Over the course of the last 25 years Scottish politics has altered substantially, and in doing so it has diverged markedly from the rest of the United Kingdom. The next five years will determine whether Scotland will continue to diverge to the point of separation or whether a new United Kingdom can be forged based on more federal lines.
In 1979 the Conservative Party in Scotland gained 916,155 votes votes in Scotland and elected 22 MPs. Labour gained 1,211,455 votes and elected 44 MPs, while the Liberals got 262,224 votes votes, electing three MPs while the SNP gained 504,259 votes but were only able to elect 2 MPs. That year showed the real impact of the "first past the post" electoral system on Scottish politics, with a small fall in the SNP vote reducing their parliamentary Party substantially and relatively minor differences in the vote bring big differences in the outcomes for Labour and the Conservatives.
Over the course of the past three decades, Scottish politics became focused on the debacle of the referendum on devolution - the fact that, although the majority had voted in favour of this significant constitutional change, no Scottish Assembly had been created became the fulcrum of Scottish politics. It was an issue that split both Labour and the Conservatives, but in the end, under the influence of john Smith, the Labour Party became determined "Home Rulers", the Conservatives, despite their own divisions, became the party of adamant opposition to any change in the constitutional status of Scotland whatsoever: the die-hard Unionists.
Yet in the end, this position was untenable, simply because it was wrong: Scots Law was the only legal system in the world without a true legislature and the failure of Conservatives to engage with the debate is ultimately- at least as much as the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher- the cause of the demise of the Conservatives; and demise it has truly been. reduced to the status of fourth party in Scotland, wiped out entirely in 1997, even now they posses only one Westminster seat and across Scotland, even in their former heartlands, they are but a shadow of themselves. The collapse of the Conservatives north of the border has been dramatic, but even the resurgence of the Conservatives in recent weeks has found no echo in Scotland- the destruction of the Scottish Tories, though not complete, still seems irrevocable.
Where Scottish Politics is drawing parallels with the rest of the UK is, however, in the gathering weakness of Labour. The creation of the Scottish Parliament with a fairer voting system has shown two things in sharp relief- firstly the overweening arrogance and complacency of Scottish Labour, and their inability to tackle the economic and social challenges that Scotland faces. The death of Donald Dewar created a vacuum at the heart of the party which has yet to be satisfactorily filled- the hapless Henry MacLeish replaced by the cocksure arrogance of Jack McConnell. The new leader of Scottish Labour, Wendy Alexander continues the murky dynastic traditions of the West of Scotland apparatchiks. Having dealt with her brother at Uni, I am unsurprised neither at her ineptness of touch nor her relentless and unprincipled ambition.
The counter to the collapse of the Conservatives in Scotland has been the rise of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The Liberal Democrats have become well entrenched in the North and East of Scotland and have gained substantially in MPs- now holding eleven seats. In the first two Scottish Parliaments they were able to wield considerable power- especially given the prolonged leadership problems of Labour that meant that Jim Wallace found his role as Deputy First Minister was more than ornamental.
The SNP could only hold six Westminster seats in 2005, but the sea change that has taken place in recent years has been the election of the SNP as a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP doubled their number of MSPs and was able to form an administration under their wily and politically ruthless leader, Alex Salmond.
However, the crisis of Labour in Scotland is extremely dangerous: the dramatic fall of Labour over the past six months opens up the possibility of a major constitutional rift which works to the short run political interests of Alex Salmond and David Cameron but which ultimately leads to the end of our country in its current form. The irony is that much of Salmond's support is precisely the same people who were once die-hard Unionists: that is to say from Conservatives.
As under Margaret Thatcher, the debate is being framed as a zero-sum game between Scottish independence and the United Kingdom. Yet now, as then, there is another way: Scottish autonomy as part of a Federal United Kingdom. Indeed both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd were intended to be only the first steps in a settlement with Northern Ireland and England too. Sure enough, Northern Ireland, eventually, seems to have been able to grasp the chance for a settlement. In England though, the message has been lost. The other day I heard John Redwood suggest that Westminster should sit partly as the Parliament of the UK and partly as the Parliament of England- I can not imagine much that would destroy the UK quicker than such ill thought out nonsense. Apart from the fact that it would still leave 50 million in non-local units, it would be bound to create a schizophrenia amongst the English members of parliament.
Westminster should remain the Parliament for the whole Kingdom. In my view, there is a model in Spain, where one large Spanish area dominates the smaller nationalities such as the Basques, Gellegans and the Catalans in the same way as England dominates the rest of the UK. In Spain, different parts of the country have been offered different levels of autonomy- alot for the national areas, but also for those areas of Castilian speakers, like Andalucia, where there was demand for it. The units vary from single counties, such as La Rioja, Murcia or Asturias, to much larger groups of counties, like Castilla La Mancha and Castilla i Leon. The choice was left to locals. I could easily see a Cornish Assembly or an East Anglian one of Norfolk and Suffolk, or both Sussex-es being quite popular- and since it is based on traditional boundaries, I suspect the argument about "an extra layer bureaucracy" is removed too.
As in Spain too, I suspect that, though the SNP may continue to do well in Scottish elections, it will struggle to gain the majority of UK mandates in Scotland, as the PNV or CiU equally struggle to do in Catalonia and the Basque country for the Spanish Cortes. Nevertheless there is a trial of strength in the offing- and the real risk that a single mis-step could undermine our country- Gordon Brown and David Cameron would do well to listen to the Liberal Democrat answer to the "West Lothian question": Home rule all round.