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The lady doth protest too much

There is minimal interest in Scotland in what goes on in the Scottish Parliament. How many MSPs can you name? In a Pointless style quiz my guess is that 99% or more Scots could name Nicola Sturgeon, one or two political anoraks could name the other party leaders and the rest would be pointless.

The same lack of knowledge applies to the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system. We all understand how General Elections work, because we all pay attention during these elections. We all understand how Westminster works. We know obscure words like “prorogue” and have opinions on bits of Erskine May and the role of the Speaker, but Holyrood is a near away country of which we know nothing.

Some people are getting just a touch over excited about next year’s Holyrood election. A few polls have shown support for Scottish independence bubbling a little higher, everyone including me begins to go into full campaign mode. But these are the most extraordinary times that any of us will live through. More importantly the full effect of Covid on the Scottish economy has not been felt yet. It’s a Phony War. The blitzkrieg on jobs and the Scottish economy comes later. Furlough makes us feel secure behind our Maginot Line like a holiday that has gone on since March. Under these circumstances polling is meaningless.

Of course, there is only one issue in Scottish politics. The SNP are a single-issue party and that is the only issue the rest of us care about too. I’m a Conservative, but if you offered me Labour Government in Britain for 100 years or Scottish independence, I would choose the former in a second.

But the conversation next year during the Scottish Parliament elections must not be exclusively about independence. In some way or another the SNP will put in their manifesto a demand for a second independence referendum. If that’s all everyone talks about during the campaign it will be easier later for them to claim that they have a mandate.

It is crucial however to point out that Scottish independence is not a devolved issue. It is a reserved issue. The SNP can no more have a mandate on a reserved issue like the constitution (i.e. independence) than they can have a mandate for annexing Berwick because it was stolen by the English.

What we should be talking about is devolved issues, such as education and healthcare. More unnecessary deaths have occurred in Scotland due to SNP mishandling of care home and long term more will occur because of the SNP’s unnecessary decision to go it alone on leaving lockdown. The SNP are only concerned about Scottish Covid deaths, but higher unnecessary cancer and heart disease deaths will in time far overtake these. The SNP will be to blame.

The more the focus is on holding the SNP to account on devolved issues the less it will be possible for them to claim the Holyrood election is proxy independence vote.

There are various moves being made by Scottish nationalists to maximise support for independence at the Scottish Parliament.

There are 73 seats in Holyrood elected by First Past the Post (FPTP) and 56 seats elected by a system of proportional representation. Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies and 8 regions. We each have two votes one for the constituency and one for the regional list based on each party’s share of the vote. But crucially the number of seats won by a party in the FPTP constituencies is taken into account when allocating the regional list seats.

If the SNP had 45% of the vote and won nearly all of the FPTP constituencies it would not win 45% of the regional list seats. It might in fact win no regional list seats. The reason for this is that the Additional Member system is designed to give Scotland the benefit of having FPTP constituencies and proportional representation. If a party has already won 45% or more of the constituency seats on a 45% share of the vote it cannot expect to gain much from the regional list. Instead if, for example, the Conservatives won 25% of the vote, but no FPTP constituencies, the Conservatives would gain list seats so that their representation in Parliament reasonably closely matched their share of the vote.

This electoral system was designed so that no one party would win an overall majority but would have to work with other parties in coalition. It was for this reason that the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have a second chamber to act as a check and balance on the first. Coalition Government makes this unnecessary.

The problem for the Scottish nationalists is that they need an overall majority of independence supporting MSPs in order to press their claim for a second referendum, but the electoral system makes the second regional vote almost completely wasted if the SNP win most of the 73 constituency seats.

It is for this reason that certain independence supporters are planning to game the system.

They plan to create a second independence party. Let’s call it SNP2. This party would only stand in the regions not in the constituencies.

Let’s say that SNP1 won 45% of the constituency vote. This would give them most of the 73 constituencies.   SNP1 would win few if any regional list seats. But if SNP2 won 45% of the Regional Vote it could expect to win around 45% of the list seats because it would have won none of the constituencies.

The result would be that SNP1 would win the constituency vote and SNP2 would win the regional vote. This would give independence supporting MPs perhaps 75% of the seats on a 45% vote.

Independence supporters can call their regional party anything they please, but it would in truth be SNP2. It would not differ in any significant respect from SNP1. It would formally or informally vote according to the instructions of Nicola Sturgeon. It could turn Scotland into a one-party state on a minority share of the vote. Someone else, of course, did this in the year before the SNP were founded.

There has been some discussion as to whether the SNP are behind this scheme. Sturgeon publicly opposes it. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

There is some doubt as to whether it would work. It might confuse voters, or voters may resent being gamed.

But let’s be clear. This is an undemocratic attempt to abuse the Scottish electoral system by creating a new party that is not really any different from an old party.

What Scottish independence supporters don’t realise is that this sort of electoral abuse would make it less likely that the British Government would give them a second independence referendum. It would be easy for the Conservative Government to dismiss any demands from a Scottish Government elected in an obviously unfair manner.

This would leave independence supporters with the same dilemma they face now. Do we go down the illegal route, which if the British Government stands firm leads to diplomatic isolation and jail or do, we go down the legal route? But the legal route depends on legitimacy and this legitimacy would have been squandered by an attempt to fix the result of an election.

So, bring it on dear Scottish nationalists. Even if you win all the seats in the Scottish Parliament with SNP1, SNP2, SNP3 etc. it will not merely fail to bring you one step nearer to your goal, it will make it recede still further into the distance.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2020/07/the-lady-doth-protest-too-much.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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One comment

  1. Charles Ironside

    Thanks Effie for all you do on your blog really enjoy reading your posts . You have just answered what has been on my mind ever since SNP2 became a topic.

    I would have thought our electoral system would fix this problem (SNP2) at the bud and not have to argue the case after all the votes are counted. It makes no sense to me.

    What government body would have to agree to allow an SNP2 party and what scrutiny would they put SNP2 under?

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