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11 June 2001

Even the Scottish Tories want their independence

Election Night - Scotland

By Tom Brown

Well, did the earth move for you? In Scotland, there was hardly a movement between the sheets as election night dragged on and the slumbering electorate barely changed positions.

The political landscape in Scotland does not look much different. Labour’s long-held ascendancy was confirmed; the Scottish National Party still bumped its head against its ceiling of less than one-third of the vote; Scotland is no longer a Tory-free area, but only by 74 votes, after two recounts in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale; and most Scots still do not see the point of a separate vote for the Liberal Democrats when they are part of a Labour-led administration at Holyrood. Scotland suffered the UK apathy factor, with turnouts down by 10-15 per cent.

And yet . . . deep down under the duvet, something stirred. North of the border, this campaign was the foreplay for the climax in 2003, when the next election for the Scottish Parliament will be held.

The SNP made it plain that this election was a dummy-run for its 2003 battle strategy. It created a new identity by fronting its campaign with a relatively unknown leader, John Swinney (who was not even standing in this election), instead of the much more recognisable Alex Salmond, who will return to Westminster.

Swinney’s strategy of achieving independence by gradually increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament passed the electoral test. Scots were given notice that the next couple of years will be dominated by two set phrases: the Barnett formula (whereby the Scottish share of the UK budget is greater than Scotland’s size would dictate) and “full fiscal autonomy”.

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Under a Nat onslaught of claims that the Scotland’s budget would be squeezed, Tony Blair insisted there were no plans to change the formula by which it is calculated. But John Prescott and Peter Mandelson are among the government figures who have said that Barnett should be scrapped.

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The demand for “full fiscal autonomy”, giving Holyrood power to spend all tax revenues raised in Scotland, instead of being dependent on the block grant from the UK Treasury, did not seem to stir the Scottish electorate.

Sir Sean Connery, the SNP icon and greatest-living-Scotsman-who-still-can’t-bring-himself-and-his-money-to-live-here, tried with: “You wouldn’t give your pay packet to your next-door neighbour to run your finances for you! Why should Scotland give her money away?”

Presented in that populist manner, the issue is an itch which, if scratched enough by the SNP, could become a running sore in Scotland’s relations with Westminster.

It could also cause friction between Westminster and Scottish ministers. The Scottish Secretary, Helen Liddell, described it as “a code word for independence”, but it has been backed by many influential Labour figures as well as 55 per cent of Scots.

The First Minister, Henry McLeish, is already going his own way on free care for the elderly, aid for the fishing industry, student fees and teachers’ pay. He may also have to move towards fiscal autonomy to avoid being squeezed by the SNP and Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party, which climbed steadily during the night towards its target of 100,000 votes. In the Holyrood election in 2003, with proportional representation, that could mean the lonely SSP leader will be joined by three or four other MSPs. A not entirely fanciful scenario would have the SNP gaining pole position as the largest party and forming a coalition with the SSP, which also seeks Scottish independence.

Among the Tories, the failure of the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind to exhume his career in Edinburgh Pentlands, and the personal humiliation in Eastwood of the Scottish Conservative Party chairman, Raymond Robertson, were the death throes of the Thatcherite old guard.

Whether or not William Hague survives, the 19 Tory MSPs will now demand greater autonomy. Although their resentment is understandable, the irony of a Unionist party declaring UDI seems lost on them.

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