One of Labour’s sneakier tricks in opposing Scottish independence is to appeal to Scottish voters’ sense of social responsibility. The former party of socialist internationalism begs the Scots to show Unionist solidarity with their poor comrades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who would – the story runs – be abandoned permanently to the mercies of the evil Tories if the Westminster Parliament was deprived of its traditional sizeable block of Labour MPs from Scotland.
This narrative is regularly propagated by Labour’s friends in the media (and sometimes by gleeful Tories too). Only today, for example, the Scotsman carries the line in a piece which asserts that an independent Scotland would leave David Cameron “with an inbuilt Tory majority for his party in the rest of the UK”.
There are, of course, innumerable things wrong with this argument – for one, the dubious morality of using Scottish MPs to impose a Labour government on English voters who may have rejected one, when Scotland has its own Parliament and England doesn’t. (An offshoot of the timeless West Lothian Question.) And for another, the highly questionable premise that the modern-day Labour Party is ideologically significantly different from the Tories anyway.
But the biggest problem with the notion is simply that it’s completely untrue.
Much of the reason is careless pundits who focus on the fact that Scotland habitually returns 40+ Labour MPs, but who forget that it also sends members to Westminster from the other parties to offset them. In October 1974, for example – which we’ll discover shortly is a significant date – Labour won 41 Scottish seats. That sounds impressive, until you realise that Scotland also voted in 30 non-Labour MPs (16 Tory, 11 SNP, 3 Liberal), meaning that the net contribution of Scotland towards a Labour majority was just 11. So let’s take a look at the whole historical picture.
Labour didn’t become a significant electoral force at all until the 1920s, with Ramsey MacDonald its first ever Prime Minister in 1923, albeit leading an extremely shaky minority government which only lasted 10 months. Universal suffrage for all men and women over 21 finally arrived in 1928, but the modern political era starts with Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour landslide, and particularly with the Representation Of The People Act 1948, which abolished multiple voting, multi-member constituencies and other anachronisms to create the framework which still essentially, with a few tweaks around the edges (eg lowering the voting age to 18 in 1969), governs British elections.
The 67 years since the end of World War 2 have seen 18 General Elections to the Westminster Parliament, with the following outcomes (sources below):
1945 Labour govt (Attlee)
Labour majority: 146
Labour majority without any Scottish MPs in Parliament: 143
1950 Labour govt (Attlee)
Labour majority: 5
Without Scottish MPs: 2
1951 Conservative govt (Churchill/Eden)
Conservative majority: 17
Without Scottish MPs: 16
1955 Conservative govt (Eden/Macmillan)
Conservative majority: 60
Without Scottish MPs: 61
1959 Conservative govt (Macmillan/Douglas-Home)
Conservative majority: 100
Without Scottish MPs: 91
1964 Labour govt (Wilson)
Labour majority: 4
Without Scottish MPs: -9
CHANGE: LABOUR MAJORITY TO HUNG PARLIAMENT
1966 Labour govt (Wilson)
Labour majority: 98
Without Scottish MPs: 77
1970 Conservative govt (Heath)
Conservative majority: 30
Without Scottish MPs: 5
1974 Minority Labour govt (Wilson)
Labour majority: -33
Without Scottish MPs: -50
1974b Labour govt (Wilson/Callaghan)
Labour majority: 3
Without Scottish MPs: -8
CHANGE: LABOUR MAJORITY TO HUNG PARLIAMENT
1979 Conservative govt (Thatcher)
Conservative majority: 43
Without Scottish MPs: 70
1983 Conservative govt (Thatcher)
Conservative majority: 144
Without Scottish MPs: 174
1987 Conservative govt (Thatcher/Major)
Conservative majority: 102
Without Scottish MPs: 154
1992 Conservative govt (Major)
Conservative majority: 21
Without Scottish MPs: 71
1997 Labour govt (Blair)
Labour majority: 179
Without Scottish MPs: 139
2001 Labour govt (Blair)
Labour majority: 167
Without Scottish MPs: 129
2005 Labour govt (Blair/Brown)
Labour majority: 66
Without Scottish MPs: 43
2010 Coalition govt (Cameron)
Conservative majority: -38
Without Scottish MPs: 19
CHANGE: HUNG PARLIAMENT TO CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY
So in summary we can see the following:
- Scottish MPs have NEVER turned what would have been a Conservative government into a Labour one, or indeed vice versa.
- on only TWO occasions, the most recent of them being 38 years ago, (1964 and the second of the two 1974 elections), have Scottish MPs given Labour a majority they wouldn’t have had from England/Wales/NI alone. The majorities in question were incredibly fragile ones of four and three MPs respectively – the 1964 Labour government lasted barely 18 months, and the 1974 one had to be propped up by the Lib-Lab Pact through 1977-78 so in practice barely qualified as a majority. Without Scottish MPs but with Liberal support, Wilson would have had a majority of 12.
- and on ONE occasion (2010) the presence of Scottish MPs has deprived the Conservatives of an outright majority, although the Conservatives ended up in control of the government anyway in coalition with the Lib Dems.
- which means that for 62 of the last 67 years, Scottish MPs as an entity have had no practical influence over the composition of the UK government. From a high of 72 MPs in 1983, Scotland’s representation will by 2015 have decreased to 52, substantially reducing any future possibility of affecting a change.
The fact is that England and the rest of the UK are and always have been perfectly capable of electing a Labour government if they want one, even if Scotland goes its own way. Indeed, there’s a strong argument from the left-wing perspective that, with the SNP significantly less right-wing than any of the Westminster parties, a social-democratic Scotland could serve as an example to voters south of the border that there’s a viable alternative to the neoliberal creed of the three London-based parties.
But either way, the truth is that Labour doesn’t need Scottish MPs, and an independent Scotland would NOT give the Tories a permanent majority in the remnant UK. Those are the facts, and voters should be deeply mistrustful of anyone who tells them anything else.