By Ian Fraser
Published: The Economist
Date: 20 April 2006
Edinburgh: A split threatens the ruling coalition
A ROW over nuclear power is widening rifts in the alliance between Labour and Liberal Democrats, who together have ruled Scotland since devolution in 1999. As politicians draft their manifestos for elections to the Scottish Parliament in the spring of 2007, the coalition itself looks at risk.
Echoing the debate elsewhere in Britain, Scotland’s pro-nuclear camp argues that the lights could go out if the humming nuclear giants at Hunterston and Torness are not replaced before their planned closures in 2011 and 2023. Between them, the two sites supply 35% of Scottish electricity.
Yet many Scots hate nuclear power. In a recent ICM poll for the BBC, 51% opposed constructing nuclear power stations in Scotland. There is widespread hostility to the nuclear submarine base at Faslane near Glasgow. Some worry that their country will become a dumping ground for waste if new nuclear power generation is sanctioned. Most of Scotland’s six most active parties – including the Liberal Democrats – have lined up with popular opinion.
This is causing problems for the Lib Dems’ Labour co-rulers. The parties’ nuclear fudge after elections in 2003 – that the Scottish Executive would make no decisions until the issue of waste disposal had been dealt with in a report for Westminster this summer – has enabled the Executive to stay neutral.
But the energy question could now prompt seismic shifts in the political landscape. At their spring conference in March, the Lib Dems voted overwhelmingly to oppose a new generation of nuclear plants. Jack McConnell, Scotland’s First Minister, says he will wait for the publication of Tony Blair’s energy review in June but also talks of blocking any nuclear recommendations it might contain. Yet both his Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, nervous about job losses, backed nuclear power at their recent conferences. Most expect Mr McConnell in time to fall in line with London.
Giddy Lib Dems think they have a chance to unseat Labour next year as the largest party in Scotland. That’s unlikely, even if Labour takes the unpopular side of the nuclear debate. In either case, a coalition re-shuffle looks increasingly likely – with a chance that the Scottish Nationalists will emerge as both bigger parties’ partner of choice.