When Labour set up the Scottish Parliament in 1999 they could have expected eternal rule if they’d based it on First Past The Post like the UK Parliament, but the Lib Dems insisted on PR as their price for co-operation and the appearance of consensus.
So between them they put together the AMS system (although virtually any PR system would probably have done much the same) which would ensure, they believed, that the SNP would never hold power alone, and could therefore never use the parliament as a vehicle to deliver independence.
That meant Labour sharing power with the Lib Dems, but was seen as probably being actually better than FPTP in the long run because it would (they thought) guard against the remote possibility that the SNP became so popular that FPTP started to work in its favour, as it does dramatically when you reach the tipping point of anything very much over 40% of the vote.
They even set it up with more constituency seats than list seats, which at the time also disadvantaged the SNP because a party whose support is evenly spread (like the SNP) will usually be relying more on list seats while a party with concentrated urban heartlands (like Labour at the time) will get more constituencies.
There were four parties with significant support – three Unionist and the SNP. If no party could govern alone, then the SNP would never be able to govern without a Unionist coalition partner even if it did manage to be the largest party. Independence would be duly stymied. They thought. But the Lib Dems didn’t stick to that plan in 2007, when they probably believed the SNP wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway with such a tiny majority.
In terms of delivering a referendum they were right. But nobody (except perhaps Alex Salmond) envisaged the surge in popularity that followed the SNP’s then-competent performance in government, or the utter fluke of 2011 when all the cards fell just right and the SNP broke the system with a narrow one-party majority. Unfortunately that didn’t lead to independence, so we got to where we are.
The chances of another 2011 fluke are remote. In 2016 the SNP got almost quarter of a million MORE votes than they did in 2011, but still lost their majority. Yet having done it once, it seems to be accepted that the SNP needs to do it again to get a “real” mandate – including, insanely, by the SNP.
Not achieving an overall majority in a parliament designed not to deliver overall majorities isn’t a failure, but the SNP has now largely capitulated to the “you lost your majority so you have no mandate” mantra, except in the occasional moments of panic when it suddenly changes its tune and says that any pro-indy majority will do.
The real flaw in the system is the lack of a second independence-supporting party with more credibility and a wider voter appeal than the Greens: a pro-indy Lib Dems to the SNP’s Labour, if you will.
That is to say, the SNP needs a credible coalition partner that won’t spend its time trying to undermine the SNP’s primary reason for existence (as the Lib Dems would have done had they gone into coalition with the SNP in 2007).
But the Greens are social and economic extremists quite properly regarded as a nutter fringe by most voters, and whose commitment to independence is lukewarm and largely opportunist anyway (the party didn’t so much as mention the constitution in a manifesto until 2007, and that was on page 24 out of 25), so the SNP has in practice had to carry the burden alone.
Fixing that isn’t gaming the system, it’s using the system as it was always meant to be used – to give the voters a choice of parties with a range of reasonable and sensible policies on various issues, and then for a coalition to be formed between the parties the voters overall have preferred, without ever concentrating too much power into a single one on a minority of the vote, which is the key failing of FPTP.
We’ve forgotten about this because there’s only ever been one credible independence-supporting party, and because of its monopoly on the policy it actually succeeded in capturing enough of the vote to almost break through all the roadblocks that the UK had put in place to stop devolution ever turning into independence.
(And unfortunately in the process it acquired a toxic hubris that seems to equate its monopoly of support for independence with a licence to force through a raft of wildly unpopular policies that nobody, not even the party’s own members, ever voted for.)
But the whole system is structured against that, so for as long as the constitution is the defining facet of Scottish politics – something which is now basically a permanent feature and will remain so until either independence happens or support for it collapses like it did in Quebec – Holyrood will only work as designed when there’s more than one credible and moderate independence-supporting party for voters to choose from.
And for that reason, whatever else happens, success for the Alba Party would be to the ultimate benefit of the balance of Scottish politics as a whole.