Voters punish British coalition government's junior partner

Signing on with the conservatives doesn't look so smart for the Liberal Democrats now. But their woes have opened the way for a test of Scottish wishes for independence.

Signing on with the conservatives doesn't look so smart for the Liberal Democrats now. But their woes have opened the way for a test of Scottish wishes for independence.

Certainly, getting a share of power must have seemed like a good idea at the time for the historic third-place party in Britain's parliamentary system, but the Liberal Democrats have received a solid rebuke from voters in England and Scotland, reacting to the Lib Dems' decision a year ago to form a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Voters in the United Kingdom on Thursday elected regional governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and cast votes on an election-law reform promoted by the Liberal Democrats. It was a bad night for that party.

Scottish voters turned on the Liberal Democrats in force, decimating their seats in the Scottish Parliament and giving the Scottish National Party (SNP) a firm majority in the parliament, something no Scottish party has had since Scotland gained a form of self-rule in 1999. That is likely to set the table for a vote on some form of independence for Scotland within the five years the SNP will be in office.

The results in Scotland were accompanied by an overall vote in the entire United Kingdom on a new form of electing members of the British Parliament, which had been a major insistence by the Lib Dems when they formed coalition with the Conservatives. The proposed voting system would have made it easier for third-party candidates to win seats, but it was trounced, a serious setback for the party.

Results in both Scotland and UK-wide can be traced in some manner to the election of a Conservative plurality in Britain a year ago. When the Tories won that plurality, they needed a partner to form a majority government, and the Liberal Democrats became that partner, demanding the voting-reform measure as part of the deal. In Scotland, traditional distrust (and worse) of a Tory government in London caused a wholesale abandonment of Scottish Lib Dem candidates, providing the majority that nationalists had been hoping to attain.

Scotland in 1999 gained a form of self-rule called "devolution," and it gives the Scots power over many local issues, including education and courts. But the British Parliament controls foreign affairs, most taxation and several other key issues.

Independence would transfer those powers to Scotland's Parliament, but as envisioned it would preserve a loose alliance with England, while gaining Scotland its own seat in the European Union.

As envisioned by Alex Salmond, who as first minister heads the Scottish government, Scottish voters would be asked to approve a referendum authorizing him to negotiate independence with the British Parliament; the vote in essence is politically rather than legally binding. Exactly how the process would play out is a matter of dispute among all parties, but it is clear that the wishes of a Scottish majority would be critical. Support for independence has varied since Salmond's party gained power in 2007, and current polls put it at about 35 percent. Chances for a vote anytime soon are remote.

Scotland has a different system of voting than the UK, designed, according to political scientist Thomas Lundberg, to prevent one-party control of the Scottish Parliament. Founders of the system in 1999, wary of the SNP, believed the vote system would make it more difficult for backers of an independent Scotland. It will be up to the wily Salmond to see when to test the waters of independence, but it is clearly a large part of his party's platform.

Independence is never far from voter concerns in a Scottish election, but it will take second place to economic and social issues in the next parliamentary session, and Scotland's relations with the UK Parliament and its Tory leaders will play a huge role in those issues and voter support for a later independence vote.

In many visits to Scotland and in following its news over the years, a few basic points resonate in regards to this election. First, Scots really dislike a Tory government, which they feel has historically shortchanged them in many ways and is linked to epic battles between English kings and Scottish subjects. Second, there is genuine uncertainly about breaking up the UK with Scottish independence. Third, the Scots really are canny, it's not a myth, and they will use the next year or two to attempt to leverage better deals from London on a variety of fronts, while threatening to jump ship but maintaining a firm grip on the rail.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.