Kiss and make up - or get divorced

The stitched-up marriage of convenience that is Scotland's coalition government is creaking at the seams. The partners are calling each other names in public and The Other Woman has arrived on the scene.

At Holyrood, Labour and the Liberal Democrats cohabit in the Scottish Executive and are halfway through their four-year marriage contract, despite occasional tiffs and the annoying tendency of lofty Lib Dems to suggest that they have married beneath them.

The Other Woman is the new Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell, who, while she does not want to be a marriage-breaker, has no love for the Lib Dems.

Her first priority is to ensure a repeat of Labour's stunning Scottish victory in the 1997 general election, when Scotland became a Tory-free area in Westminster terms. Holding Labour's 56 Scottish seats will mean putting the squeeze on the Lib Dem vote in seven or eight seats, particularly the top two Tory targets, Glasgow Eastwood and Edinburgh Pentlands, and other Labour marginals such as Ayr, Aberdeen South and Inverness East.

The view that the coalition is an "exercise in hypocrisy" will be strengthened by the prospect of the Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, and his Lib Dem deputy, Jim Wallace, sitting side by side in the Scottish Parliament and cabinet during the general election campaign, while their parties are at each other's throats in the country.

Eyebrows were raised at Labour's spring conference in Glasgow when McLeish attacked the other Scottish parties, without actually naming his Lib Dem partners, as "Hague's little helpers". Liddell's speech was a full-frontal attack, repeating the jibe and adding that the Lib Dems "occupy some private fantasy land with little relevance".

The declaration put an end to any suggestion that the coalition partners might operate an informal pact to allow tactical voting to keep the Tories out. Despite the strain it will put on the new politics of Holyrood, it will be old-style election warfare as usual.

One Scottish Labour tactician said: "We don't want a running feud with the Lib Dems, but it had to be spelt out at some point that we are in competition for votes . . . The coalition won't fail because of a bit of name-calling at an election. If it happens, it will be over some policy matter. And, let's face it, it's their first and only chance for a century of being involved in government."

That last consideration (not to mention his senior Scottish cabinet ranking and his ministerial Rover) led Wallace and the Scottish Lib Dem leadership to maintain a diplomatic silence.

Others in his party, however, were stung. The senior Lib Dem MP and MSP Donald Gorrie retorted that the coalition had rescued Scotland from new Labour's "right-wing social policies": "In Scotland, Labour has been forced to abandon these reactionary policies because Scotland's other minority had the votes and the will to compel a Labour U-turn."

Gorrie opposed his party's involvement in the coalition when it was being negotiated, describing Labour as "the biggest bunch of liars you could ever meet".

The party's former chief executive Andy Myles was put up to speak for the "broad membership": "What is so annoying about Helen Liddell's comments is that they are made for a Westminster election, while Scottish politics has moved beyond this type of primary-school mud-slinging."

The domestic dispute is bound to put strains on the relationship and revive debate about the need for a coalition.

The additional member PR voting system for the Scottish Parliament almost guarantees a coalition. Although Labour was nine seats short of an overall majority after the Scottish election (now ten), many did not want a formal partnership and would have preferred a loose arrangement or minority government. They saw merit in a Labour government defying opposition parties to vote down policies that were for the benefit of Scotland.

The late Donald Dewar did not want day-by-day battles in the parliament, and opted for the easier life and relative stability of a coalition. Protracted talks resulted in a 24-page concordat and three ministerial places for Lib Dems.

Since the coalition, the Lib Dem performance in Westminster by-elections has been derisory - fifth place in Falkirk West in December, while in Hamilton they came sixth, after the "Save the Hamilton Accies FC" candidate.

A poor turnout in support of the Lib Dems at the general election will heighten the rank and file's fears for their party's separate identity, perhaps its existence in Scotland. The SNP is already telling voters that a Lib Dem vote is a Labour vote.

Divorce may not be on the cards but, after the election, there may be a lot of kissing and making up to do if the marriage is to struggle on to its fourth anniversary and the next Scottish election in 2003.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more