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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 May 2007, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
No concrete clues to Holyrood's future
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

There is a fallacy, all too commonly deployed, by which we invest animals with human characteristics.

Flag at Holyrood
A first minister has to be appointed within 28 days of the election

Anthropomorphism, to give it its Sunday name.

One or two even extend this from fauna to flora, talking of friendly flowers (or even talking to friendly flowers).

Late, late on Friday night - after the results were finally all in - I felt moved to experiment with a new version of this fallacy.

I gazed at the Holyrood building, seeking a concrete clue (there's enough around) as to the future of Scottish politics.

Now, give me a break, here. I hadn't slept since Thursday morning.

I had just finished broadcasting to an astonished nation in a stint that had lasted 24 solid hours (My last gig was Newsnight).

Shivering at midnight

I felt entitled, if I wanted, to contemplate the concrete.

And what was the reply? Did Holyrood say: "I cost 400m and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it?"

Or perhaps: "Why are you standing there like a prat, shivering at midnight?"

Neither, sadly.

The building, for all its cost, remained sullenly mute.

I am exasperated beyond measure at the disgraceful operation of these elections.

To be mildly serious, perhaps we all require a moment's contemplation to work out what has happened.

Labour has lost. But has the SNP won - or, more accurately, won by enough to form a government?

What will the others do? Most precisely, what will the Liberal Democrats do?

Let us deal with some extraneous matters first. The conduct of the election.

I am seldom moved to anger - except when a Dundee United striker misses a sitter (OK, that's meant I've been in a permanent fury for most of the last five seasons).

'Utterly shameful'

I try to maintain an air of calm insouciance.

But I am exasperated beyond measure at the disgraceful operation of these elections.

As I recall saying at some point in the middle of the night, the authorities couldn't get out the postal votes properly, the ballot papers were so complicated that the voters couldn't cope - and when the votes were cast, they couldn't contrive to count the blasted things.

Skip the pleading in mitigation. This was utterly, utterly shameful.

And skip the "banana republic" gags at Holyrood's expense. Remember that, by statute, these parliamentary elections were run by the Scotland Office. That's right, the UK Government.

The election process was beset by problems

To be fair, though, they are not uniquely to blame.

Politicians of most major shades have attempted to bend the electoral system to their advantage, putting far too much pressure upon it.

Let's insist on holding the council elections on the same day. Let's redraft the ballot paper so that it shafts the minor parties (And don't try to deny it).

Let's use a multiplicity of voting systems to help us - and heaven help the voters.

Let's tweak the name of our party to claim that the regional vote picks the first minister.

Let's bicker over how the names are set out on the paper. Little wonder the system cracked and broke.

Counting machines

There is no excuse for the postal ballot failure. That's incompetence, pure and simple.

There's no excuse for the counting machines failing to work. Rely on technology - and expect to be let down.

This must never happen again.

Secondly, the impact on Westminster politics.

Stasis is pretty good news when, not all that long ago, it seemed that oblivion was their middle name

This will be substantial but should not predominate, at least in Scottish consideration.

Yes, Gordon Brown will face awkward questions - but he will win or lose the next UK General Election on his own record and manifesto, not the events of Thursday.

And, in passing, can we dump the phrase "Gordon Brown's backyard" when talking of these elections?

Holyrood is not Mr Brown's backyard - nor anyone else's. It is a democratically elected parliament.

To the main meal, then. What has changed?

For Labour, a lot. They have never truly dominated Scotland. Unlike in Wales, for example, they have never had a popular majority, more than 50% of the vote.

Humility of defeat

However, many have behaved as if Scotland was a subset of Labour, a large constituency branch.

Jack McConnell has avoided that trap. He knows that Scotland has had to be won, not ordered. Hence, his readiness to enter coalition.

But others have behaved rather differently. Collectively, they now have to learn the burdensome humility of defeat.

A rather different lesson is being absorbed by the Lib Dems.

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond is claiming a moral mandate

A governing party, they had seemed occasionally to think themselves immune to electoral vicissitudes. Well, they ken noo.

In terms of voting share, it wasn't that bad a night for them. But, psychologically, I believe their immediate instinct will be to retreat from exposure, to withdraw from coalition with either of the big parties.

They may recover from that mood - but that is where they are now.

For the Tories, much the same sort of night. Not bad, not great. Stasis, really.

But, by contrast with the Lib Dems, stasis is pretty good news when, not all that long ago, it seemed that oblivion was their middle name.

Range of issues

They didn't expect much. They didn't get much. They won a couple of seats, they resisted the squeeze. They're still in there.

Then the SNP. Never forget the scale of the challenge which confronted them.

Yes, they were given a real advantage by the relative unpopularity of Labour - and, in particular, Tony Blair.

It may be unfair, it may be unjust (see above) but people are motivated by a range of issues when they cast their vote in a particular election.

Alex Salmond may claim a moral mandate - but he doesn't have an arithmetical one, which matters more

(In passing, I recall eavesdropping a conversation between a Labour MP and an MSP. The MP was complaining, loudly, that he was taking the heat in a Westminster election for decisions made at Holyrood. Replied the MSP: "At least, we didn't declare a war during your election!")

Now the real challenge for Alex Salmond. Can he build and sustain a coalition when, to do so, may require further concessions on his objective of a referendum on independence?

He cannot drop that entirely - but could it be deferred, excised from any partnership agreement?

Remember that, if he seeks to govern as a minority, there is no chance whatsoever of a referendum bill passing Holyrood. It would be voted down.

Offstage ballast

Can he govern, genuinely, in what he perceives to be Scotland's interests, rather than those of his party? Either as a minority or in coalition?

For now, Jack McConnell is still in there, still floating the notion of a coalition with the Lib Dems - with the Tories as offstage ballast.

Possible? Yes. Likely? Think of it this way: the Lib Dems are fretting already - do they really want to reinstate Labour against the apparent wish of the electorate?

Against that, though, consider this.

Little clause

Alex Salmond may claim a moral mandate - but he doesn't have an arithmetical one, which matters more. In short, he doesn't have the votes.

The final imperative, however, may come from a little clause in the Scotland Act.

If the parties cannot sort themselves out and choose a first minister by the end of May, then we have to run the entire election again.

Mr Salmond may not have an unalloyed mandate but, perhaps, he is more entitled than any other candidate to be first minister.

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