What does the Scotland situation after the 2019 election mean for democracy in the UK?
In case you missed it, Britain recently voted in a general election for the fourth time in the last decade, this time delivering the largest majority government since Tony Blair’s Labour secured a third term in 2005. On the surface it’s a result that appears simple, particularly in comparison to the last 10 years of minority governments, coalitions and closely fought referenda. But beneath the surface there’s an intriguing cocktail of circumstances that could, and perhaps should, throw into question the validity of the British electoral system and the virtues of its key players.
General elections in Britain are decided using a ‘First Past the Post’ system in which the electorate is divided into constituencies with a single representative from each standing party on the ballot paper. Each constituency equals 1 seat in parliament with a total of 650 seats contested, and the first party to pass the threshold of 326 seats wins. Each voter has the opportunity to cast their vote for any standing candidate in their constituency and as an extension, support their chosen party. It does not however, result in equal weighting of votes.
Britain is one of a small collection of developed democracies in the world, and the only country in Europe, that still use an FPTP system as opposed to proportional representation. FPTP creates problems that clash with the one person, one vote principal of democracy in a few ways. Safe seats — constituencies where voting tendencies remain static over time — account for the majority of seats in parliament meaning that election races revolve around marginal seats — those which more regularly change hands. Parties have to focus on localised strongholds in order to gain traction and many voters can find their values unrepresented in their own area. The constituency system means that a ballot paper only counts within a local boundary rather than on a national level. There’s no mechanism for including the popular vote in a FPTP system — if your candidate loses locally, your vote counts for nothing more.
A single party can win lots of constituencies by a tiny margin but win a huge majority in government. And a party can win a large proportion of the popular vote nationally but if those votes aren’t concentrated in local areas, they earn far fewer seats in parliament than their share of the national vote would suggest. Proportional representation aims to count all votes on a national level to decide which party or parties get into government. The knock on proportional representation is that it often leads to coalitions when no single party achieves a majority of the popular vote, whilst the knock on FPTP is it’s ability to give absolute power to a party that less than half of the electorate voted for.
That was the case in this election where, although by FPTP standards, the Conservative party won by landslide, they still received less than 50% of the popular vote. Put simply, the majority did not vote for the winner. The conservative party earned 43.6 percent of the popular vote whilst their left-leaning rivals Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP earned a combined 47.5% of the popular vote. The Conservative party will have 56.2% of the total seats in parliament, almost 10% higher than their vote share, whilst the Liberal Democrats will own 1.7% of the seats, 10% less than their vote share.
The most overwhelming victory of the night didn’t belong the Tories but the SNP. A huge 81% of Scotlands parliamentary seats went to the SNP, almost wiping out nay other presence in Scotland altogether. The conservative party could only win 10% of Scotlands seats and Labour secured 1 seat of the 59 available. Here though, the disconnect between seats and popular vote swings towards the SNP and away from the Conservatives. Although the SNP secured almost all of the seats in Scotland, they actually earned less than half of the total votes cast. Conversely, the Tories vote proportion in Scotland was 25% but their share of the seats amounts to only 10%. Labour suffered a similar disadvantage with an 18% share of the popular vote equating to only 1.7% of the seats.
What constitutes a mandate?
Boris Johnson declared in the aftermath of the result, “We have a strong mandate for Brexit” on the grounds of having won the election based on a clear promise to ‘get Brexit done’. But what constitutes a strong mandate? After all, the Conservative party won the support of less than half of the electorate. What Johnson and his fellow Tories are doing though, is putting their implicit trust and support in the FPTP system to deliver a reliable reflection of public sentiment. This is where we start to encounter the contradictions.
The EU referendum of 2016 was a true one-person, one-vote election in which each and every vote counted toward a national tally. It’s been called the biggest democratic exercise in British history and we’re all familiar with the debates around ‘respecting the will of the people’ and exercising the democratic process. To assert the value of the popular vote in that instance is at odds with the ’strong mandate for Brexit’ declaration in the wake of the election result where the popular vote has actually gone in the opposite direction. This contradiction is indicative of the wider issue around the clumsy and imprecise nature of using a general election to settle the Brexit issue — an election is not and cannot be fought on a single issue and the electoral system itself is at odds with the system used to determine public sentiment on Brexit in the first place. Referenda and FPTP elections are apples and oranges — they use different standards, different measurements and different rules — they cannot be substituted directly for one another. The second contradiction is the most interesting. The 1998 Scotland Act dictates that the prime minister must give permission for Scotland to carry out any referendum on independence from the union. The SNP campaigned explicitly on fighting for a second independence referendum, as the Tories campaigned explicitly on their Brexit commitment. If the Tory victory in the election can reliably deliver a ’strong mandate for Brexit’, it must follow that the SNP have a strong mandate for an independence referendum. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time in getting that message across, saying "There is a mandate now to offer the people of Scotland the choice over our own future”. The parliamentary arithmetic delivered the SNP an even more commanding majority in Scotland than the Conservatives achieved in the UK as a whole, creating an incredibly strong case for ‘IndyRef2’, that is, based on a trust in the FPTP system as opposed to the popular vote, which paints a much more nuanced picture.
To this point Boris Johnson has consistently stated that he will not allow Scotland another independence referendum but faced with these results, what could the justification for that possibly be? A possible argument against ‘IndyRef2’ could be that Scotland is part of the union and therefore subject to the will of the union as a whole. And where it is not in the interest of the union to go through with a Scottish referendum, it should be denied. This though, creates yet another line of reasoning that undermines the interests of the Conservative party and their support. The UK is a part of the European Union and chose independently to leave against the interests of the union. If it is morally acceptable for the UK to choose to leave a union in its own interest, it surely must be acceptable for Scotland to do the same in regards to the UK. Would the UK have found it acceptable for the EU to deny the triggering of article 50? And more importantly, would the Conservative party accept such a stance on ethical grounds? The Scottish independence issue is directly comparable to Brexit. With constant talk of ‘respecting the will of the people’ from conservative party members and the prime minister himself in regards to Brexit, there’s little room left for denying the apparent will of the Scottish people in regards to ‘IndyRef2'.
A more valid argument would be based on the popular vote as a more accurate indicator of the will of the people. Fewer than half of the Scottish electorate voted for the SNP and so the picture of overwhelming support breaks down. But to acknowledge the value of the popular vote over the FPTP result would undermine the Conservative victory in this election and even more so in elections past. Most importantly it would open the door to an alternative electoral system akin to the proportional representation systems used by the majority of developed democracies around the world.
Is there any room for a rational, reasonable denial of a Scottish referendum that doesn’t undermine the FPTP system? One thing is for certain — If we don’t demand a rational and ethically consistent answer to the question, we accept the right of prime ministers and leading parties to pick and choose when to respect the mechanisms of democracy and when to ignore them in their own interest. Double standards amount to a disrespect of the very fabric of our democracy. For our system to function reliably we have to defend a universal set of rules and standards that govern the game and bind all players.
There’s been a lingering campaign by the Conservative party to further manipulate the electoral system in the UK, reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600, which by all accounts would hinder the ability of opposition parties (Labour in particular, the other parties are already severely hindered by FPTP) to gain a majority based on past results. It’s very much in their interest to push this agenda whilst they have a strong majority in parliament, enhancing their chances of achieving the same result in future elections. Should the winner be allowed to set the rules? How would a football audience react if the team leading at half time were allowed to reduce their opponent to 10 men or change the size of the goalposts to suit themselves? Such a system wouldn’t last long. Football would revert to setting the rules independently of vested interests, levelling the playing field for true and fair competition. The same should apply for the high-stakes game of democracy — no player can be above the law and no player can subvert or alter the rules to their own advantage. We’ve seen such abuses of power from Erdogan in Turkey and Putin in Russia, manipulating the system to strengthen their grip on power. In the UK we tend to perceive an immunity in our own system against such corruption but is that belief justified?
Our diligence shouldn’t stop only at the written rule. There’s just as much importance in unwritten standards and ethical boundaries. Acts of government are the moral management of our society and elected officials must be held to a consistent standard. Whilst we might accept flawed reasoning in political pub chat we can’t make room for it at the highest levels of government, no matter our political biases.
In her 2018 book Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason delved into the psychology of political identity, laying out the unfortunate truth that we have an innate tendency to prioritise winning over the contents of the game. We’re all victim to it in some form and our only hope of overcoming it is by reasoning responsibly and collaboratively from both sides of the aisle. We should think carefully about how we preserve and develop our democracy and that demands stepping above partisan battles and overcoming our innate desire to win at all costs. Regardless of political persuasion or party loyalty, we must all commit to a set of first principles that govern the system and dictate the standards of our democracy. We should never sleep walk into an acceptance of ethical double standards or abandonment of common values from those elected to represent the people. The cost of allowing democracy to fail is surely too great for any of us to bare.