Proportional representation won’t save the Union

In the days following the results of the 2015 General Election, there have been calls from all sides of the political spectrum for electoral reform. Quite rightly, those on the left are both furious at the lack of representation they’ve been afforded at Westminster, and also terrified at the prospect of a future where nobody but the Conservatives will be able to achieve a majority in Parliament. Those on the right aren’t much happier, with analysis showing that UKIP would have had a massive gain in seats under a proportional system, rising from the 1 that they currently hold to upwards of 80.

Proportional Representation - General Election 2015
How the BBC visualised the difference

Of course, this sort of disproportionate result has always been present in previous elections. It’s just that up until recently it has largely been masked by the domination of the two major parties. Cracks in the system began to show with the rise in popularity of the Lib Dems, and are now fully exposed both by the UKIP surge, and the simultaneous demise of Labour in Scotland.

One of the stated benefits of the First Past the Post System is to produce strong majorities in Parliament, bringing with them political and economic stability. Seemingly against all the odds, FTPT has managed to again achieve that, at least in terms of the numbers involved anyway. Whilst the Tories will be able to hold what’s called the ‘confidence of Parliament’, that doesn’t mean that they hold the confidence of an increasingly fractured United Kingdom. This election has demonstrated a strong need for electoral reform, with some sort of proportional system required to give legitimacy to future governments, but it will not solve the constitutional problems being faced, particularly in relation to Scotland.

If the UK truly was a single entity, without borders, then PR would provide a solid foundation for people to feel like they are genuinely and fairly represented, irrespective of where they lived. However, that is not the case. No matter how  unpopular it may be to some, we are – to use Cameron’s words – ‘a family of nations’, with distinct and separate identities. Even ardent Scottish Unionists recognise this; a truism that is not just some product of contemporary nationalism, but evident culturally and structurally. People in Scotland support proportional representation, but also want a stronger voice for their nation within the family dynamic. We may just be 5 million people out of 64, but we are also 1 of 4 nations. It is this contradiction that is posing such an issue for the future of the UK. Even with electoral reform, this identity crisis will remain; the Scottish question unanswered.

Scottish Independence British State

Another danger lurking underneath the surface of the calls for electoral reform is that the debate may indeed only serve to highlight the differences between Scotland and England, and ultimately expedite the breakup of the Union. In many corners, the questions about PR are posited in terms of reducing the influence of the Scottish, with the thinly veiled question at the heart of things really asking: Why do the Scots have so many MPs with such a small percentage of the population? This isn’t correct, of course – as we would have the same number of MPs whatever parties held them, but it’s easy for the issues to become conflated given the (disproportionate) success of the SNP, and the antiScottish rhetoric that has emerged. To my pro-Union friends seeking a fairer electoral system: beware this trap. Proportional representation won’t save the UK, and if the debate isn’t approached carefully, it could do more damage to the relationship than it will good.


Header ‘Scottish and British flags’ image by ‘The Laird of Oldham‘ – used under Creative Commons License. ‘Poland-Ball’ style image by ‘Universalis‘ – used under Creative Commons License

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