, increasing its majority in many cases, and won back the two seats it had lost in intervening by-elections.

The leaders' debates, in which Mr Salmond failed to secure a place, appeared all-important at the time but in the end proved irrelevant. Nick Clegg was deemed to have triumphed in the TV confrontations, but his party ended up with fewer seats - though that did not stop him becoming Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Salmond had said he hoped for a hung or "balanced" parliament which would have to "dance to a Scottish jig".

He got the hung parliament, but it quickly became clear he would not be calling the tunes.

The post-election arithmetic meant Conservatives plus Lib Dems equalled an overall Commons majority while Labour plus Lib Dems did not. A Lab-Lib coalition would have been dependent on the SNP and other minority parties to be sure of getting legislation through. It was a prospect they chose not to pursue.

The Tories had claimed they could win 11 seats in Scotland and ended up with just one. But the surprise Conservative-Lib Dem alliance meant the new government could boast 12 Scottish MPs. And instead of having to defend his right to govern north of the border, David Cameron was able to point out when he visited the Scottish Parliament that the Tories and Liberals had together won a bigger percentage share of the vote in the general election than the SNPs at the Holyrood election in 2007.

There was much talk of the "respect" agenda which would enable two parties with a long history of hostility to co-exist as governments at Westminster and Holyrood.

To start with, it all seemed cordial. But rows over money were always going to spoil the relationship. Despite early signs that the new Westminster regime would release millions of pounds of Scottish money raised from the fossil fuel levy, but inaccessible because of Treasury rules, SNP hopes were dashed when the cash was offered with unacceptable strings attached.

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Mr Salmond, serving his fourth year as First Minister of a minority government, also faced problems at home.

The SNP's promised independence referendum, which had been earmarked to take place in November 2010, never happened. Mr Salmond decided not to present the necessary Bill to parliament, arguing it would simply allow the opposition parties to defeat it and claim they had killed the idea.

The SNP's flagship policy of minimum pricing for alcohol - which could have been landmark legislation on a par with the smoking ban - was thrown out by a united opposition.

And Finance Secretary, John Swinney, had to apologise to parliament for not sharing the information that the "tartan tax" powers were no longer available because he had failed to pay the Treasury the money they demanded to keep the database up to date.

Meanwhile, the UK government published its Bill to give the Scottish Parliament more powers, based on the recommendations of the cross-party Calman commission.

Calman was set up in the aftermath of the SNP's 2007 win, when Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems decided they had to offer the voters an alternative to the Nationalists' flagship of independence.

It might have seemed a good idea at the time, but none of the parties now seem that keen on the project.

The Lib Dems are probably the most eager - but they have always wanted to go much further and establish a fully federal United Kingdom. It was former Labour leader Wendy Alexander who was the driving force behind the Calman exercise, but many of her colleagues are much more lukewarm. One said: "This is pre-crash politics. People don't care about this. They are worried about more important things, like holding onto their jobs."

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And the Tories are divided - some keen to see maximum devolution, others still sceptical about having a Scottish parliament at all, never mind giving it more powers.

The lack of enthusiasm was confirmed at First Minister's Questions two days after the launch when none of the opposition leaders made a single reference to the Scotland Bill.

But the issue of new powers, the SNP's argument for independence and the outcome of the elections next May promise to help shape another eventful year in Scottish politics.