The ‘democratic deficit’ is frequently cited as a reason to vote for Scottish independence. The argument goes that Scotland doesn’t get the government it votes for and Scotland’s impact on the results of Westminster elections is negligible. The current set up is undemocratic because Scotland’s voice isn’t loud enough to be heard in the cacophony of the UK.
Unionists dispute this. They argue that Scotland, as one part of the UK, is no more entitled to see its preferences reflected at Westminster than any other region. Kevin Hague argues that Greater Manchester doesn’t always get its preference either but nobody calls that undemocratic. Scotland, the Unionists claim, may not always get its way but that’s just how democracy crumbles, cookie-wise.
In a sense he’s correct. But this debate is about more than counting votes. It’s about how Britain’s electoral system functions, and about how you conceptualise Scotland as a nation.
The ‘effective number of parties’ is a formula used to work out how diverse a country’s party system is; how many parties are winning a significant number of votes and seats in parliament. It’s a way of counting the number of parties that matter because, as we know, most are just obscure names on the ballot paper. By this measurement, Britain ranks lower than almost all other western European countries. In terms of who people vote for, Britain’s effective number of parties hovers around 3 to 3.5. In terms of who gets elected, it’s around 2 to 2.5. The Netherlands, with their proportional system, scores around 6 for both measurements. Germany is around 5 for who people vote for, and around 4 for who gets into parliament. France tends to be around 6 for votes, but comparable to Britain in terms of who gets elected; this is due to the French run-off system that encourages smaller parties to form alliances with larger parties, which means that they still have more influence than small parties in Britain. Finland’s scores are much higher than Britain’s, as are Denmark’s, Belgium’s, Greece’s, Iceland’s, Italy’s, Sweden’s Switzerland’s Norway’s… You get the picture.
This is because Westminster’s First Past the Post system is ‘majoritarian’, meaning that it tends to- you guessed it- return majority governments. Majoritarian electoral systems reduce the effective number of parties because they tend to lead to one-party governments (we’ve got a coalition at the moment, but that’s a rarity) and therefore force voters to choose not which party most closely represents their views, but which of the realistic alternatives they wish to see get into office. Anyone who’s forlornly trudged to the local polling station to vote Greens or Socialists in a Westminster election will know the feeling. They say a monkey could stand for the Labour party in Glasgow and still get voted in. This is the effect of a majoritarian voting system: if you don’t vote for the monkey you’re helping the Tories get into office – not because the Tories will win the seat- but because if Labour doesn’t win the election over-all, the Tories will.
The Scottish electorate’s choices at the 2010 Westminster election, as compared to the 2011 Holyrood election bear this out. In 2010 Labour collected 42% of the vote, with the SNP managing just under 20%. In 2011, the SNP got around 45% of the constituency vote, while Labour managed around 32%. Part of this is explained by the utter collapse of the Lib Dems, but the Scottish public votes very differently in the two elections. Labour got more than twice as many votes as the SNP in 2010, despite the 2011 election- and the opinion polls since – showing that enthusiasm for Labour is not nearly as strong as Westminster elections suggest. In other words, the electoral system in Britain forces us into a choice between Tory and Labour even though most people in Scotland don’t feel like voting for either.
Labour knows that we’ve got no real choice, and knows that there’s no point in adopting policies that will appeal to the people of North Glasgow if those same policies will scare the people of Corby. This is because the people in Corby will switch to the Tories while those in North Glasgow won’t. There are 194 marginal seats (those in which a 5% swing would cause a change of hands) in the UK, but only 11 in Scotland, and only 4 of those are in the central belt, where 4/5 of the population is. Instead, ‘Middle England’ is where the action’s at. It’s more a demographic than a place (See: Nick Clegg’s ‘alarm clock Britain’, David Cameron’s ‘strivers’ and Ed Miliband’s ‘hard working families’), and there’s no clear definition of what it means, but it certainly isn’t Scotland:
“On the point of those who were not middle England there was more agreement: the ‘heartland’ working class (especially in Scotland, Wales and the North), ethnic minorities and the more progressive elements in the public sector middle class”
It’s no coincidence that the people in Scotland who are described as definitely not ‘middle England’ -the working class and progressive middle class- are also the ones calling for independence. The fact that Scotland may be about to leave the union could be seen as a reaction to the lack of satisfactory choices afforded by the current Westminster party system.
This is the real democratic deficit in Scotland. It’s not that we don’t always get the government we want, which could be said for many regions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; it’s that we’ve got to choose between two alternatives neither of which reflect our views. It’s not just that Scotland gets the governments England votes for, it’s that Scottish people have to choose between parties that tailor their message to appeal to the English middle class in marginal seats. Even when we do get the government we voted for, we’d like to have voted for somebody else. That’s why the RIC have produced a sticker with the faces of Milliband, Clegg and Cameron beneath the slogan ‘We can do better’. None of the options appeal to Scotland because they’re not intended to. Westminster parties don’t need to appeal to us.
“…electoral reform is not the answer to disengagement with politics”– Ed Miliband
Perhaps this is more an argument for electoral reform than independence, and Ed Miliband has said that he supports Proportional Representation, but I doubt we’ll see it any time soon while Labour and the Tories are both benefiting from FPTP.
But this quirk of Westminster politics is not, in my opinion, the reason why we should become independent. It’s possibly the reason why there’s such a push for independence at the moment but removing it wouldn’t invalidate the cause. Starting a fight and getting arrested one weekend may precipitate a new resolve to stop binge drinking, but not starting a fight the following weekend doesn’t make binge drinking good for you. Does that analogy work? Fuck you, read it again ‘til it does.
The Second part of the debate is ultimately about whether or not you believe Scotland is a country. Kevin Hague’s use of Greater Manchester as an analogue for Scotland doesn’t hold if you believe Scotland is a nation. If you believe that the Scottish people are ‘a people’ then it’s impossible to sustain the argument that they should not determine their own destiny. The No Campaign are always at pains to explain how patriotic they are. They need to make this explicit because a ‘No’ votes carries with it the implication that Scotland is merely a region of the UK. The idea that as a Scot you can be both patriotic and opposed to your own self-determination is a contradiction in terms.
Jim Murphy’s piece on Scotland 2014 on Wednesday night used the idea of a dual Scottish and British identity as a reason for rejecting independence. He attempted to paint this as an internationalist sentiment, arguing that immigrants who came up the Broomielaw were embraced and allowed to keep their own identities and it’d be wrong to force people who see themselves as British and Scottish to lose one part of theirs. I wonder what Jim’s Irish ancestors would’ve thought of that point. Jim appeared to be arguing that while it’s perfectly normal to split one’s national identity between two countries – you can be Scots-Pakistani, Scots-Irish, Scots-Italian, whatever – it would be impossible to be Scots-British should the two countries separate. Would Britain be the only country in the world that a Scottish person couldn’t feel an affinity for?
There is no answer to this and Jim knew that when he wrote his piece. People instinctively know the difference between being a country as part of an international governmental organisation and being a region or flachenlander as part of a country. Murphy tried to blur the distinction. Better Together’s ‘best of both worlds’ requires the simultaneous conceptualization of Scotland as a distinct nation and as a region in a different, bigger nation. The only way to sustain this belief is to not think about it too much which is why it’s so difficult for anyone to argue it with conviction. Sophistry on my part, perhaps. People can choose whichever national identity they like. No voters can be proud Scots while denying that Scotland should exit as a country, regardless of whether that strikes me as illogical or not. National identities are always a bit stupid anyway.
But there’s another problem for the No Campaign in this area: while we’ve got Murphy calling on us to vote no as Scottish patriots, we’ve got Adam Tomkins on Vote No Borders’ website effectively arguing that the Scottish identity doesn’t exist. He says that Scottish nationalism is no longer based on ‘ethnic nationalism’ (contradicting Alistair Darling’s earlier ‘blood and soil’ comments) but instead on civic identity and a (in his opinion illusory) desire for a more progressive society. He then uses highly selective stats and decontextualized political phenomenon to debunk this new Scottish identity.
“for all the Nationalist rhetoric to the contrary, the reality is that we are no different” -Adam Tomkins
Fair enough. But by its very nature, the nation as an ‘imagined community’ must have some way of differentiating itself from other nations. If there’s no difference between the Scottish and the British identity, why bother with the former? The No Campaign claim to be proud Scots while arguing that the Scottish people are, to all intents and purposes, indistinct from the rest of Britain. Which is it: are they proud Scots or do they think Scottishness itself is a misnomer?
I do think we’re different. Not ethnically or through some innate characteristic but through the way we look at the world. The No campaign can gleefully throw around selected attitudes surveys that show we’re just as intolerant and xenophobic and backwards as England, but all the surveys in the world won’t change the fact that Scotland won’t touch the Tories with a fucking barge pole (That’s another one by the way: ‘Scottish attitudes are no different to English attitudes’ followed by ‘Don’t leave or England will be stuck with Right Wing governments for eternity’). And none of it recognises the well-known phenomenon of politicians leading public opinion. If Nigel Farage is plastered all over Scottish televisions because UKIP are becoming a force in England, it’s no surprise that some people in Scotland end up voting UKIP. Bombarded with publicity shots of David Cameron (showing how tough he is) in the living room of a family who’ve just been detained as suspected ‘illegal immigrants’, it’s no surprise when stupider aspects of Scottish society drink the Kool-Aid. But the fact is that Westminster is promoting these attitudes in Scotland and not the other way round. Like him or not, Alec Salmond wouldn’t use Lynton Crosby as a campaign strategist in an independent Scotland because it wouldn’t work; we’d have a political climate that leads people away from, not towards, xenophobia and racism.
The No Campaign is fully aware of this. They know that they’re telling us to be proud Scots while denying that there’s anything about Scotland that makes it a distinct nation. They know that Westminster doesn’t represent us, but say we should hang about because it doesn’t represent the North of England either – as if that’s a reason! They’re simultaneously telling us that Scotland can be more progressive in the Union and that Scotland doesn’t want to be more progressive. They know they’re wrong.
Unless we vote No in which case, I suppose, they’d be right.