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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 16:59 GMT

Devolution breeds a hybrid election

BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor sets the scene ahead of the first general election since devolution.

Consider this. The Conservatives could win every single seat in the House of Commons at the UK general election - and Labour's Susan Deacon would still be in charge of the health service in Scotland.

Or think of it this way. The Conservatives could win every single seat in the House of Commons at the general election - and Jim Wallace of the Liberal Democrats would still be Scotland's Justice Minister.

For the avoidance of doubt, the foregoing is not a forecast.

Today's Tories may be happier, better battlers for the Right in politics.

In Scotland, they may have been buoyed by the sense of release which only electoral wipe-out can bring.

I do not think, however, that they are likely to win every seat in the Commons.

But IF they did, then the levers of domestic governance in Scotland would still be beyond their grasp.

William Hague could strut his stuff in Europe. He could raise, lower or abolish income tax. He could lead the UK into armed conflict.

But he couldn't touch Scottish education, the Scottish health service or the Scottish criminal law.


" The Scottish Parliament and executive determine their own domestic priorities in keeping with the electoral mandate "
Brian Taylor

For the avoidance of further doubt, that is not to demean the Conservative Party or their leader.

It is a statement of fact - in so far as the fluid world of politics tolerates such rarities. It is a deliberately extreme illustration of a structural phenomenon which also applies to the present incumbent of Downing Street.

If you doubt me, consider care of the elderly. The coalition Scottish Executive has decided to fund free personal care for frail pensioners - and has embarked upon the search for the necessary resources from within its fixed budget.

The policy differs from the approach followed in England.

The Scottish policy may have left Downing Street discomfited. Frankly, several key ministers in Scotland harboured doubts.

But the separation of powers was clear. The Scottish Executive was entitled to make up its own collective mind.

More simply, there was a majority in the Scottish Parliament for free personal care. The Tories backed it, the SNP backed it. The Liberal Democrats, Labour's Scottish coalition partners, backed it. Labour could be outvoted. Basic arithmetic - and political necessity - won the day.

Such an outcome is not Scottish "independence", as some commentators appeared to think. It is devolution. It is, further, the whole point of devolution - not an accidental consequence.

The Scottish Parliament and executive determine their own domestic priorities in keeping with the electoral mandate granted to them by the Scottish people alone, rather than a potentially different mandate conferred by the UK.

Which, of course, has significance for the forthcoming contest.

My opening paragraphs deliberately overstate the potential impact of this phenomenon upon the UK general election.

Extreme position

But this IS the first post-devolution election and these are new considerations.

It may be sensible to float the extreme position before considering the moderating influences.

In stark terms, then, the domestic governance of Scotland is NOT at issue in this general election.

The Scottish Parliament continues in place. Its members are not dislodged by the electoral upheaval affecting their Westminster colleagues.

MSPs will not face election until 2003 once their fixed four-year term expires.

Similarly, the governing Scottish Executive stays in post, charged by Her Majesty with overseeing Scotland's law, health, education and the rest of the devolved panoply of power.

Those few who retained Westminster seats for an interim period after their election to Holyrood have had to pick a parliament.

Most have chosen to give up Westminster. One (Alex Salmond of the SNP) is seeking to return there.

But, again strictly, the Scottish Parliament is NOT affected by the UK general election.

The domestic governance of Scotland is NOT affected by the UK general election.

Still pushing things to the extreme, the election battleground in Scotland ought to be completely different.

Consider. For Scotland, health, education, justice, social affairs, the criminal law, business development, the environment, housing, transport, sport, the arts and many other issues are entirely or mainly governed by the Scottish Parliament and executive.

The Westminster Parliament has no mandate, no direct remit over these matters in Scotland.

Strictly, that should mean that the battleground in Scotland comprises those issues reserved to Westminster by the Scotland Act.


" Shouldn't they tour the doorsteps of Glasgow and Dundee with their policies on diplomacy and the armed forces? "
Brian Taylor

The battleground should be defence, foreign affairs, the macro-economy and social security.

Again, strictly, that is because Westminster MPs have no remit in devolved areas in Scotland.

So shouldn't they stick to their own patch: the areas reserved to Westminster?

Shouldn't they tour the doorsteps of Glasgow and Dundee with their policies on diplomacy and the armed forces, eschewing such mundane concerns as the health and schooling of their electorate?

It is at this point that one returns to earth.

Absolutely strictly, they should. Absolutely frankly, they won't.

The voters will want to talk about (devolved) hospitals and schools - as well as (reserved) pensions and income tax.

Parliament's performance

It will be a courageous politician who treats the concerns of his voters with lofty disdain, quoting Schedule Five of the Scotland Act in defence of his disinclination to answer their questions on devolved matters.

So the general election in Scotland will be a hybrid.

It will feature those issues like taxation - which the Westminster candidates can influence directly .

And it will feature those issues like health and the criminal law - which the Westminster candidates do NOT cover directly.

For Scotland, this hybrid contest will be, at one and the same time, an election to choose members of the Westminster Parliament and a plebiscite upon the performance to date of the SCOTTISH Parliament.

That may not be fair. It may not be neat. It may be irritating to those who seek precision in public affairs.

But it is how the voters will see things in Scotland - and they are all powerful.

When they cast their votes - IF they cast their votes - they will be motivated by a range of factors.

Some of these factors (like tax and pensions) will be directly under the governance of Westminster. Some (like health and education) will not.


" It may be deeply unfair but if voters feel aggrieved about an action of the Scottish Parliament or Executive, they are likely to vent their wrath on the first available target "
Brian Taylor

Local councils have for years had to get accustomed to their electoral fortunes being determined partly by the actions of others.

Local authority leaders can face an almost impossible task in winning votes and influencing people if the tide has turned against their party at a UK or Scottish level.

Westminster candidates in Scotland are about to face a version of the same phenomenon.

Again it may be deeply unfair but if voters feel aggrieved about an action of the SCOTTISH Parliament or Executive, they are likely to vent their wrath on the first available target.

And that means Westminster candidates - who had nothing to do with the original decision.

Apart from schadenfreude, that is why Westminster Labour MPs were so vocal when the Scottish Parliament opened with a bout of bad publicity.

They feared they would be caught in the backwash. (Equally, presumably, they would stand to gain if individual voters have been impressed by more recent governmental or Parliamentary decisions taken in Edinburgh.)

There is, of course, a caveat to all this.

Scottish opinion polls - and election outcomes - suggest that the people of Scotland discriminate between the various brands of partisan politics on offer to them.

They seem, for example, proportionally more inclined to vote for the SNP in Holyrood elections, presumably believing that the Scottish nationalists' natural milieu is the Scottish Parliament.

One cannot, therefore, extrapolate directly from electoral responses to devolution into a Westminster voting pattern.

The people of Scotland are easily smart enough - and politically astute enough - to pick horses for courses.

But there may be something of an overlap between the two races.

This hybrid election confronts the parties with a strategic choice.

Do they play by the strict rules - and campaign only on reserved matters?

Do they pretend nothing has changed - and campaign as before?

The answer, as you might expect, is a hybrid campaign for a hybrid election.


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