Murdo Fraser’s announcement last Sunday that, if elected as their new Scottish leader, he would disband the ‘Scottish Conservatives’ and create a new centre-right party has created a good deal of excited discussion. I’ll be commenting directly on Fraser’s proposal in another post, but in order to do so sensibly it’s necessary to talk more broadly and comparatively about political parties in regionalised or federal systems like the UK.
Comparatively speaking, the UK is very unusual in maintaining three Britain-wide parties in a substantially decentralised, multinational state. Some federal systems maintain single party systems: Australia, the United States and (largely) Germany are cases in point. But these are not multinational systems. Multinational systems like Canada, Belgium or Spain have all developed fragmented party systems, where parties operate only in parts of the territory of the state, not across the whole state. Belgian parties operate only in the Flemish or French-speaking part; while they may have sister parties in the other territory, there are no organisational or other links, and each party looks to that region/community, not its ideological relations. Spain has a very distinctive system in Catalonia (where the Catalan Socialists compete with ERC, the radical secessionist nationalists, and Convergencia, the bourgeois nationalists, with the state-wide Partido Popular a minor player). The Basque Country’s electoral politics are chiefly contested between the PNV, the Basque nationalists, and PSOE, the state-wide socialists.
Canada takes the matter to an extreme, with quite separate parties contesting federal elections and those in each province. Only the social-democratic New Democrats operate in all parts of the country and in both orders of government. There are extensive personal and financial links between provincial and federal Conservatives and Liberals in some provinces, particularly Ontario, but even there the parties are organisationally distinct. The difference between federal and provincial politics is clearest in Quebec; though Liberals and Conservatives both contest federal elections there, neither has been particularly successful in recent years. At provincial level, Quebec elections are a matter for the federalist Parti Libéral du Québec and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, with the ‘autonomist’ Action Démocratique du Québec a long way behind in third place. The PQ and PLQ do not contest federal elections, though there are overlaps between the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois which did so poorly in the federal elections in May. The PLQ and PQ are internally diverse, at least on a left-right spectrum, though the PQ generally takes a social-democratic position and the PLQ now a neo-liberal one. The key division between them is their position on constitutional issues. Links between federal and provincial parties are pretty tenuous generally, though. For example, the British Columbia Liberals are closer to the federal Conservatives than any other party (and their main opponents are the NDP).
By contrast, the UK has retained three parties that operate in most of the state. (Northern Ireland of course has a quite separate party system.) Even within Great Britain, though, there are three distinct political arenas. The existence of nationalist parties in Wales as well as Scotland means those political systems work in different ways. Whether they should be regarded as distinct party systems is an area of academic debate that depends on how one defines a ‘party system’ as much as anything. What is clearly the case is that they constitute distinct political arenas, in which competition between parties works very differently to the way it does in England. This distinctiveness is made more complex by a pattern of vote-splitting that benefits nationalist parties in devolved elections and Labour in Westminster ones. In a nutshell, Labour can be outmanoeuvred to its left in Scotland and Wales in a way it can’t in England – and voters particularly like to vote that way in devolved elections.
There’s a large strand of the comparative federalism literature that argues that maintaining a single party system is key to maintaining the unity of a state and preventing break-up or secession. This argument is mainly associated with the ‘rational choice’ approach to studying federalism – it appears in the work of William Riker (see here for a capsule summary), as well as those following his shoes. (Designing Federalism by Mikhail Filippov, Peter C. Ordeshook and Olga Shvetsova is a forceful recent exposition of this position; details are here, and it can be ordered from Cambridge University Press or the Book Depository, here.) There are several problems with this argument. One is that it assumes a correlation is causal, or causal in one direction. Mono-national federal systems are innately more stable than multinational ones. But the factors that create a single party system are largely the same as those that limit the scope of internal differences and conflicts that create divided party systems. The rational-choice position assumes that state-wide parties maintain a state, when it could equally be that state-wide parties exist in conditions when the threats to the existence of the state are limited. The argument can slide from identifying a correlation into assuming that the relationship is causal.
Second, it ignores the nature of the multiple competitive environments in which parties operate. As a matter of abstract institutional design, it may be desirable to have state-wide parties. But parties exist primarily to contest elections, and usually they seek to win them. When parties have to compete in distinct arenas, and tailor their policies and campaigns to do so, it becomes very hard for them to maintain such unified structures. If they do so, they simply yield ground to parties better able to respond to the conditions of that environment, which will very often be nationalist ones. In other words, what may be sensible from a top-down perspective doesn’t make sense from a bottom-up one – and practical politicians are going to need to take the bottom-up one to win elections.
It is arguable whether the preservation of the pretty unitary party structures since devolution have done any of the unionist parties many favours. This has inhibited their ability to respond to the political arena in which they function, and made life considerably easier for nationalist parties which can respond more nimbly to Scottish/Welsh concerns and don’t have to balance concerns of the Scottish/Welsh and UK-level parties in the same way. It has also weakened the parties by encouraging some of the most promising candidates to look to Westminster rather than Holyrood or Cardiff Bay for their political careers. This is not very much to do with formal party structures and constitutions, which give pretty extensive autonomy to the Scottish and Welsh branches – it’s to do with the internal power structures, and indeed ingrained habits of mind about how the party should behave or operate. And, in what is necessarily a distinct electoral arena, it’s necessary for a party to be able to show that it is unequivocally committed to the interests of voters in that arena, not wider interests of a party elsewhere in the UK, to succeed.