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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 22:10 GMT 23:10 UK

No change but not dull

BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor examines the impact of the general election results.

It was the standstill election.

Only one seat changed hands in Scotland - and that by a tiny majority.

Labour maintained its position. It's as you were. Nothing has altered. A limp close to the most tedious election in living memory.

And yet, and yet.

Look more closely. Firstly, and most fundamentally, this was political history: a substantial Scottish contribution to a clear, second-term Labour majority.

Secondly, this result will precipitate a radical change in the nature of the Scottish Conservative party.

Thirdly, this result poses key strategic questions for the Scottish National Party.


" It may seem perverse in the face of such a majority but I am convinced this is a cautious mandate, bolstered by a divided Opposition. "
Brian Taylor

Fourthly, we have a pattern of sustained advance for the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, we have witnessed the clear emergence of a new political force, the Scottish Socialists.

Add to that the small matter of a crisis for representative democracy in the shape of the lowest turnout since the First World War.

Take back that tripe about tedium.

There is much here to mull over.

Basics first. Fifty six seats for Labour on a slightly reduced voting share.

Five for the SNP on a vote two points down from 1997.

Ten for the LibDems on an increased vote.

Psychologically crucial

And one - a psychologically crucial unit - for the hard-pressed Scottish Tories on a declining share.

The challenge ahead for Labour at Westminster is to deliver the radical transformation in public services which will be required to maintain popular support.

In many ways, this feels like a holding vote, a mid-term plebiscite, an electorate offering another chance rather than a ringing endorsement.

It may seem perverse in the face of such a majority but I am convinced this is a cautious mandate, bolstered by a divided Opposition.

What's more, I believe Tony Blair thinks the same.

In Scotland, the conundrum will be: does the Scottish Executive attempt to keep pace with such reforms as Tony Blair pursues or does Henry McLeish stick to his strategy of disavowing the enhanced use of the private sector in public service provision?

I'd bet the executive sticks to its line.

But if it does, the reduction in financial scope of the public sector in England will have consequences, via the Barnett Formula, for Scottish funding.

The formula would have to be tweaked.

It will probably have to be tweaked anyway.

That would mean a row. Or a fundamental needs review. Or, more probably, both.

Yes, I know it's dull. It's for the anoraks, the nerds.

That is, if you believe the future funding of Scottish schools and hospitals is a matter of little consequence.

Next, the Scottish Tories. The idea of a complete break from the London party is, and always was, twaddle.

Likewise the notion of a name change. (Although they might usefully consider calling themselves the Jacobites which would have the merits of being historically consistent and romantically attractive.)

Considerable earning power

However, the Tories will now change utterly in Scotland.

Gone will be the power of Central Office.

The chairman who replaces Raymond Robertson will be a figurehead: a return to the days when individuals of esteem, merit or at least considerable earning power convened the party.

The clout will lie with David McLetchie, the party's leader in the Scottish Parliament.

He will lead the party's efforts in all Scottish fields.

During this contest, he was too frequently obliged to sit on the sidelines like a non-playing captain.

That will not, cannot happen again.

For the Tories, this will be the ultimate acknowledgement of devolution.

Their Scottish boss will be the boss of their Scottish Parliamentary party.

The relationship with London will be quasi-federal: at once friendly and distant.

Next the SNP.

This was a disappointing result. The party had run a well-orchestrated campaign.

Their manifesto launch was easily the most confident of all the Scottish parties.

They talked eagerly of gaining votes and seats.

They lost voting share, lost Galloway to the Tories and very nearly lost Perth to the same rival.

There are local factors. Labour's David Stewart fought a very tough campaign to keep the SNP at bay in Inverness East.

Well-crafted response

In Galloway, the young SNP candidate found it difficult to match his Tory opponent's well-crafted response to the foot-and-mouth crisis and its impact on the rural economy.

Privately, though, party strategists say there was a post-devolution factor at play.

There was a lingering difficulty in motivating some supporters and activists for a Westminster contest when the party's focus is so firmly upon Holyrood.

The party thought they had countered that factor.

Frankly, I thought they had countered that factor.

It seems they had not, entirely.

That means two things.

Firstly, if there was any doubt, there is now none whatsoever: the SNP's strategic targets lie via Holyrood, not Westminster.

Secondly, John Swinney must remotivate his party for the very different battle that the next Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2003 will represent.

I do not believe that task is beyond him.

Indeed, I do not believe it will be particularly difficult.

The SNP can play upon a "horses for courses" pitch - and the voters, according to the polls, seem likely to respond.

That may, however, only mean that the SNP can advance their own party's cause in Holyrood elections - where they can argue they are the most attuned to Scottish concerns.

Devolved electoral context

It does not necessarily imply that relative success at Holyrood will lead to independence.

In other words, the SNP may thrive in a devolved electoral context by offering to "stand for Scotland" or by portraying themselves as "Scotland's party".

The same voters swayed by this, however, may stop short at endorsing devolution.

They may come to regard the SNP as the Scottish sectoral interests party.

I am only too well aware that this is reading far too much into a single election outcome.

Despite that, it is - trust me - the internal conundrum which is confronting the SNP leadership.

Unalloyed success

Then the Liberal Democrats. There is little, analytically, to say - for the reason that this was a night of almost unalloyed success for the party.

Failing to take South Aberdeen was a disappointment - but they held all their Scottish seats even although they were squeezed in the seats where they had new candidates.

In England, they made gains to add to their 1997 successes.

The party has plainly made gains.

Charles Kennedy has plainly gained ground as a significant political figure.

The LibDem presence in the coalition is underpinned.

As a caveat, however, the party knows that its advance isn't yet secure, that it hasn't yet supplanted either of the Big Two.

Then the Scottish Socialists. They didn't achieve their target of 100,000 votes but they are now indisputably players on the Scottish political scene.

Not big players - but players, with a distinct Left-wing appeal to disenchanted voters.

Finally, turnout.

This is nothing less than further evidence of a crisis in democracy, as people are evidently turned off by partisan politics.

The politicians cannot change the electorate - many of whom have unrealistic expectations or unreasonable cynicism.

They, therefore, have to change their tack, attempting to link their language and campaigning strategy more closely to popular concerns.

Did I say dull? Wash your mouth out, Brian.


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