Scunnered of Scotland, by Iain Macwhirter

20 May 10
The Con-Lib coalition has come as a shock north of the border and could lead to the disintegration of the Scottish LibDems

The Con-Lib coalition has come as a shock north of the border and could lead to the disintegration of the Scottish LibDems

There’s a useful Scots word for describing the state of Scottish politics this week: ‘scunnered’. It means something like stunned, demoralised, bewildered. Everyone here – nationalist, Labour, Liberal Democrat, even Conservative – has in their own way been scunnered by the Con-Lib coalition deal.

Charles Kennedy, the respected Scottish figurehead of Left liberalism, was so scunnered by the prospect of joining a government led by David Cameron and George Osborne that he couldn’t bring himself to endorse it. His dissent might be the only thing that prevents the Scottish LibDems from being obliterated in the Holyrood elections next year.

In Scotland, unlike in England, the LibDems are not just a fringe party remote from power. They were in government here, with Labour, for eight years – part of the landscape of the Scottish Left; the conscience of the Lib-Lab coalitions that ran Holyrood until the Scottish National Party won its narrow victory in 2007.

The LibDems were largely responsible for radical policies such as free personal care for elderly people, the abolition of university tuition fees, rejection of nuclear power, electoral reform for local government and opposition to the Iraq war.

The sight of Nick and Dave in the Downing Street rose garden provoked howls of anguish from the many former Labour voters who voted for Nick Clegg because they thought the LibDems were considerably to the Left of Labour.

The expected disintegration of the Scottish LibDems, as voters move back to Labour, will have a number of consequences, not least for the future of the Clegg-Cameron coalition in Westminster. The Scots carry a lot of clout in the UK LibDem party, not least because they have had experience of government. If the Scottish LibDems revolt, it could be curtains for the coalition.

Scotland’s enduring hostility to the Conservative Party might be hard to understand. After all, Margaret Thatcher and her hated poll tax left the scene 20 years ago.

Sociologically, Scotland is pretty much like England these days: largely middle-class, home-owning, car-driving, office-working and suburban. Yet the Conservatives have only one seat in the whole of Scotland. They are still regarded as the ‘English Party’ – almost like the political representatives of a foreign power.

That’s why new PM David Cameron made his early visit to Scotland, to be seen chatting amiably to a grinning First Minister Alex Salmond and to offer a number of immediate concessions on issues that had been causing friction with Westminster, such as gun control. But Cameron must be aware that he has little hope of changing things in the short term. So he has handed Scotland over to the LibDems. It will be Danny Alexander, the LibDem Scottish Secretary, who will be facing the baying hoards at Scottish Question Time in Westminster. Cameron has agreed to let him press ahead with plans to give Scotland further powers as proposed by the Labour-led Calman Commission two years ago. Within a year, Scotland will have the power to raise around 50% of Income Tax along with Stamp Duty and other minor taxes.

Cameron hopes this will placate the Scots, but it won’t stop them voting Labour in droves. As the cuts bite, Labour will be leading the charge against the ‘Con-democrats’ – which is why Salmond has been also looking just a little scunnered recently. The nationalist minority administration in Holyrood looks doomed if legions of LibDem voters return to Labour at the Scottish Parliament elections next year.

The SNP had a pretty disastrous general election, losing a seat. Now it faces losing Holyrood to Labour next year and in the election after that. Under the new fixed Parliament arrangement, the next UK general election will fall on May 6 2015, the same day as the next but one Holyrood ballot.

You’d almost think they’d got it in for Alex.

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald

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