26 August 2021

Westminster must now confront the anti-democrats in the SNP/Green ‘alliance’

By Ian Mitchell

Scotland’s new SNP-Green ‘alliance’ comes close to a coalition, which is a conventional way for a minority government to get its business through a parliament. However the SNP and the Greens have incompatible political goals on many fundamental issues, especially oil. The deal is not motivated by parliamentary considerations, but by the desire to force constitutional change on a country divided 50-50 on the issue. How might they be able to do this?

Essentially, by exploiting the peculiar voting system that Donald Dewar devised for the Scottish Parliament in 1998 in order, as he hoped, to keep Labour in power forever. But he was too clever by half. Now this system is being used to keep Nicola Sturgeon in power indefinitely by breaking up the United Kingdom. The system looks fair on the surface, but the devil is in the arithmetic.

About 220,000 people voted for the Greens in May’s Holyrood election, which represented 8% of the votes cast for ‘list’ seats, which are allotted on a proportional representation basis. In the constituencies, the Greens achieved a total vote of 35,000, in the whole country. That was 1.3% of the votes cast. Yet they are now to be in government so they can, as they hope, force the British government to bend to their and the SNP’s constitutional agenda. 

Nicola Sturgeon has been complaining for years that Brexit was foisted on Scotland “against its will” because a majority of Scots voted for the UK to stay in the EU. But over a million votes were cast for “leave” in Scotland. Sturgeon says the Brexit result was an abuse of democracy as far as Scotland is concerned. Yet she is happy to use the derisory Green vote here to break up a nation of 65 million people. 

The reason that is possible at all is because of the bizarre voting system for the “list” seats, which make up nearly half of the 129 in the Holyrood parliament. First-past-the-post voting produces results that do not favour minor parties, but the proportional representation system Dewar gave Scotland was designed to counteract that.  

Thus in the May election this year, the SNP achieved 40% of the ‘list’ vote, but were awarded only two – yes, two –  list seats. The Conservatives achieved 23% of the vote and were awarded 26. How can that be considered remotely democratic?

The answer is that it is supposed to ‘balance’ the constituency vote. The SNP achieved 48% of the constituency vote and 62 seats, while the Conservatives achieved 22% of the vote and just five seats – half the Nationalists’ vote share for one twelfth of their seats. That is then ‘balanced’ by the list vote.

How is that balance struck in allocating the “list” votes? It is struck by using something called ‘the d’Hondt formula’. This was introduced by Dewar in order to ensure that the constituency vote is not reflected in the total number of seats won by the various parties in the parliament. 

The formula is named after a Belgian mathematician, Victor d’Hondt, who light-bulbed it in 1878. It is used widely in some of the least democratic countries in the world. It is also used in the London Assembly and the European Parliament. 

This may or may not be a good idea, but what is really important from a democratic point of view is that nobody understands it. I have asked countless people in Scotland if they know how their votes are used at elections. Everybody is clear about the first-past-the-post half of Scottish parliamentary elections, but nobody, not one, has been able to explain to me what the d’Hondt formula is and how it produces the results it does. Crucially, nobody is sure how to cast their vote in order to help achieve the political outcome they desire. 

That may suit some party managers, but it is completely undemocratic. Just as an important aspect of the rule of law is that law is accessible and understandable to the ordinarily literate citizen, so democracy demands that the citizen with an ordinary level of mathematical understanding knows how the voting system works and the best way to use it to cast their own vote. If this is allowed to continue it will undermine both democracy and the rule of law. 

The United Kingdom government has a responsibility to all its citizens, including those in Scotland, to ensure government is carried on in a proper and fair manner. It must take steps to prevent abuse of a system designed by a politician who, himself, wanted to abuse the idea of political debate, as is explained at length in my book, The Justice Factory. No government will tolerate malfeasance in local councils. Why should it in devolved governments? After all, it was abuse of local dominance that caused the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. 

Yet to date, the Government has been grotesquely negligent in letting the nationalists call the shots on the issue of independence. It is not the “settled will of the Scottish people” as a whole—at most, of the 49.5% of the constituency vote that the SNP and Greens together received in May. 

The Government urgently needs to confront this issue and have the guts to confront the anti-democrats in the anti-Unionist campaign. Their first task must be to bring functioning democracy back to Holyrood by amending the Scotland Act (1998) in order to prevent state capture by the SNP-Green ‘alliance’. 

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Ian Mitchell is the author of 'The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.