Scotland gets the Government it Wants at Westminster, Two out of Three TimesTweet
Out of the 18 General Elections since 1945, Scotland has got the party at Westminster which won the Scottish popular vote 12 times. That is, exactly two thirds of the time Scotland gets what it wants. For a population which is around one twelfth of the United Kingdom, that is pretty good going, says Alistair McConnachie.
Updated on 1 July 2014 and posted originally on 19 October 2012.
We often hear Nationalists (and some Labour voters with short memories) complaining about how Scotland "always" votes one way but gets the opposite. The implication is that Scotland always votes socialist but gets Conservative government.
Really? Is it true that Scotland never gets what it votes for?
In this article, we list the General Elections since 1945 and examine the statistics a little more closely.
The reality is that Scotland gets what it votes for two out of three times - the same as England!
It should be noted, right up front, that the Nationalists will respond to this article by pointing out that if Scotland were separated from the rest of the UK, then Scotland would get what it voted for "all the time". From one perspective (see below) you could say that, but the point of this article is not to discover how Scotland could get its way all the time, but to show that within the Union, Scotland gets a good deal democratically, and a much better deal than the separatists would try to pretend, or misrepresent.
How many people know that out of the 18 General Elections since 5 July 1945 - measured by the winning percentage of overall vote on the day - 9 times Scotland voted Labour, and got Labour. That is, half the time! A further 3 times Scotland voted Conservative, and got Conservative.
In total 12 times, or 66.67% of the time, or two thirds of the time, Scotland has got the party which it voted for - measured by the winning percentage on the day.
That is pretty good going, considering Scotland is around a twelfth of the population of the entire UK. Of the remaining 6 times - Scotland voted Labour and got the Conservatives 5 times, and a Coalition government once.
This compares with England which has also got what it voted for 12 times. That is 7 times England voted Conservative and got Conservative, and 5 times England voted Labour and got Labour. Once it voted exactly for Conservative and for Labour by an equal percentage, and got Labour. In addition, 3 times it voted Conservative and got Labour, once it voted Labour and got Conservative, and once it voted Conservative and got a Coalition.
Even if we take the last 10 General Elections since February 1974 inclusive, Scotland has got what it voted for 5 out of the 10 times! That is, Scotland got its way half the time. For a population one tenth the size of England, that is a good deal and is one of the benefits of being in the UK relationship.
The General Elections since July 1945
Here is a list of the dates of the 18 British General elections since 5 July 1945, followed by the name of the political party which won, followed by the name of the Prime Minister(s) during this period. 1
Below that we list how Scotland voted as measured by the percentage of the vote on the day for that party, followed by "what Scotland got". We do the same for England. Our reference for the statistics is the House of Commons Library, Research Paper 03/59, entitled UK Election Statistics: 1945-2003, published on 1 July 2003 at pages 13 and 11 respectively. 2 Sources for the statistics for 2005 and 2010 are House of Commons Library documents referenced below.
5 July 1945 - Labour (Clement Attlee)
Scotland voted Labour (47.9%). Got Labour.
England voted Labour (48.6%). Got Labour.
23 February 1950 - Labour (Clement Attlee)
Scotland voted Labour (46.2%). Got Labour.
England voted for Labour and Conservative exactly (48.8% each). Got Labour.
25 October 1951 - Conservative (Winston Churchill)
Scotland voted Conservative (48.6%). Got Conservative.
England voted Labour (46.1%). Got Conservative.
26 May 1955 - Conservative (Anthony Eden)
Scotland voted Conservative (50.1%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (50.3%). Got Conservative.
8 October 1959 - Conservative (Harold MacMillan, and Alex Douglas-Home)
Scotland voted Conservative (47.2%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (50.0%). Got Conservative.
15 October 1964 - Labour (Harold Wilson)
Scotland voted Labour (48.7%). Got Labour.
England voted Conservative (44.0%). Got Labour.
31 March 1966 - Labour (Harold Wilson)
Scotland voted Labour (49.9%). Got Labour.
England voted Labour (47.8%). Got Labour.
18 June 1970 - Conservative (Edward Heath)
Scotland voted Labour (44.5%). Got Conservative - the first time Scotland didn't get what the majority of voters for a particular party voted for, post-war.
England voted Conservative (48.3%). Got Conservative.
28 February 1974 - Labour (Harold Wilson)
Scotland voted Labour (36.6%). Got Labour.
England voted Conservative (40.1%). Got Labour.
10 October 1974 - Labour (Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan)
Scotland voted Labour (36.3%). Got Labour.
England voted Labour (40.1%). Got Labour.
3 May 1979 - Conservative (Margaret Thatcher)
Scotland voted Labour (41.5%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (47.2%). Got Conservative.
9 June 1983 - Conservative (Margaret Thatcher)
Scotland voted Labour (35.1%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (46.0%). Got Conservative.
11 June 1987 - Conservative (Margaret Thatcher, and John Major)
Scotland voted Labour (42.4%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (46.1%). Got Conservative.
9 April 1992 - Conservative (John Major)
Scotland voted Labour (39%). Got Conservative.
England voted Conservative (45.5%). Got Conservative.
1 May 1997 - Labour (Tony Blair)
Scotland voted Labour (45.6%). Got Labour.
England voted Labour (43.5%) Got Labour.
7 June 2001 - Labour (Tony Blair)
Scotland voted Labour (43.3%). Got Labour.
England voted Labour (41.4%). Got Labour.
5 May 2005 - Labour (Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown)
Scotland voted Labour (38.9%). Got Labour.
England voted Conservative (35.7%). Got Labour. (However, the percentage difference was minimal at 0.2% more than Labour's 35.5% - which delivered Labour 92 more seats.) 3
The breakdown in Scotland among the major parties was: 4
Labour vote - 922,402 - 38.9%
Lib Dem vote - 528,076 - 22.6%
SNP vote - 412,267 - 17.7%
Conservative vote - 369,388 - 15.8%
6 May 2010 - Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition (David Cameron)
Scotland voted Labour (42%). Got Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition, which nevertheless represented 35.6% of Scottish voters.
England voted Conservative (39.5%). Got Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition. 5
The breakdown in Scotland among the major parties was: 6
Labour vote - 1,035,528 - 42.0%
Coalition vote - 878,326 - 35.6%
- Lib Dem vote - 465,471 - 18.9%
- Conservative vote - 412,855 - 16.7%
SNP vote - 491,386 - 19.9%
As we can see, at the 2010 General Election Scotland voted Labour, but this was closely followed by the combined Coalition vote of only 6.4% less - 878,326. It can also be noted that the difference between the Conservative vote, and the SNP vote is close. The SNP like to talk as if there are no Tories in Scotland. However, in 2010, there were only 3.2% fewer Tories voters than SNP voters. It is quite possible that the Tories could surpass the SNP in the popular vote at future General Elections. Indeed, it should be Conservative Party strategy to gain more votes than either, or both, the SNP and the Lib Dems at the General Election in 2015.
Comparing the 2010 Westminster Results with the 2011 Holyrood Results
At the Holyrood election, every voter has two votes - one for the Constituency which is via FPTP, and one for the Region which is via PR. Below, we list the Constituency and Regional votes and then average them (we are not including the minor parties).
5 May 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election
Party: Constituency Vote -- Regional Vote -- Average Vote
SNP: 902,915 -- 876,421 -- 889,668
Labour: 630,461 -- 523,559 -- 577,010
Conservative: 276,652 -- 245,967 -- 261,310
Lib Dem: 157,714 -- 103,472 -- 130,593
At the 2011 Holyrood election, 889,668 people (the average of the Constituency and Regional vote) voted for the SNP. This compares with 878,326 people who voted for the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives at the General Election in 2010. In other words, both the Westminster and Holyrood governments have a mandate from virtually the same number of Scots.
Democratic Legitimacy as Measured by % Turnout
Westminster consistently trumps Holyrood for democratic legitimacy. Voting at General Elections has been consistently higher than turnout at Holyrood elections.
For example, 64% of the Scottish electorate voted at the General Election in 2010, compared to a mere 50% at the Scottish Parliament election in 2011. Consider the following electoral turnouts in Scotland: 7
1997 - 71.3%
2001 - 58.2%
2005 - 60.6%
2010 - 63.8%
1999 - 59%
2003 - 49.4% 8
2007 - 51.8%
2011 - 50.4%
Addition 7 February 2013: Since this article was published, David Torrance has written a good article in The Scotsman on why there is "No truth in 'no mandate'" claim. See www.scotsman.com/news/david-torrance-no-truth-in-no-mandate-claim-1-2776205 We had the following letter published in The Scotsman the next day on 7 Feb 2013:
"David Torrance shows that, at general elections measured by seats won, Scotland got what it voted for 11 out of 18 times since 1945. However, if we measure it by the winner of the popular vote on the day, then Scotland actually got what it voted for 12 out of 18 times. For example, at the 1959 election, after which the Conservatives formed a government, their candidates in Scotland took 47.2 per cent of the popular vote against Labour’s 46.7 per cent, albeit attaining only 31 MPs to Labour’s 38. In 1951, the Conservatives also won the popular vote in Scotland but tied with Labour for seats won. Measured by the popular vote, 12 out of 18 is also the same number of times England got what it voted for."
FOLLOWING ADDITIONAL MATERIAL ADDED ON 1 JULY 2014: Before we make some further points which have arisen over the past 2 years since the above article was written, and before we address some of the frequently-heard nationalist claims, let us define the following terms.
We Vote for a Parliament, not just for a Government
At the General Election, we vote not only for a Government, but also for a Parliament. The Parliament is different from the Government.
Here are the definitions from the UK Parliament website 9:
The government runs the country. It has responsibility for developing and implementing policy and for drafting laws. It is also known as the Executive. Parliament
Parliament is the highest legislative authority in the UK. It has responsibility for checking the work of government and examining, debating and approving new laws. It is also known as the Legislature.
The "government" is led by the Prime Minister, and is formed by the political party (or coalition of parties) with the greatest representation in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister selects a Cabinet of MPs and sometimes members of the House of Lords. There are 22 Cabinet members at present, not including the PM. There are also another 100 "Ministers" who head various departments of state. 10
However, all the elected MPs – regardless of party – exercise continuous decision-making influence and voting power during the entire tenure of the Parliament.
In 2010, Scotland did not return a majority of MPs who represented the eventual government, but Scotland did return 59 MPs - 41 Labour MPs, 11 Lib Dem MPs, 6 SNP MPs and 1 Conservative - all of whom have a say and a vote over the direction of the United Kingdom as a consequence of their roles within the Parliament. They continue to exercise a crucial role in the running of the entire United Kingdom – even though most of them do not sit in the actual "government" of the UK.
Acts of Parliament can sometimes be passed, or fail, with slim majorities. It stands to reason that the MPs elected in Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland) will be important in influencing these decisions.
The Example of the Syria Vote
Take for example, the vote on whether or not to attack Syria which was held in Parliament on the 29th of August 2013. We are not arguing for that policy either way when we point out that the vote against attacking Syria was 285 to 272.
If we adjust those figures by removing the 59 MPs from Scotland, then the decision would have been 258 to 240 in favour of attacking Syria. This demonstrates that the 59 MPs are able to influence the entire United Kingdom political state and control the way it moves.
In that regard - as we emphasise - it is not only about whether these MPs are in the actual government. Because even if they are not, they exercise decision-making influence over every policy which is discussed, and they exercise voting power over every decision which is made in the British Parliament.
And as we have said here – if we set up a separate Scottish State then we will still find ourselves lying in our Islands' Bed, with the remainder of the UK Elephant, but now we will have no control over which way it chooses to roll.
Having made the distinction between a Government and a Parliament – and emphasised the importance of both – let's make the following Points; while we address some of the frequently-heard nationalist claims.
The United Kingdom Always Gets the Parliament and Government it Votes For
Nationalists will say, "We don't get the government we vote for."
We pro-UK people don't adopt that way of looking at things. We understand that the British Parliament, and Government, is representative of the democratic will of the British electorate – not its constituent parts.
We understand that we, in the United Kingdom, always get both the Parliament and the Government we vote for. The UK always gets what the UK votes for.
It is only if we adopt the nationalist frame, and think in terms of "Scotland alone", can we start to talk about "we in Scotland" not getting the government – and even then, as we have shown above, that complaint only works 1 out of 3 times!
It is also strange, exclusionary language to say "we in Scotland don't get the government we vote for at Westminster" because it suggests that those in Scotland who voted Tory or Lib Dem and ended up with a Tory/Lib Dem coalition are not considered, or entitled, to be included in the idea of "we".
We vote at General Elections as part of the United Kingdom. Most of us are happy to do so. But if we wanted to adopt the nationalist frame and break the results into the various parts of the UK, we could complain that lots of places "do not get what they voted for". We don't complain about this though, because we know the advantages outweigh any temporary differences we may have.
This is well summed up in the following letter which appeared in The Scotsman on 11 December 2013:
Lesley Riddoch (Perspective, 9 December) writes that it is “hard fact” that Scots “never get the government we vote for”.
This, of course, is the erroneous argument put forward by Nationalists who point to the 1980s when substantial Conservative majorities in Westminster were accompanied by a dramatic collapse in the Conservative vote in Scotland – but it conveniently overlooks the more recent period (1997-2010) when the vote in Scotland aligned with the rest of the UK to return a Labour government – with, latterly, both a Scottish prime minister and Scottish chancellor of the Exchequer.
It also ignores the fact that on three occasions since the Second World War (1950, 1964 and 1974) votes in Scotland contributed to forming governments at Westminster that were a different colour to those voted for in England.
But that, of course, is the nature of any democracy – the party with the majority of MPs within a given geographic area forms the government. It is not necessarily an argument for separation. In the Scottish Parliament, for example, Orkney and Shetland consistently vote Liberal Democrat but we have an SNP administration and, while there may be occasional mutterings about breaking away if Scotland votes for independence, nobody seriously seems to be suggesting the Northern Isles separate from Scotland.
And, of course, the rest of the UK is not some monolithic block that all votes the same way. It is a patchwork of different areas with varying opinions that may or may not get the government it votes for.
In the most recent general election in 2010, for example, of the 74 parliamentary seats in Greater London, 44 returned Labour MPs, 23 Conservative MPs and seven Liberal Democrats.
So London, with a population more than double that of Scotland and a massive contributor to the national Exchequer, could also argue it didn’t get the government it voted for.
However, some would argue that not always getting what you voted for is compensated for by the benefits of remaining in a unified country without the threat of internal borders; with a common currency; a common defence force and intelligence system; an extensive network of embassies and consulates throughout the world that benefits travelling citizens; and without the massive expenditure of duplicating a host of agencies required to run a separate country.
We are all Governed by our British Parliament, not "Ruled"
Nationalists will say, "We don't want to be ruled by England."
We pro-UK people are not "ruled" by England. Rather, we are governed by our British Parliament which we elect democratically by voting as the United Kingdom together.
As we have shown in the above article, since 1945 "Scotland" specifically - in the sense of the voting electorate of Scotland - has had the government which the majority on the day voted for 2 out of 3 times. We had the Labour Party for 13 years until 2010. From the nationalist frame which focuses only on the majority of the voting electorate of Scotland, per se, getting what "it" wants, that is a very fair record.
Separation would Create a Democratic Deficit – it would not Remedy one
The nationalists say, "Under independence we will always get the government we vote for."
If we ignore their use of the word "we" to mean "us, nationalists", and instead use it to mean "the most people in Scotland possible" then it is quite obviously not correct on its face.
Under the present system, more people in Scotland have more chance of getting a government they vote for, within the UK – whether that government is in Holyrood or Westminster.
For example, right now, everyone in Scotland who voted Lib Dem, Conservative or SNP has a form of government which they voted for. Under independence, that broad democratic representation would be much weaker.
It would mean that fewer people were represented in some way; because only the people who voted for the party in power in Holyrood could say they had a government they voted for! Separation would mean that the majority of us would never get a party in power, anywhere, which we voted for!
It is clear that under the present system, more people in Scotland have the potential to have a party in power – in either Holyrood or Westminster – which they vote for.
A Different Government in Westminster can be a Good Thing
A different government in Westminster potentially can have the effect of moderating the worst ideological excesses of the administration in Holyrood and vice versa. That balance of powers can be a good thing.
Scotland and England also work together fairly well in moderating the balance of power at Westminster elections. For example, within the UK, "English" conservatism (and we are generalising when we speak in such terms, hence the quotes) is able to exercise a necessary degree of balancing moderation upon "Scottish" socialism; just as "Scottish" socialism exercises a necessary degree of balancing moderation upon "English" conservatism.
Scotland and England need each other to balance out the ideological extremes of each other, and it is one of the reasons why the UK has been such a relatively stable political entity for so many years.
MPs from Scotland Affect the Overall Result
Nationalists will say, "Scottish MPs do not affect the overall result of any Westminster elections."
Their aim is to suggest that Scotland has no real impact upon the final Westminster result since it returns a relatively small number of MPs (59). The idea is to suggest that without Scotland, there would still be exactly the same government in power – that the result from Scotland is somehow irrelevant.
We don't have to go back far to see the error in that thinking. Take 2010, for example. Without the 59 Scottish MPs, the Conservatives would have had an overall majority.
Here is the seat breakdown from the 2010 General Election. 11 There are 650 seats in total.
Conservative: 307 elected, including the Speaker.
Lib Dems: 57
This was insufficient to provide the Conservative Party with an overall majority. However, if we take away the 59 Scottish seats, it would have looked like this:
Lib Dems: 46
This would have given an overall majority for the Conservative Party of 21 MPs. Therefore, although it is a hypothetical example, the MPs from Scotland ensured that there was not a Conservative majority. This contradicts the nationalist assertion that somehow the MPs from Scotland do not affect the result.
Scotland has 1 Conservative MP because of the First-Past-the-Post System
Nationalists will say, "We have a Conservative government but Scotland only elected 1 Conservative MP." That is true - and while this website does not support any particular party - it should be pointed out that this is simply a quirk of the first-past-the-post voting system, rather than a proper reflection of Conservative support in Scotland.
This article is not advocating a proportional representation system for Westminster but it is instructive to consider how many seats the Conservative Party in Scotland would have won if the votes at the 2010 General Election in Scotland were allocated in a strict percentage-of-the-vote basis (even though we understand that is not how any PR system works at present).
Here are the results for the 2010 General Election in Scotland 12:
Labour: 1,035,528 - 42% - 41 seats
Lib Dems: 465,471 - 18.9% - 11 seats
SNP: 491,386 - 19.9% - 6 seats
Conservative: 412,855 - 16.7% - 1 seat
Others: 53,605 - 2.5% - 0 seats
= 59 seats
Here is what the result would look like if we allocate seats in direct proportion to the voting percentages. As we can see, a different picture emerges:
Labour: 25 (42% of 59 seats)
Lib Dems: 11
We Have a Greater Democratic Say and a Wider Democratic Representation within the UK, than in a Separate Scotland
Right now, people in Scotland have a democratic say over what happens in Scotland and the rest of Britain, via our two Parliaments. After independence we would only have a say about what happens in Scotland.
Why throw away two Parliaments to get only one, and have less say? How is that a democratic improvement?
Right now, everyone in Scotland who voted Tory, Lib Dem or SNP has a form of government which they voted for. Membership of the Union gives the Scots the widest possible democratic representation.
After independence, only those who voted for the party running Holyrood would have a government they voted for. How is that a democratic improvement?
House of Commons Library, Research Paper 03/59, UK Election Statistics: 1945-2003, 1 July 2003, at 13 and 11 respectively. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp2003/rp03-059.pdf
House of Commons Library, Research Paper 05/33, General Election 2005, Final edition - 10 March 2006, at 17 and 15 respectively. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp2005/rp05-033.pdf
We used this Wikipedia page to find the exact numbers which voted for these parties since that information is not included in a precise tally within the 2005 House of Commons Library document above. However, it should be noted that the Wikipedia percentage for the Labour result differs from the House of Commons Library percentage by 0.6%. We have chosen to use the House of Commons Library percentage.
House of Commons Library, Research Paper 10/36, General Election 2010, Final edition - 2 February 2011, at 10 and 9 respectively. Downloadable at http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP10-36
Can also be found at:
The classic statement of the role of MPs - and particularly backbenchers - is set out in Edmund Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 November 1774:
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
You can read more about the role of the backbencher in this report http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmmodern/337/337we12.htm
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You can find out more about Alistair at the About Alistair McConnachie page. And here is a link to Alistair McConnachie's Google Profile.