Adrian Kavanagh, 28th August 2014
A referendum on Scottish Independence is taking place on 18th September 2014. While the pre-contest opinion polls are suggesting that this will not be carried, it is worth remembering the range of Irish cases (2001 Nice Treaty, 2013 Seanad) in which a consistent lead in opinion polls did not translate into victory at the actual contest. Variations in turnout levels on referendum day across Scotland could well influence the result, as they did in the case of the aforementioned Irish referendum contests.
If Scotland was to vote for independence, what would be the impact on the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of what the composition of the House of Commons would look like in the absence of the 59 Scottish MPs? The main point to note here is the dominance of the Labour Party in terms of the Scottish House of Commons seats. Even in the last two United Kingdom general elections, at which Labour Party support fell considerably relative to that party’s strong performances at the 1997 and 2001 elections, Labour won 41 of the 59 Scottish seats, or 77.4% of the total number of Scottish seats. The region was just as, if perhaps even more, important for the Liberal Democrats, who won 11 seats in Scotland in both 2005 and 2010, or 20.8% of the total number of Scottish seats in the House of Commons. By contrast, the Conservatives only won one seat (1.9% of the total) in Scotland at both elections. Scotland effectively gives Labour a significant head start in its battles with the Conservatives to control the House of Commons. But it also accounts for a very significant chunk of the Labour and Liberal Democrats, even given the fact that this is a region with a strong regional/nationalist party, the Scottish Nationalist Party. In 2010, Scotland accounted for 12.0% of the total Labour vote and 15.9% of the total number of Labour seats and also accounted for 12.0% of the total Liberal Democrat vote and 15.9% of the total number of Liberal Democrat seats. By contrast, Scotland accounted for 3.8% of the total Conservative vote and 0.3% of the total number of Conservative seats, as well as 1.9% of the total United Kingdom Independence Party vote.
Labour won 42.0% of the Scottish vote in the 2010 election, as against support levels of 18.9% for the Liberal Democrats, 16.7% for the Conservatives and 0.7% for the United Kingdom Independence Party. The Conservatives fared notably stronger in the rest of the state (excluding Northern Ireland) however, winning 39.6% of the votes in England and 298 of the 533 seats (56.0%) being contested there, while winning 26.1% of the votes in Wales and taking a further 8 seats there. Without Scotland, the Conservatives would have come very close to winning the same number of seats in the House of Commons (306 seats, as opposed to the 307 seats that they actually won). With 591 seats in a reduced House of Commons, the Conservative Party would now have controlled 51.8% of these and hence would have easily formed a single party government without needing the support of the Liberal Democrats.
This is not to suggest that Scottish Independence would guarantee the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons. Without Scotland Labour will still have been able to command a majority in the House of Commons in the landslide election victories of 1997 and 2001 and even in the more closely fought 2005 contest. In 2005, Labour won 308 of the 591 non-Scottish seats, for instance. But there is no doubt that the Conservatives would have a better chance of winning elections if Scotland were to be no longer part of the United Kingdom. Ultimately the big winners politically, should the referendum be passed, might not be the Scottish Nationalist Party, but rather the Conservatives (and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom Independence Party).