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Consequences in AH: How the Scottish Liberal Democrats caused Brexit

By Tom Anderson


When dramatic political events take place, it is common for analysts to speculate on just what sowed the seeds for them. When the world economy crashed in 2008, some people were keen to identify the trigger as being the election of a particular politician or a particular policy passed. Usually, of course, there are a great number of causes, and it is very possible to trace these back years, decades, centuries. One can relate wars that break out today to borders that were drawn five hundred years ago. At some point, trying to ascertain ‘whose fault’ something was becomes a tad futile—but an interesting historical party game.

In June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, a supranational body of which the UK had been a member since its creation in 1993, and of its precursor the European Community since 1973. This decision has dominated British politics from then until the present, and is likely to continue to do so in future, as the precise outcome remains a matter of political contention.


Naturally, those who opposed that decision have been keen to point the finger at specific triggers for that cause, be it the alleged charisma of Nigel Farage, the specific foreign and domestic policies of the Cameron or Blair governments, or many other things—usually rather more recent than the long history of exceptionalist British Euroscepticism would imply. To my mind, the important question is not why the people of the UK voted to leave the EU, but why they were ever given the choice in the first place—considering that on multiple occasions (1993, 2004, 2009, etc.) British governments had ruled out related referendums implicitly out of fear that the pro-European side would lose. The remarkable thing about 2016 is that a number of very specific dominoes had to fall in a very specific way for a referendum to become inevitable.

Oddly enough, it is possible to trace back the conditions for the referendum to decisions made in Scotland—which we are frequently told is now the most Remain-voting part of the UK (in sharp contrast to the earlier 1975 EEC membership referendum), by the local Liberal Democrats—who have based their return to politics after the disaster of the 2015 election solely on their stark commitment to a continuity Remain position in the aftermath of the referendum. Yet, strangely enough, it was choices made by the Scottish Lib Dems that led to the 2016 vote.

To understand this, we must rewind thirteen years before the referendum vote. In May 2003, Scots went to the polls to elect a Scottish Parliament for only the second time (in its modern form). This institution itself owes its existence to a contentious history of referendums, so we could trace back causality even further(!)

When Winnie Ewing won Hamilton for the Scottish National Party in a shock by-election result in 1967, the Labour Government in Westminster set up the Kilbrandon Commission to respond to apparently growing pro-independence sentiment in Scotland. This was exacerbated by the discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1970s, successfully capitalised upon by the SNP who argued ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’. The SNP had a major parliamentary breakthrough in the two indecisive general elections of 1974 as a result. (In the 1975 EEC referendum the SNP campaigned for the UK to leave the EEC, in sharp contrast to the party’s modern incarnation’s behaviour, but likely hoping for a similarly split vote between Scotland and England—just the other way around). In 1977 Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government, limping on with a tiny and shaky majority, introduced the Scotland Bill to establish a Scottish Assembly, to be confirmed by referendum in 1979. This was, however, opposed by many who saw it as the backdoor to dismantling the Union, and a turnout requirement was added in an amendment which stated that Yes must be endorsed by 40% of the total electorate in Scotland, rather than just a simple majority.

Of course, this meant it was easy for unionists to stop the process by just boycotting the polls. A relatively low turnout (by 1970s standards) of 64% produced a Yes vote of 52%, but this represented only 33% of the registered electorate. Scottish devolution was therefore halted at this point, and the understandably bitter SNP refused to support the Labour Government further. The SNP voted to topple Callaghan in a vote of no confidence called by Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Callaghan compared this to turkeys voting for Christmas, and indeed the SNP were reduced to just two seats at the ensuing 1979 general election—which put Thatcher in power for 11 years, and the Conservatives as a whole for 18. When Labour finally returned to power in 1997, Tony Blair passed a second Scotland Bill to establish a Scottish Parliament (not Assembly). This passed by a far more impressive 74% to 26%, albeit on an even lower turnout than the 1979 referendum, and every region in Scotland voted Yes.

It is important to be aware of this history, because affects later events. The Scottish Parliament, like the Welsh Assembly and London Assembly, were set up at a time when the Labour Government was flirting with the idea of electoral reform, and using these bodies as pilot cases. Unlike the earlier 1970s proposals, the new Scottish Parliament used a voting system described as the Additional Member System (AMS), a variation on the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP) used in Germany. Under this voting system, voters have one vote for a local MP counted under the usual first-past-the-post voting system, and a second vote for a list of party candidates taking in a larger region of the country. The regional vote is divvied out proportionately among the lists according to percentages cast for each, but then candidates are crossed off if their party already won that number of the usual first-past-the-post seats. The result has been criticised for giving ‘two types of representatives’ but it produces a more proportional (not entirely proportional) result compared to pure first-past-the post, as used at Westminster.

Under this voting system, it makes it very hard for any party to gain a majority alone. This was likely viewed as a feature not a bug by Labour at the time, as it would help prevent the SNP ever gaining a majority (or so it was thought). In the first election, in 1999, Labour’s Donald Dewar became the first First Minister of Scotland, forming a coalition government with the Scottish Liberal Democrats under Jim Wallace. This was in the wake of the Tories’ nadir in Scotland, where they had lost all their Westminster seats in the 1997 general election, and the Scottish Conservatives won no constituency seats at the first Scottish Parliament (or ‘Holyrood’) election either. However, due to the AMS system (which ironically they had opposed) they ended up in third place, behind Labour and the SNP but ahead of the Lib Dems.

Now we must return to the 2003 general election. Dewar had passed away in 2000, replaced first by Henry McLeish and then Jack McConnell as First Minister and Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. The results of the 2003 election suggested a disfocused dissatisfaction with the status quo; less than half of Scots voted, a ten percent fall in turnout compared to 1999. The Labour Party likely suffered from both the ‘Officegate’ scandal that had toppled McLeish, and Tony Blair’s controversial foreign policy at Westminster. However, the SNP (now led by John Swinney rather than veteran leader Alex Salmond) also lost seats, and the Tories and Lib Dems only held steady. It was minor parties and independents that were the great beneficiary of the electorate’s ennui: the Scottish Greens and Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialists both dramatically increased their seat counts, and the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Party won one seat. Three independents were also elected, a rarity under the German prototype of this electoral system—albeit only one of them had not previously served as a high-profile party politician.

Given these eclectic results, there was initially talk of a ‘rainbow coalition’, but in the end McConnell elected to re-form his antebellum coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The coalition formed in 1999 had initially been regarded as controversial by the Lib Dems’ supporters as having ‘sold out’ (as the future Westminster one with the Tories would prove to be in 2010) but Wallace had successfully won back his party’s popularity. This time he was keen that the Lib Dems obtain more concrete gains in the coalition negotiations before they agreed to support Labour again. The two major concessions he obtained were 1) that Labour drop authoritarian stances on ‘anti-social behaviour’ from their manifesto, and 2) that fully proportional representation be implemented for Scottish local councils, then still elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP).

Now fast forward to the next Scottish election, in May 2007. The shine had definitely come off the Blair Government at Westminster, and Tony Blair would resign only two months later. The Labour-Lib Dem coalition had ruled Scotland since 1999 and was also beginning to look tired. The Lib Dems had suffered problems at Westminster with the resignation of Charles Kennedy and the widely-derided leadership of his success, Sir Menzies Campbell. They had also changed their leader at Holyrood when Wallace had stepped down in favour of Nicol Stephen. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, de facto leader of the Scottish independence movement for decades, had replaced Swinney and returned to lead the SNP.


Due to how the electoral cycles worked, Scotland voted for its local councils on the same day as it voted for the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. And this is where the trouble started.

As the Liberal Democrats had insisted on in their coalition arrangement, the councils would now be elected under proportional representation—specifically the method known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), as used by the Dáil in Ireland, the Australian Senate and not many other government bodies (though some organisations use it). STV is a British invention, dating back to the Victorian period; indeed, there were debates in Westminster on introducing it before suffrage was introduced for all women or most men! Each constituency has a number of seats (typically between three and seven) and voters must rank candidates numerically from best to worst. The process by which this becomes a result is rather complex and ‘black box’, with the result that Irish general elections take notoriously long to count. Parties also tend to negotiate deals to advise confused voters to preference one another; Australians were formerly able to vote ‘Above the Line’ for the list of preferences recommended by their party, which was abolished in 2016 because the preference deals were having more impact on who was elected than what the voters thought!

Regardless of STV’s merits or otherwise, there is no avoiding the fact that it is a complex and confusing voting system for those unfamiliar with it—and Scotland’s voters and vote counters were having to use it for the first time at the same time as voting for the Holyrood Parliament, for which they had two votes and which used a different system. It is small wonder that an unprecedentedly, absurdly large number of votes were recorded as invalid and rejected: 7% of all votes cast, or around 142,000. It is almost remarkable that more voters did not enter their ballots incorrectly. Invalid votes may also have resulted from the fact that parties were permitted to list the party leader’s name rather than the party—so for example the SNP took advantage of Alex Salmond’s popularity by standing as ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ in the list seats rather than ‘SNP’.

The results for Holyrood took a long time to count, but eventually it emerged that the SNP had surpassed Labour by just one seat, 47 seats to 46. Labour considered legal action due to the number of invalid votes; in the critical seat, Cunninghame North, the SNP candidate had beat Labour’s by just forty-eight votes. In the end, even though the SNP had far less than a majority, Salmond was able to obtain sufficient support from the Greens to form a government.

Fast forward once again to the next election, in 2011. The Labour Party under new leader Iain Gray were hoping for a comeback, knowing the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would suffer from being in government at Westminster. But the SNP’s governance had been popular and Gray had a disastrous campaign, among other factors. In a shock result, Salmond achieved what should have been impossible—the SNP won an absolute majority of seats, 69 out of 129.

In the wake of this historic result, Salmond proposed a referendum on Scottish independence, agreed with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Describing this campaign would fill many articles, but suffice to say that when the referendum was held in 2014, pro-independence forces were defeated by unionists, 55% to 45%.


However, the dream of Scottish independence energised many younger voters (the age of suffrage had been set to 16 rather than 18), historic non-voters, and some formerly loyal Labour voters rejected their party ‘sharing a platform with the Tories’ or just outright rejecting independence. Serious internal problems with Scottish Labour, which had been festering for years, came out as a result of this.

When the UK general election came around in 2015, the SNP benefited from this large number of pro-independence voters who had previously not voted for them (or at all). Polls in the lead-up to the election suggested the SNP might win every seat in Scotland, though these were usually dismissed as hyperbolic. In fact in the end the SNP won all but three, with the formerly dominant Scottish Labour being reduced down to just one seat, as were the Tories and Lib Dems.

Yet the SNP breakthrough had been forecast enough for political analysts to speculate about what might happen. Ed Miliband might win south of the border, but could he govern without Labour’s Scottish seats? Might he form a coalition with the SNP? What would that look like? The Conservatives noted that English voters seemed wary of this, and tried a propaganda campaign portraying Miliband as a weak figure peeping out of Salmond’s pocket. To the (rumoured) surprise of those Conservative spin doctors, the message penetrated the English electorate far more effectively than their other messages. In the last few weeks of the campaign, English voters not only turned against Labour, but those in the West Country also dropped away from the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems had lost a lot of support throughout the coalition years, but had hoped their notoriously effective local campaign machines and the popularity of individual MPs would save them. But the Tories’ national message—Vote Tory to stop the SNP being in power at Westminster—helped blast their former coalition partners down to just eight seats from 57. David Cameron, to the surprise of everyone (including himself) had won the first Conservative majority since John Major in 1992.

And this was a problem. Cameron had proposed a number of policies during the coalition years to stop support ebbing away to the UK Independence Party, which began rising on the back of traditional Tory discontent with ‘Cameroon’ liberal-conservativism coupled to the Lib Dems losing the ‘we are against everything’ vote on entering government.

One of his proposals was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, which some of his rebellious backbenchers had previously tried to legislate for in 2011. Cameron hoped to pass legislation that would force any future government to stop the process of a referendum coming forward, which might make a Miliband government spend political capital to do it. Conversely, if he was able to reform the coalition with the Lib Dems, they could demand it be stopped as a coalition demand.

But Cameron had a majority and a lot of angry backbenchers, which meant he had to hold a referendum. So he did, and the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Whether this is a decision the reader supports or not—it is Jim Wallace, or maybe Winnie Ewing, who you have to thank for it.


... Without a Conservative majority in 2015, there would have been no European referendum...

... Without fear of the SNP surge in 2015, there would have been no Conservative majority...

... Without the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, there would have been no SNP surge...

... Without the SNP winning a majority at Holyrood in 2011, there would have been no Scottish independence referendum ...

... Without the SNP gaining a narrow minority at Holyrood in 2007, there would have been no SNP majority in 2011 ....

... Without the confusion caused by the introduction of STV for Scottish councils in 2007 and the large number of invalid votes, there would likely have been no SNP minority ...

... Without the Scottish Lib Dems' coalition demands in 2003, there would have been no STV councils!

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth