The massive poll leads for the Scottish National Party (SNP) reported recently offers to change everything politically north of the border post the 2015 general election. It will be the great Scottish Nationalist wipe-out of their opponents which has been predicted since the 1970’s and now possible due to the dynamics of the 2014 independence referendum and the consequences of the 2008 financial crash. The SNP probably rightly senses that there’s a great opportunity, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime one, where it can control the balance of power at Westminster very much as the Irish Home Rulers did in the late 19th century and thus bring about a major shift towards home rule for Scots.
Replacing Labour as the Scottish left-of-centre force
They have been able to capitalise brilliantly on the massive explosion of enthusiasm for independence, particularly amongst the young, exposing in the process the depth to which mainstream politics has plunged south of the border in the loss of vision, inspiration and motivation to participate in the political process. Labour’s support for the “No” campaign has created a backlash in traditionally Labour constituencies, ones that in the past easily and on low turnouts returned Labour politicians who would disappear south for the duration, thus that even safe seats like those of retiring Grandee MPs Gordon Brown and Alistair Dowling are likely to fall to the gathering storm. Glasgow after all was one of the main “Yes” areas along with Dundee.
This is not just due to those who voted “Yes” in September 2014. Gains for the SNP have been observed in areas that voted “No”, which gives a much more across-the-board feel for what is happening. Of course, it would be a simple piece of maths to predict that the 45% “Yes” vote would correspond with the current apparent poll-predicted vote of 46%. However the complexities of the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system used for Westminster elections means that to just head the poll amongst a number of parties will get you elected. Thus the SNP have a strong advantage in being a single, strong, ideologically-united (for now), and very committed force.
One might be tempted to think that only if all the other parties sink their differences and unite under a “Unionist” banner might they succeed in preventing a landslide. Yet that ignores the breath of the forces that the SNP in post-recession Scotland have been able to tap into.
Also for the moment, the SNP are “not-English”, which in the current climate probably counts for a massive amount, partly as a reaction to old English dominance of politics and seeming to dictate to Scots, but also to decades of voting Labour or Lib Dem and continuing to get Tory governments voted in to power by the English. This is a fundamental fact of the political as well as national divide, the drifting apart of Scottish and English politics for decades now, that one is seeming Labour while the other not and being unable to shift the policies by who you vote for because of the English dominance of politics. In this sense, the SNP paradigm shift was a long time coming.
A social-democratic alternative to the English neo-liberal consensus
Once one transfers across from the single question of “Yes” or “No”, with its attendant doubts about how Scotland would fare in the world alone and with a shrinking oil revenue, to broad matters of public policy on offer from Westminster politicians, the picture looks a bit different. Is this what Scots want for their country, as it is more and more seen. Or would they rather have control over their own affairs and have a different policy mix?
What the SNP offers is a social-democratic vision more akin to the Scandinavian model and with a commitment to end austerity that is arguably lacking in Labour pronouncements. They also are committed to the NHS, promise to end the hated bedroom tax (remember how Maggie Thatcher imposed the Poll Tax on Scotland?) and provide for those currently being abandoned under the prevailing neo-liberal dispensation south of the border. Labour talks of keeping Trident nuclear weapons, while the SNP and most Scots want them removed from their Scottish base. It’s been quite easy for the SNP to step into Labour’s old clothes and make them look shiny new with a Nationalist revamp.
Holding the balance of power
It was generally acknowledged that had Cameron put the third option on the referendum table of “Devo-max”, things would have been less easy for Salmond. Devo-max is rather akin to the Home Rule idea many think is the way forward, more of a federal solution giving Scotland control of domestic policy, with defence and foreign affairs being left to a UK or federal government. The trouble for unionists is that Tories don’t like federalism. Moreover it would leave unresolved many issues in relation to the other Celtic nations and with England.
However, it was only in the final days of the referendum, with the SNP looking likely to win, that “The Vow” was made to considerably increase devolution, only for Cameron to spectacularly mismanage the aftermath of SNP defeat in the referendum by the next morning seeming to suggest that devolution to Scotland was contingent on EVEL (sic – the acronym is “English Votes for English Laws”), ie resolving the West Lothian Question of Tam Dalyell in 1977 by giving English MPs control over laws impacting only England.
The backlash was, predictably, a massive surge in membership of the SNP, currently over 90,000, and the rest is, as they say, history.
The results of the 2015 election at present look likely to produce a large phalanx of SNP MPs at Westminster and while they have so far hinted at giving voting to support for Labour there is the suggestion that it will only come at a price. That price is likely to be increased devolution, more than that proposed by the Smith Commission set up by Hague, an end to austerity, opposition to Trident renewal, and a promise to intervene in “English” votes where Scottish interests are indirectly impacted, eg through the budget. There is plenty to cause conflict, make coalition government difficult, increase English resentment, and thus in turn increase frustration north of the border, which in turn could produce that Independence majority they ultimately want.
One is painfully reminded of a similar situation in 1885 when Parnell was elected at the head of a large number of Irish nationalists after the franchise was extended, and controlled the balance of power. The conflict went on till rebellion ensued in 1916 and 1918, and Southern Ireland gained independence rather than the originally proposed Home Rule.
Labour has promised to hold a Constitutional Convention, and as has been argued elsewhere in this blog, there is plenty to discuss. Senior Conservatives are talking about the same thing. A modern constitution for the UK is long overdue, and now we have the opportunity to create one that also reflects the aspirations of the different nations and provides a legal and constitutional means for resolving disputes that does not hold up the process of government.
Many would say that this reform has been very long overdue.
Thus UK statesmanship will be sorely tested in the next few months if not years, even as the Tories and UKIP also propose that the UK leaves the EU. One question should be, where is the leadership in the main parties to produce a vision for the UK that works for all? So far, this has, I would argue, been severely lacking, the current government not articulating a vision that inspires and unites, preferring to operate more tactically and tribally than strategically. The opposition has also been timid and hesitant, rather than bold and vigorous. Neither can be said to be “One Nation” parties. Both will be much tried as things move forward.
Can UK politics produce a new vision for our country and provide the leadership it needs?