Scottish Independence: a rejection of Westminster politics?

Published: 14 September 2014
Author: Paul Cairney

Paul Cairney on voter views on Westminster-style politics. This piece was originally published on his personal blog.

CM/ Guardian Poll Table 11: ‘You say you are going to vote Yes/No. Which two or three of the following best describes why you plan to vote that way?’

‘Your feelings about Westminster, and the types of politicians there’ – 51%

Some people are voting Yes to reject ‘Westminster politics’, but what does that mean? Some commentators argue that ‘Westminster’ is a shorthand for England, and that people like Alex Salmond are using it to appeal to anti-English feeling. I don’t think that is what the question is picking up. Rather, it can refer to Westminster as the home of a much-resented ‘political class’ or a type of politics allegedly rejected in Scotland. In both cases, note that Holyrood is not completely free from the same problems – a rejection of ‘Westminster’ does not necessarily produce a rejection of ‘Westminster politics’.

A rejection of the Westminster ‘political class’?

It is difficult to pin down the idea of a political class, but criticisms include: it represents a narrow, self-serving, dishonest political elite, which is out of touch with the public and populated increasingly by party worthies with no experience of the real world. During the 2014 European Parliament elections, Nigel Farage (UKIP leader, 2nd May 2014) used this image to encourage people to reject Westminster politicians:

We’ve just about had enough of a career class of politician … Look at the three so-called ‘big parties’ and look at their front benches. They are made up of people who go to the same handful of schools, they all go to Oxford, they all get a degree in PPE … then they all get a job as a researcher in a political office, they become Members of Parliament at 27 or 28, Cabinet ministers in their early 40s, and I put it to you that this country is now run by a bunch of college kids who have never done a proper day’s work in their lives.


So, the problem can be anything from their flawed characters, theirlimited roots in local constituencies, their inexperience of the real world, and that they do not reflect the social background of the voting population. I argue, in the UK context, that it is difficult to reconcile these four arguments to produce one strategy for political reform. Instead, different bodies do different things. Westminster has introduced new rules to address the expenses scandal in 2009. The Conservatives and UKIP prioritize the recruitment of people who have proved themselves in business, while Labour seeks to improve the representation of women. There are fewer explicit attempts to address other kinds of background, such as the far greater likelihood of MPs to have attended private schools and Oxbridge than the rest of the public.

The Scottish Parliament had its own mini-expenses scandal before Westminster, which allowed it to reform and avoid the same kind of fallout in 2009. In terms of social background, the main difference has been the recruitment of women, with the first elections in 1999 producing a proportion of 37.2%, rising to 39.5% in 2003, before falling to 33.3% in 2007. The figure of 34.9% in 2011 is not brilliant, but it tops the 22% in Westminster 2010. The difference is particularly pronounced among Labour, with devolution providing the opportunity (largely through twinned constituencies) to reach parity in 1999. There have often been fewer opportunities for ethnic minority candidates, although there was some progress in 2007 and in 2011. There is the same tendency to recruit from jobs linked directly to politics, but MSPs are less likely to have been privately educated or attend Oxbridge (although there is a Glasgow/ Edinburgh equivalent).

A rejection of Westminster politics?

A rejection of ‘old Westminster’ was key to the encouragement of ‘new Scottish politics’ in the run up to devolution in 1999. Devolution was sold largely as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’, when Scotland voted Labour but received a Conservative UK Government (the more recent, similar, phrase is ‘Scotland should get the government it voted for’). There was a residual feeling among devolution supporters that a successful ‘yes’ vote in the 1979 referendum would have saved Scotland from the worst excesses of Thatcher rule from 1979-90 and Conservative rule from 1979-97. Yet, devolution also came during a new era involving a more general mistrust in Westminster politics, and so political reform went hand in hand with constitutional reform.

According to this new politics narrative, the image of the UK Government was top-down and impositional, which contrasted with the image of Scotland as a place with a strong tradition of collective action and consensus politics. So, devolution would come hand in hand with new ways to foster that approach to politics. The devolution agenda produced expectations about new forms of participation (such as a civic forum, and a new and improved petitions system) and more consensual policymaking between parties (prompted in part by electoral reform and the greater likelihood of coalition and minority government), or between parliament and the executive.

However, it didn’t really work out like that. In many ways, Scottish politics represents business as usual, with very few examples of new (and effective) forms of participation or new relationships between parties. The government still governs and we still have government-versus-opposition politics. To a great extent, this has been true regardless of the kind of government: majority coalition (Labour/ Lib Dem) 1999-2007, minority SNP 2007-11 and majority SNP now. You can hear some people bemoaning the majority SNP’s attitude …

… but they seem to forget what it was like from 1999. The majority coalition government acted very much like a majoritarian Westminster government. Labour sought strength and stability in Parliament by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, to maintain a majority of votes to ensure its legislative programme, avoid motions of no confidence, and avoid having to rely on the SNP (some people have lifted the phrase ‘fear and loathing’ to describe this attitude).

Minority government made less of a difference than many expected. The SNP was more vulnerable to defeat and no confidence motions, but it formed coalitions as and when required (often with the Scottish Conservative) and otherwise produced most of its priorities – with key exceptions, including its favoured referendum bill – without recourse to Parliament, using finance, existing legislation, and its relationship with key organizations such as local authorities.

Throughout this time, new forms of participation either died a slow death (the Scottish Civic Forum) or represented a fairly peripheral part of public policy (petitions process). There has been little else to write home about. Indeed, the fact that bodies such as the ERS argue for the introduction of new forms of participation, 15 years on, tells you something about the lack of meaningful public participation after devolution.

Rejecting Westminster – does it mean embracing Holyrood?

Overall, devolution has allowed the parties, to some extent, to produce something different to Westminster – but independence would not necessarily produce a new and improved political class. Representation takes work, and a commitment by each political party, that we have yet to see. Independence presents a ‘window of opportunity’ to address social background, but that opportunity largely disappears after the first election.

Similarly, as things stand, there is no real prospect of change in the political process. There is a good chance that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament relationship will remain and that political parties will continue to piss each other off – and wait for their turn in government – rather than engage in consensus politics. In my opinion, meaningful political reform has been almost absent from the referendum debate.

So, people may reject Westminster politics in the ballot box, only to find that they are stuck with a form of Westminster-light politics at Holyrood. There is a lot of talk about, somehow, harnessing all this public energy and attention to politics prompted by the referendum. Yet, I’ll be jiggered if I know how.

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