The National:

Winner in 2016: Michael Matheson (SNP)

WHEN devolution was established in Scotland, Wales and Greater London in 1999-2000, Tony Blair and his allies made determined – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempts to stop three popular Labour figures from having a role in the new set-up.

The party’s internal election rules were finessed to ensure that Ken Livingstone wouldn’t be selected as candidate for Mayor of London, and that Rhodri Morgan wouldn’t be elected as leader of the Labour group in the Welsh Assembly, in spite of the fact that both men had the clear backing of party members.

In Scotland, the stitch-up initially appeared less significant, because it related only to the selection of an individual constituency candidate. Dennis Canavan, who had been the Westminster MP for Falkirk West since the constituency’s creation in 1983.

He had represented a predecessor constituency for the nine years prior to that and wanted to stand for the Holyrood version of the seat, but was blocked from even taking part in the selection process.

After pondering a legal challenge, he eventually decided the dispute was political and that it could be resolved by leaving Labour and standing against them as an independent candidate.

That choice of action resulted in the biggest sensation of the inaugural Scottish Parliament election. Traditional Labour voters in Falkirk West clearly concluded that Canavan was the “real” Labour candidate, and moved across to him en masse.

The official Labour candidate was left with a dismal 19% vote share – an astonishing drop of 40 percentage points as compared to the result in the UK General Election two years earlier, and just barely enough to fend off the SNP candidate Michael Matheson and secure second place.

After coming close at one point to accepting the Labour whip, Canavan instead moved in the opposite direction, with the split from his former party becoming permanent. He stood as an independent again in the 2003 Holyrood election and was re-elected by a similar margin – but this time with Matheson narrowly moving into second place for the SNP.

When Canavan announced that he would be standing down at the 2007 election, Labour must have hoped and believed that a fairly meaningless blip was coming to an end, and that Falkirk West would dutifully revert to the Labour fold.

Instead, the long-term consequences of the Blairite control-freakery became painfully clear. Straying from Labour had become habit-forming for voters, and with the help of an endorsement from Canavan himself, Michael Matheson gained the seat for the SNP with a small 3% margin of victory.

It was one of only two constituencies that the SNP won that year in the Central Scotland electoral region, which made the result absolutely crucial.

If Labour had taken the seat back, it would effectively have been a “bonus” or “excess” seat that the list seat allocation wouldn’t have been able to cancel out, and consequently the SNP would have been prevented from becoming the largest single party in the Scottish Parliament. Alex Salmond might never have become First Minister.

Because the SNP’s national vote share has been much higher in the two post-2007 elections, Falkirk West has understandably been transformed from a marginal SNP seat into a stronghold.

This year, Matheson will be defending a victory margin of 35 percentage points, which means that on a uniform swing Labour would have to be well ahead of the SNP nationally before they would gain the seat.

That plainly isn’t going to happen – which means that the independence movement will once again in early May be raising a glass to Tony Blair’s handiwork.