Twenty Years of Devolution: A Lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences?

Twenty years ago today, Scots went to the polls to elect their new devolved Scottish Parliament. Although in specifying that the new parliament should be elected by a system of proportional representation Labour had accepted that it might not be able to win an overall majority and might need to share power with the Liberal Democrats, that decision also had the virtue that it would be virtually impossible for the SNP to win an overall majority too. In any event, Labour hoped that the introduction of devolution would persuade voters that Scotland did not need independence and that, consequently, nationalism would be killed ‘stone dead’ – thereby ensuring, above all, that the party at Westminster could continue to rely on the election of a substantial body of Labour MPs from north of the border. Indeed, many advocates of devolution – from all parties and from none – hoped that the new institution would be such a success that it would become the fulcrum of the nation’s political life and stimulate a greater level of political engagement.

The outcome of the first election fulfilled one of these expectations. Labour (with 56 seats) emerged as by far and away the largest party, albeit nine seats short of what was required to secure an overall majority. However, it proved relatively straightforward to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats who, although only the fourth largest party in the parliament (with 17 seats), could, it seemed, look forward to many years of being the ‘hinge party’ at Holyrood, that is, the party without whose support it would be impossible for anyone else to form an administration.

Yet, in other respects things did not quite turn out as intended. At 58%, the turnout was well down on the level of participation in the 1997 UK general election in Scotland – and indeed every other post-war election before that. This rather cast doubt on the idea that the new institution would promote a greater level of civic engagement. Meanwhile, although it was a long way behind Labour, the 29% that the SNP won on the constituency ballot (accompanied by 27% on the crucial regional list vote) was more than the party had achieved at any Westminster election apart from October 1974. This did not give the appearance of a party that was heading for inevitable decline. Rather, the 35 seats that it was allocated by the new electoral system meant that the SNP became a significant parliamentary force for the first time in its history.

Moreover, there was good reason to believe that the SNP’s performance was not a one-off event. For what had become apparent from polling undertaken during the previous twelve months was that voters were more willing to vote for the SNP – and less likely to back Labour – in an election to the new parliament than in a ballot for Westminster. This was confirmed by the 1999 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, conducted shortly after the first election, which reported that the level of support for the SNP had been seven points higher than it would have been if voters had been electing MPs rather than MSPs, while support for Labour was no less than nine points lower. Not least of the reasons, it seemed, was that voters were more inclined in a Scottish Parliament election on vote on the basis of what was going on in Scotland in particular rather than across the UK as a whole, and this different frame of reference favoured a party that promotes itself as ‘standing up for Scotland’.

In the event, it was these less widely anticipated patterns were to prove the more reliable pointer to what was to come. In the four elections held since 1999 turnout for Scottish Parliament elections has done little more than hover around the 50% mark, averaging just 52%, well below the equivalent figure (64%) for Westminster elections in Scotland since the turn of the century. Even though there has been a gradual increase during the last twenty years in the proportion of voters who think the devolved institutions rather than Westminster have most influence over the way Scotland is run, the parliament has continued to struggle to secure a level of electoral participation that is commensurate with a perception that it is Scotland’s premier political institution.

Meanwhile, although the second devolved election saw the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition return to office (albeit with diminished Labour representation), its anticipated dominance of the Scottish political scene came to a relatively quick end in 2007. The SNP managed to win one more seat than Labour. The Liberal Democrats decided they did not want to be the hinge in a government that wished to hold an independence referendum. However, they and everyone else agreed that the SNP should be allowed to form a minority administration – which for the most part was able to survive by negotiating budget deals with the Conservatives. Labour found itself out of power while the Liberal Democrats no longer had much influence.

The rest of the story is, of course, well known. The new electoral system failed to deny the SNP an overall majority in 2011. That paved the way for an independence referendum in 2014 which, although it produced a majority in favour of staying in the UK, registered a much higher level of support for independence than had seemed likely when the campaign began. That in turn was followed by a remarkable swing to the SNP in the 2015 general election, with the party winning 50% of the vote thanks above all to an apparent determination by those who had voted Yes to independence to affirm the choice they had made. Not only did Scotland’s position in the Union now seem less secure than ever before, but Labour’s domination of Scotland’s representation at Westminster had been reduced to rubble.

Along the way, a major constraint on the SNP’s ability to achieve electoral success had also been swept away. No longer was it the case that voters were less willing to vote for the SNP in a Westminster election than in a Scottish one. Indeed, polls now regularly register similar levels of support for the SNP in Westminster elections as they do for Holyrood. In the long run, devolution has not only created a more propitious electoral environment for the SNP in the form of a Scotland-only ballot, but also instigated a sequence of events that means it is now a credible force in Westminster elections too.

That, of course, does not necessarily mean that everything is now plain sailing for the party. In the most recent Scottish Parliament election in 2016 its level of support was insufficient to secure a second overall majority at Holyrood, while in the 2017 UK election, the party’s 50% vote fell back to a more modest 37%. But even so, the party that was meant to be killed ‘stone dead’ is more than very much alive and still pressing the case for independence, while Labour now finds itself suffering the ignominy of being Scotland’s third party at both Westminster and Holyrood. As Scotland continues to discuss its constitutional future, the last twenty years constitute an important reminder to those on all sides of that debate that constitutional change can have unintended consequences.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.