Comment: First-past-the-post has run its course

The current electoral system gave Tony Blair a 66-seat majority in 2005 with only 35 per cent of the vote. Picture: Getty
The current electoral system gave Tony Blair a 66-seat majority in 2005 with only 35 per cent of the vote. Picture: Getty
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The voting system so strongly defended by Labour and the Tories has turned against them in Scotland, writes Joyce McMillan

AFTER all the sound and fury of the general election campaign, polling day arrived; and with it a moment’s peace, or at least a breathless pause before the post-election horse-trading and grandstanding begin in earnest. It was a moment when we could – just briefly – raise our eyes from the day-to-day stuff of politics, to take a longer view; indeed in this election, the longer view is so much more interesting than the nitty-gritty of the debate that the mismatch is beginning to attract comment, not least from non-British observers.

“Why is the debate across most of the UK so dull,” they ask, “when the stakes are so high?” And the answer surely lies partly in the strange two-speed politics the UK has developed over the past 18 months, since the Scottish referendum campaign offered voters north of the Border an exceptionally clear glimpse of a different possible future from the one proposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and triggered a passionate increase in voter registration, turnout, and engagement that has not been mirrored elsewhere in the UK.

Yet, however unclear the likely outcome of the Labour-Tory battle for Downing Street, what seems certain is that this election will transform the make-up of the House of Commons in ways that make further radical constitutional reform inevitable. Essentially, what has happened is that the traditional Westminster voting system so stoutly defended by Labour and the Conservatives has abruptly turned against them in Scotland, threatening to deliver a clear majority of Scottish seats to a party – the SNP – that probably still commands less than half of the vote.

There is, of course, a profound irony in the failure of the two main parties to notice the grotesquely unbalanced results produced by first-past-the-post, until it began to work against them; Tony Blair, we should recall, won a commanding overall Commons majority in 2005 with a bare 35 per cent of the vote. There’s little doubt, though, that the likely over-representation of the SNP – and the equally marked under-representation of Ukip – will provoke a level of debate about the future of first-past-the-post previously unseen at Westminster; and could lead to a historic reshaping of British politics away from a system of two-party adversarialism that has lasted for more than 300 years.

Even more important than any debate on electoral reform, though, is the likely impact of the presence of a large, energised group of SNP MPs on the whole territorial politics of these islands. It’s not only that their presence is likely to provoke further debate about the limits of Scottish devolution, and about the increasingly obvious instabilities and inadequacies of the recent Smith Commission proposals. It’s that their presence is likely to provoke real existential anxiety among Northern Irish Unionists, who see the SNP as a profound threat to their British identity; it will also cause growing unrest among English MPs, both those of an English nationalist stripe, and those who speak for regions, from the north-east to Cornwall, that feel themselves poorly represented under the present system.

Even in Ireland, free for more than 90 years from any direct involvement in Westminster politics, the SNP presence may arouse long-buried memories of the last time a group of nationalists bent on secession took their seats in the Commons, and tried to form a “progressive alliance” with the centre-left party of the time.

And at the very least, those pressures are likely to unleash in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties the full range of debate on constitutional reform hinted at in some of their recent statements – from the setting up of a UK constitutional convention, to renewed debate about federalism and even confederalism, as the best way forward for the peoples of these islands. And of course, pessimists would say that all this can only end in conflict, ill-feeling, and the kind of low-level economic warfare that benefits no-one; we certainly had a taste of that possibility during the referendum campaign, with loose talk of the kinds of “border posts” between Scotland and England that have never existed between Britain and Ireland, even at the height of the Troubles. And it is possible to argue that the emergence of a stronger territorial politics in the UK represents a falling-off from the great days when we were able to build and maintain island-wide political movements, across all our cultural divides.

It’s also possible, though, to see the political shift taking place in this island now – and summed up in that historic opposition leaders’ debate a few weeks ago – as a long-overdue rebalancing of a heavily over-centralised state with a huge cultural arrogance at its centre, and a growing indifference to the very different economic needs and priorities of the UK’s other nations and regions, particularly its former industrial heartlands.

And in this long view of British politics, there are two final paradoxes worth considering.

The first is that for all its aspirations to Scottish independence, the 21st century SNP is nonetheless a very British party, with a far warmer and more eloquent line of argument about the ties that bind the British and Irish family of nations, and the unbreakable “social union” between them, than the ill-tempered No campaign was able to muster during last year’s referendum debate.

And the second paradox is that in the long-term outcome of the coming constitutional upheaval, one of the questions that may finally matter least is whether Scotland actually becomes independent or not. In or out of the Union, what will matter most will be good governance in all parts of the islands, democratic institutions that constantly evolve to meet new challenges, and mature, well-negotiated good relations among all our elected governments, at every level.

And if, at this moment, the SNP is the most decisive force driving us towards that kind of positive change, we should also recall – as we mourn or celebrate today’s result – that it may not always be so; and that while we can bet on the likely end of the journey, only those with a very long view indeed can even begin to predict it, with any hope of success.

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