Since the end of the Second World War, history clearly debunks the myth that Scotland does not get the government it has voted for, writes David Torrance
‘If we stay in the UK there are certainties,” Blair Jenkins told STV’s Scotland Tonight last week, “we’ll continue to get governments we didn’t vote for.”
The Yes Scotland campaign chief had, perhaps unwittingly, articulated a variation on an old political theme, that of “no mandate” – the charge that frequently attached itself to the governments of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Although it undoubtedly resonated – with Labour politicians as well as Scottish Nationalists – it was always problematic, for Scotland was not then (or now) an independent country, while the elections in question were UK-wide ballots.
In all the general elections since the end of the Second World War, Scotland (taking it as a separate political unit for sake of argument) actually got the government it voted for more often than not, on 11 out of 18 occasions.
Between 1945 and 1966, for example, voting habits in Scotland and the rest of the UK were broadly similar. So when the UK backed a Labour government, so did Scotland, and likewise with the Conservatives. The 1951 election is the only anomaly, where Sir Winston Churchill was returned to power with an equal split of 35 Labour and 35 Tory MPs in Scotland.
Only in 1970 did the government’s mandate come under question, when Edward Heath became prime minister with only 19 MPs in Scotland (the decline of the Scottish Tory vote had begun in the late-1950s). But while Heath’s Scottish secretary, Gordon Campbell, often had to rebut the claim, it wasn’t taken too seriously, and was killed off when Labour resumed power in early 1974.
It was, therefore, the four elections between 1979 and 1992 that cemented the “no mandate” argument in the Scottish political consciousness. Ironically, it was actually Labour politicians rather than Nationalists who first made the charge, mainly left-wing, pro-devolution, Scottish Labour MPs like George Foulkes, although, by the late 1980s, the cry as often emanated from SNP lips.
It was, however, always a tricky argument for Labour to deploy, not least because it was essentially a nationalist one. For Labour was a unionist party and the logical extension of the “no mandate” argument was full independence for Scotland, rather than the devolved assembly (later parliament) proposed by Labour’s Donald Dewar.
But it gained resonance because Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives were, of course, relatively unpopular in Scotland, although not as weak as mythology now dictates. For most of her premiership, the Iron Lady actually had the support of around 20 Scottish MPs and around 30 per cent of the Scottish electorate.
Nevertheless, the political mood was against the Conservatives and thus “no mandate” became a convenient stick with which to beat an unpopular government. So while it made little sense to argue that Mrs Thatcher lacked a “mandate” in legal, political or constitutional terms, it did make sense to say she lacked electoral “consent”.
That, however, was not the same thing, and of course the situation had existed before (in the early 20th century) and also in reverse. For example, in 1964 England had voted Conservative but ended up with a Labour government (albeit with a slim majority) thanks to Scotland and Wales electing a large number of Labour MPs.
That outcome was simply accepted as within the rules of the game. As the academic Richard Rose observed: “The Tories did not issue demands for the creation of a devolved English assembly to meet in Winchester, on the grounds that Labour was unrepresentative of England. Losers as well as winners accepted that the power of government belonged to the party winning the most seats in Britain overall.”
That consensus broke down – to some degree – after 1979, and in a further irony, at the very point the “no mandate” issue was removed – with the election of a majority Labour government in 1997 – was also the point at which a Scottish Parliament was created in an attempt to draw a line under the mandate question once and for all.
Until 2011, Holyrood was, of course, a parliament of minorities, although that was widely accepted as a feature of the new – distinctly Scottish – rules of the game. So when, in 2007, the SNP formed a minority government without a majority of seats or the popular vote, no-one accused it of lacking a mandate, because it was nevertheless perceived to have public consent.
Meanwhile, at Westminster level, Scotland was again, between 1997 and 2010, governed by a Labour Party which enjoyed relatively high support in all parts of Great Britain (indeed, if the UK government lacked a mandate anywhere, it was arguably Northern Ireland). Only in 2010, with the emergence of a coalition government, did the “no mandate” argument resurface.
It took a while – for example the SNP MP Pete Wishart was often a lone voice – but eventually it became the contemporary argument that Scotland ought to get the “government it voted for”; in other words, not the coalition. But even today the UK government’s mandate, with a combined vote share of 35 per cent and 12 MPs (11 Lib Dems and one Tory) in Scotland at the last general election, is not as weak as many appear to believe.
Mandate, of course, can be quantified in terms of seats or share of the vote, of which the current UK government has a majority of neither, but then no party has achieved that double whammy in Scotland since Sir Anthony Eden’s Conservatives in 1955. Increasingly, however, some have questioned a UK prime minister’s “moral” authority to govern.
Even with three healthy parliamentary majorities and the overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs, Tony Blair – particularly after the Iraq War – found his moral authority under almost constant attack, not least from the SNP. Again this never quite stacked up, for Blair won the 2005 general election in Scotland and the UK, which of course was a pretty comprehensive test of his mandate to govern on every level.
This phenomenon is mirrored in the United States, both historically and in contemporary politics. Prior to the Civil War secessionists argued that Lincoln had no mandate to govern the Southern states, while over the past couple of decades, the losing side in any presidential race, be it Democrat or Republican, has increasingly questioned the mandate of the victorious candidate.
Under a federal system, of course, this makes little sense, for it fundamentally questions the established rules of the game. But in both the UK and the US, crude party politics has been conflated with constitutional legitimacy. In other words, shouting “no mandate” often reflects frustration at having lost an election rather than any great constitutional injustice.