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Analysis: how SNP defied devolution's designers

The outcome of this historic election defied one of the intentions of the founders of devolution.

It showed that single-party majority government can happen under systems of proportional representation (PR).

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While such an outcome has been the case in other democratic countries (for example, Austria in the 1970s and South Africa today), those who designed what they called the "additional member system" believed that PR would prevent the Scottish National Party from ever winning an outright majority of seats, thus preventing an electoral mandate for independence.

Now that the SNP has won a majority of seats (on about 45% of the vote), the party can go ahead and legislate for a referendum on its long-cherished goal of an independent Scotland, though the party might wait until the opinion polls show more support for separation from the UK.

In the meantime, there will be some challenging consequences of this majority for the SNP. The party will have a more difficult time blaming its minority position for the failure to implement manifesto commitments.

Now it can be held more accountable for some very expensive promises, like a continuation of the council tax freeze, free prescriptions, and free university tuition.

In a time of significant cuts in the financing of Scotland, thanks to the Westminster government’s austerity programme, these will be difficult to maintain. Critics might ask why the SNP made such expensive promises in a difficult economic environment. It is likely that the SNP will simply try to blame the British funding cuts and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government at Westminster for these problems.

As an anti-political establishment party, the SNP managed in 2007 to defeat Labour, the establishment party of Scotland, and now (after becoming the establishment itself for four years while governing) appears to have convinced nearly half the voters that it is the best candidate to defend Scots from another establishment, Westminster. It will be very interesting to see if the SNP can pull this off, regardless of the result of its referendum on independence.

Governing with a majority could spell the end of the SNP’s co-operation with other parties, particularly the Conservatives. This change has consequences for the attempt by the founders of devolution to foster a "new politics" of greater consensus and less adversarialism.

Critics claimed that the "old politics" remained alive and well during most of the period since devolution, with the animosities between Labour and the SNP, Unionists and Nationalists, and even constituency and regional members of the parliament quite apparent.

There are also consequences for relations between the Scottish and the British governments which are exacerbated by the different parties in charge at each level of governance and the reduction in a need to co-operate at Holyrood that is a result of the SNP’s majority.

For Labour, once so dominant in Scotland, there is only an opposition role, since they are not in power at the Scottish or British levels of governance, and have even been shut out of the governing of many Scottish local authorities.

The Holyrood election also saw the defeat of many experienced Labour politicians who, because the party normally prohibits dual candidacy, were unable to enter the parliament via the party’s regional lists.

The 2011 election may lead to a significant shift in the direction of post-devolution Scottish politics. Critics of PR and the hopes for greater co-operation promoted by the architects of devolution might see majority government as a step towards greater accountability and maturity in Scottish politics, but there is also the possibility of trouble ahead. It will be a challenging, yet interesting, time.

  Dr Thomas Lundberg is a lecturer in the school of social and political sciences at Glasgow University


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