Party Behaviour in Scotland

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Party Behaviour in Scotland
Eve Hepburn

University of Edinburgh

Paper presented at the annual Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (EPOP) conference, University of Edinburgh, 12-14 September 2014
1. Introduction

This paper examines the territorialisation of party behaviour in Scotland since devolution, and in particular the ‘contagion effect’ of the national question on the positions of Scotland’s political parties. It is argued that the traditional class-based understandings of party competition have limited application in Scottish politics unless they are considered in tandem with the strength, and often pre-eminence, of a territorial dimension (in similarity to Quebec and many other substate nations where territorial concerns and demands for self-government are central). Yet, far from constituting a divisive cleavage between parties in Scotland, we argue that the national question has become more of a valence issue in Scottish politics, whereby no party would dare to speak against the political empowerment of the Scottish nation. Instead, parties have adopted a range of positions in favour of increased territorial autonomy, including support for fiscal autonomy, the creation of a cosmopolitan Scottish identity, and increased control over welfare and social services. With all of the bluster between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ campaigns in the independence referendum in 2014, it would be easy to ignore the fact that, in terms of a national yardstick, all of the parties in Scotland are moving in the same direction: towards greater self-determination. This has not always been the case. The ‘national question’ has often proved a divisive issue in Scottish politics, with the leading British mainstream parties – the Labour Party and the Conservative Party – taking (often bitterly) opposing positions to Scottish ‘home rule’ at different points in time.

Why has the national question become a valence issue in Scottish politics, endorsed by all and sundry? We argue that there has been an important territorial contagion effect in Scottish politics, especially since devolution, whereby the main catalyst of contagion during this period – the SNP – has encouraged other parties to take stronger territorial stances. Again, this has not always been the case. Arguably the Labour Party in Scotland held the title of territorial contagion ‘catalyst’ during the 1980s and 1990s when it encouraged other parties in Scotland to support demands for devolution. However, with the attainment of devolution (or at least an initial settlement thereof), Labour has struggled to articulate its new territorial position. The SNP has instead picked up the gauntlet, with the help of a new devolved Scottish political arena to air its concerns, in its quest for greater Scottish self-determination. The SNP’s demands for independence, undergirded by the threat it has posed as the minority – and then the majority – government in Scotland, has catalysed other parties to offer greater powers for Scotland in a bid to undermine secessionist claims. This now means that all parties in Scotland are claiming to stand up for Scottish interests and to demand greater powers for Scotland. In fact, some commentators have argued that the fate of the United Kingdom depends less on the independence strategy of the SNP and more on its indirect influence on other parties, whereby UK parties’ ability to transform themselves into more Scottish creatures, to avoid being seen as the puppets of Westminster, and their commitment to taking the devolution process of constitutional renewal more seriously are the issues that will make or break the independence referendum in September 2014 (McLeish and Brown, 2012).

This paper therefore seeks to understand the electoral calculus underlying the stance that Scottish parties take with respect to the ‘national question’. Following on from this research group’s broader theoretical framework, it employs the concepts of ‘issue ownership’ and ‘contagion’ to understand how the territorial dimension structures party competition in Scotland. Based on this issue ownership perspective, our general hypothesis is that Scottish parties need to take a position on the national question and its various dimensions – including the constitutional issue, national identity and territorial interests – in addition to projecting an image of competence to win over the electorate. While the SNP – as the main nationalist party in Scotland – may be the ‘owner’ of the national question issue and the contagion ‘catalyst’ affecting the positions of other parties on this issue, it will also face competition from other parties in presenting itself as the most ‘Scottish’ party representing Scotland’s interests. Therefore, the SNP’s success in eliciting a territorial contagion effect on other parties may undermine its ownership claim and ‘unique selling point’ in being an autonomy-seeking party. Our hypotheses are therefore as follows: H1 Nationalist parties ‘own’ the national question in substate politics. H2 Nationalist parties have a contagion effect on other parties in the substate party system, which are obliged to take stronger positions on the national question. H3 The national question has become a multiple-ordering dimension, which supersedes and structures other cleavages – class, post-materialism – in the substate party system.

This analysis draws on a mixed-methods empirical analysis of Scottish party positions on the national question. The first source of information comes from a content analysis of political party manifestos for Scotland, which reveal how parties portray their political orientations to voters during elections. For this we used a specially adapted coding scheme to measure the issue profile of substate and statewide parties on the national question. The coding scheme captures the main dimensions of the national question as conceptualised in the theoretical framework, including: the constitutional issue, identity (language and cosmopolitanism) and territorial interests (social, economic and supranational). The party manifestos of the two most recent Scottish and UK elections were selected: the 2010 UK general election (including the manifestos of the SNP, UK Labour Party, UK Conservative Party and the UK Liberal Democrats) and the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election (including the manifestos of the SNP, Scottish Labour Party, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats). Thus a total of 8 manifestos – covering substate and state parties – were subject to analysis. The coding procedure included the division of each manifesto into ‘quasi sentences’, each representing an argument expressed by a sentence or part of it, and assigning each quasi-sentence to (a) an exclusive ‘issue salience’ category and (b) an exclusive directional category to determine the relative positioning of parties on substate issues. This enabled us to determine the salience and positioning of parties on each of the dimensions and sub-dimensions of the national question: (1) the constitution; (2) language; (3) cosmopolitanism; (4) social policy; (5) economic policy; and (6) supranationalism.

The second source of data comes in the form of semi-structured elite interviews with senior party officials. The interviews, which were based on a series of questions organized around the three themes of the national question – the constitutional issue, the identity issue and territorial interests – were asked consistently of each participant involved. They provided us with a valuable source of ‘insider information’ not captured in official manifestos. The interviews allowed us to compare what was said by politicians in a one-on-one setting with what the party officially states in its election manifestos. Interviews were conducted in November 2012 with at least 2 members from the four most important parties on each level of government in Scotland. This included Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) for the SNP, Scottish Labour Party, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats; in addition to Scottish Members of (the UK) Parliament for the SNP and the UK Labour Party, for a total of twelve interviews.

The paper begins with an overview of party politics in Scotland, with a particular focus on the tug-of-war between the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP) on the territorial and class dimensions of party competition in their bid to become Scotland’s dominant party. It then considers the various dimensions of the ‘territorial contagion’ effect in the period under study, and introduces the data used to measure the effects of this contagion. The empirical meat of the paper is then presented: an analysis of how political parties compete on the three principal dimensions of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics: (1) the constitutional dimension; (2) the identity dimension (including positions on language and cosmopolitanism); and (3) the regional interests dimension (including social policy, economic policy and supranational policy). Finally, the paper will examine the multi-level dimension of party politics in Scotland, and in particular how the territorial dimension has moved to becoming a more a consensual ‘valence issue’ between parties in Scotland, and more of a schism between Scottish and UK parties in the sense of a classical ‘centre-periphery’ cleavage.

2. Overview of the ‘National Question’ in Scottish Politics

Over a century of embattled constitutional politics in Scotland reached tipping point in the year 2014: the year of Scotland’s first (but possibly not last) referendum on breaking away from the UK state. For some, the proposition of secession during a period of economic recession and global interdependence is an unnatural and distracting one: the real focus should be on bread-and-butter politics and improving the quality of people’s lives. For others, independence is the answer to economic stagnation and social inequality, as it would allow Scotland to carve out its own distinctive policy programme to address the values, needs and interests of its people. Scotland’s political parties, which have spearheaded these opposing ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ positons, have long been aware that the ‘national question’ has been intrinsically tied up with the traditional ‘social class’ cleavage in Scottish politics. Any party that wishes to gain some votes at the polls cannot take a position on one issue without thinking through the implications for the other. And due to the strong link between Scottish identity and state welfarism (McEwen, 2002; Beland and Lecours, 2005) the party that is able to successfully fuse issues of self-determination with socioeconomic matters is likely to gain the upper hand in Scottish politics.

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, it was the Labour Party in Scotland which deftly navigated its way through the territorial-socioeconomic nexus of party competition to best represent the attitudes and values of Scottish voters. The Labour Party had been ‘Scotland’s party’ since the steep decline of the Conservatives in the 1960s. This became especially apparent during the UK Thatcher governments of 1979-90, when Scots voted consistently for Labour. On the class cleavage, Labour was indomitably centre-left (at least until the creation of New Labour), taking a progressive and redistributive stance on socio-economic issues. This resonated strongly with a Scottish electorate whose national identity was somewhat predicated on (the myth of) egalitarianism (McCrone, 1992; Brown et al 1998).

On the territorial dimension, otherwise known as the ‘national question’, Labour’s position was far less consistent. Labour moved from a position of outright hostility to Scottish self-government to supporting some form of Home Rule, and swithered back and forward thereafter (Keating and Bleiman, 1979; Hepburn, 2010). As one former Scottish Labour MSP stated ‘since the inception of the Labour Party at the start of the last century, Labour’s position on home rule or devolution has changed. It has been very confused, hesitant, ambiguous, ambivalent, and at some points, nearly nonexistent’ (interview, 16 November 2012). Throughout the twentieth century the Labour Party experienced divisions within its own ranks on how best to address the national question (Geekie and Levy, 1989). This was most evident in the first failed devolution referendum in 1979 when the UK Labour Party – the reluctant instigator of the plebiscite – was embarrassingly split on the issue (Newell, 1998). But the course that it finally set upon from the 1980s onwards – support for a devolved assembly that received the extensive backing of civic society - was the one that would increasingly receive the broadest support amongst the Scottish electorate. Labour was rewarded in the polls: taking an average of 40-45% per cent of votes in Scotland in general elections from 1983 to 1997. However, despite Scotland’s political predisposition towards the Labour Party, this support was insufficient to make a difference in UK elections and a series of Conservative governments were returned to Westminster 1979-1992. When Labour finally clawed back the reins of power in the 1997 general election and implemented its commitment to devolution, a large majority of Scots voted in favour of the proposal for a Scottish Parliament in 1997 (Trench, 2007; Mitchell, 2009; Jeffery and Mitchell, 2010; Keating, 2010).

However, during the Scottish Labour Party’s early years in coalition government with the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the new Scottish Parliament, from 1999-2003 and 2003-7, its stance on both the social class cleavage and the national question began to change. On the former, pressures from Tony Blair’s modernising UK ‘New Labour’ Party were felt within the Scottish leadership, and the Scottish branch began to edge to the centre (Bradbury, 2006). This was particularly evident in the party’s support for the creation of public private partnerships (PPPs) in healthcare – which many saw as a worrying move towards privatisation and a lurch to the right (Hassan and Shaw, 2012). On the territorial issue, the Scottish Labour Party was committed to stalling the issue: devolution had been achieved and the party had no desire for further powers for Holyrood (see analysis of interviews with Labour MSPs in Hepburn, 2010). This was the first of number of strategic mistakes that the Labour Party in Scotland made, which enabled the rise of the more staunchly social-democratic, independence-seeking Scottish National Party.

The SNP had been a peripheral party in Scottish politics for most of its life. Established in 1934, the SNP achieved its first electoral breakthrough into UK politics in October 1974 when it won 30% of the vote and 11 of Scotland’s 72 seats in the UK Parliament. The nationalist ‘threat’ led directly to Labour’s proposal for the devolution referendum in 1979; however after the embarrassing failure of the plebiscite – in which the SNP ran a separate campaign from Labour and only 51.6% Scots voted in favour with a turnout of 63.8% (less than constitutionally required) – the ‘national question’ was wiped off the UK Government’s agenda with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s centralising Conservative Party later that year. While the 1980s and early 1990s were a period of consolidation for the Labour Party in Scotland – which had engaged in the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Commission to create a blueprint for a Scottish Parliament – the SNP’s self-exclusion from these activities seemed small-minded and petty. The SNP entered a wilderness period, achieving 11-14% of the vote in UK general elections in the 1980s, while the Labour Party solidly continued to gain around 43% of the vote in Scotland.

The SNP’s decision to support the creation of a Scottish Parliament in a cross-party ‘Yes’ campaign with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and other civic and political organisations, gave the party the life support it so desperately needed. It was able to present itself as a team-player working in the best interests of Scotland. However, it was really the creation of the Scottish Parliament itself that marked the real ascent of the SNP to power. In the first elections of 1999, the SNP became official opposition to the Labour-Liberal Democrat government, which gave it a platform and mouthpiece for independence that it had previously only dreamed of. During the early days of devolution, the SNP also underwent an extensive degree of professionalization and centralisation of party structures (Mitchell, Bennie and Johns, 2011). Ideologically, it showed itself during First Minister’s Questions to sit to the left of the Labour-Liberal Democrat government, especially on the issue of privatisation of public services. And on the territorial dimension, the SNP began to portray its goal of independence as less one of secession from the UK and more one of the natural extension of devolution. In other words, the SNP was making its bid to out-manoeuvre the Scottish Labour Party on both the class and territorial dimensions of party competition, by cleaving its positions more closely with the centre-left, pro-autonomy views of the electorate.

When the SNP formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, political commentators were aghast. The mixed PR electoral system had been designed so as to prevent the dominance of one party and to engender coalition. Certainly, the 2007-11 SNP government was marked by the need for cooperation with other parties – in particular the Scottish Conservatives – to implement its agenda. However, while the SNP continued and radically expanded the distinctive centre-left policies that the previous Labour-LibDem government had introduced (such as…), thereby positioning itself as the protector of social democracy in Scotland, the SNP was initially unable to achieve traction on its territorial aims. Its bid to hold a referendum on independence was defeated in the Parliament: the SNP government simply did not have the votes. As such, it pushed the territorial issue onto the backburner and focussed instead on its responsibilities of competent government. In this the SNP was successful, and was rewarded at the polls in 2011. Studies have shown the support for the SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections was not on the back of the territorial dimension or a desire for independence; it was based on the fact that the SNP seemed to be doing a good job in government (Johns et al 2012). However, this did not stop the SNP from pushing its territorial agenda. In 2012, and this time with a strong majority in the Scottish Parliament, it achieved its aim of passing a bill to hold an independence referendum, and it set the date for the plebiscite in 2014. Thus the SNP had drawn a political battlefield on the future of Scotland underpinned by a two-year long campaign – the longest in British history.

3. Issue Ownership and the Contagion Effect

As aforementioned, we believe that the national question has become a valence issue in the sense that there is now general agreement between political parties on the direction of policies. And as we hypothesised, whoever ‘owns’ the issue of the national question has the potential to have a contagion effect on other parties. However, that potential is circumscribed by two conditions. First, the owner of the national question must have sufficient electoral strength or ‘party system relevance’ in Sartori’s (1976) terms, to constitute a sufficient threat to other political actors in that system. Second, contagion is most likely to occur when other parties are seen to be weak on the issue of territory, in particular when they are viewed as beholden to central-state interests (for a full theory of territorial contagion, see Hepburn, 2014a).

So let us begin by examining the main players involved in contagion: the owners and catalysts of the national question, and the targets of the territorial contagion effect. To begin with, we hypothesise that the main nationalist party will be the ‘owner’ of the national question and will have a contagious effect on the territorial stances of other parties. In Scotland, the main nationalist party is the Scottish National Party (SNP), who has rapidly increased its electoral ‘threat’ to other parties since devolution, initially becoming official opposition (1999-2007), then forming a minority government (2007-11) and then a majority government (2011-). It is important to note that, unlike Quebec, the SNP does not face a nationalist challenger in Scotland: the SNP is the only party proclaiming to be nationalist. However, it is not the only party seeking independence. Two smaller parties – the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialists – have also made independence a policy aim, though for very different reasons. While the Greens believe independence would enable Scotland to improve the welfare system and its environmental record, the Socialists wish to see an independent Scotland implement sweeping redistributive reforms. But as Co-Convenor of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, has said, ‘agreeing on independence doesn’t mean we’ll ever agree [with the SNP’s position] on the oil industry, the road-building programme or the future of the Corporation tax’ (Harvie, 2014: 22). However, despite supporting independence, the Greens and Socialists have had insufficient party-system relevance (polling between 3-7% of the vote in Scottish parliamentary elections 1999-2011) to have a contagion effect like the SNP.

Yet while the Scottish National Party (SNP) may constitute the main catalyst of territorial contagion in today’s independence referendum-fuelled politics, this was not always the case. During the 1980s and 1990s, one could argue that Labour’s leadership of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and support for devolution had an impact on the positions of other parties in Scotland, encouraging them to collectively put their weight behind the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1997, even despite their contrasting constitutional aims (independence for the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists; and federalism for the Scottish Liberal Democrats). To this end, Scottish Labour played the part of ‘catalyst’ of the territorial contagion effect – rallying support around a loosely left-of-centre autonomy-seeking project.

Both Labour and the SNP, as Scotland’s two leading parties with the greatest potential for ‘territorial contagion’, now compete on centre-left, pro-autonomy platforms. This underlines the fact that party competition in Scotland tends to take place on the left side of the ideological spectrum. Four out of the five main parties in the Scottish Parliament may be classified as ‘centre-left’ (Labour, SNP, Scottish Greens and the Liberal Democrats) than centre-right (Conservatives). Because of the centre-left consensus, party positions on social issues in Scotland often converge. However, the national question has had a more complex effect on party politics. Let us know consider who the other ‘targets’ of territorial contagion might be.

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (SCUP) has separate origins in Scotland, and was an independent party until 1965. When the Labour Party was vehemently opposed to Home Rule in the 1920s and 1940s, the SCUP was actually in favour of administrative devolution, and it was the first UK party to make a commitment to a (weak) form of devolution (Mitchell, 1998; Chaney, 2013). However, during its integration – some may say absorption – into the UK Conservative Party, the SCUP abandoned any commitment to home rule for Scotland and maintained a strongly unionist – some would say unitarist – position (Hepburn, 2010). This was particularly evident under Thatcher’s leadership of the party from 1975, when the party came to be perceived as an English, anti-Scottish Party (Seawright, 1996, 2004). The party was opposed to the activities of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1980s and 1990s, and it voted against Scottish devolution in both referendums in 1979 and 1997. This was not a wise strategic decision amongst an increasingly pro-devolution Scottish public. The Conservatives lost all of their seats in Scotland in the 1997 general elections, forcing the party to hold an internal review that led to the decision to secure greater organisational autonomy for the party and to advance a policy position of supporting the Scottish Parliament (see Detterbeck and Hepburn, 2011; Convery, 2013).

In contrast, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have always supported Scottish Home Rule and decentralisation as part of their federalist agenda. And because the UK Liberal Democrats are a federal organisation, the Scottish branch has always exercised a substantial degree of autonomy over policy programmes. This has led the Scottish LibDems to move considerably to the left of their UK brethren on many social policy issues, and often at times to the left of Labour and the SNP. Like the SNP (and also the Conservatives) the party benefitted considerably from devolution, and it became junior government coalition partner to Labour in the first two sessions of Scottish Parliament, from 1999-2003 and 2003-7. During this period, the LibDems spearheaded several distinctive public policies for Scotland, including the introduction of free care for the elderly, and during the SNP administrations from 2007 onwards it has also played an important role in pushing for more socially-minded policies, for instance on extending free childcare provision for pre-schoolers (Keating, 2010).

Having provided an overview of the Scottish party system and the main political players in Scotland – be they potential catalysts or targets of territorial contagion – let us know shift our attention to the period under study (2010-2014) to examine in detail the effect of the national question on Scottish party behaviour.

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