Scots clip the nationalists’ wings

Arrogance is a common sin in politics, not confined to any one side. Readers will easily be able to come up with their own examples. Nonetheless, it’s something that nationalist parties seem to be especially prone to.

Believing themselves to embody the aspirations of their people, it’s easy to slip into thinking of themselves as the people’s only legitimate representatives, not needing validation by anything so mundane as a democratic vote. And sure enough, once they gain power, many nationalist movements have become intolerant and authoritarian.

Scotland has not reached that stage, and maybe never will. But the syndrome is on show all the same in the post-election remarks of its chief minister, Scottish Nationalist Nicola Sturgeon.

Scotland’s election was last Thursday. The Scottish National Party, in government since 2007, suffered a small swing against it, losing 2.3% of the vote and six seats. Labour did even worse, losing 7.2% and 13 seats, with the gains going to the Conservatives (up 10.6% and 16 seats) and the Greens (up 2.2% and four seats, edging out the Liberal Democrats for fourth place).

That left the SNP still far and away the largest party, with 63 seats to the Conservatives’ 31. But in the last parliament it had an absolute majority (from 44.0% of the vote); the loss of six seats leaves it two seats short.

Sturgeon, however, wasn’t letting that faze her in the slightest. She described the result as “emphatic”, giving her party “a clear and unequivocal mandate.” She ruled out forming a coalition, although she promised to “reach out and seek to work with others across the parliament to find common ground and build consensus.”

There is, of course, no such thing as a mandate to form a minority government. (Unless other parties had campaigned on a promise to support the SNP from the crossbenches, which they did not.) Sturgeon is entitled to continue in office if, and only if, a parliamentary majority supports her.

But the entrenched British mentality of first-past-the-post combines with the illusions of nationalism to produce a strange lack of concern for parliamentary niceties.

In practice, Sturgeon is unlikely to be called to account for this. The differences separating her opponents are too great, and there is essentially no chance of Conservatives, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems combining to install an alternative government to the SNP.

But they really should, just to make the point that democracy is about more than beating any particular rival: it’s about putting together majority support. Something that the SNP demonstrably lacks.

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