It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
As much as we can celebrate such a wholesale rejection of Labour in Scotland, by a people consistently a second (at best) priority in the plans of the Labour Project, we can only look with dismay south of the border at the party’s failure to win the favour of an electorate that was absolutely its priority to win. The striking yellow of hope clothing one electoral map, the striking blue of despair cloaking the other.
This contrast was brought into sharp focus by my return to FaceBook on the morning of the results, where so many of my friends were bemoaning the Conservative majority. Lots of people are criticising the supposed ‘polls failure’ – with no real reason, as they were showing the result within the margins of error on the average of the last 25 polls. From the stats, Miliband was never perceived as convincing prime ministerial material, and the contrast between his and Cameron’s ratings told that story for years, even when Labour’s lead in the polls was double digits. Perhaps this ultimately explains the reluctance (or paucity of numbers?) of the English left to support Miliband – because he was less convincing than Blair had been as a prospective statesman: that Conservative-incubus looked ministerial, at least, before the Scooby Doo reveal of his true nature.
One friend in particular commented about how many selfish people there were in the country – and I know that she was not talking about Scotland voting for an anti-austerity agenda en masse. People like to talk about that ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon – perhaps ‘ashamed Tory’ would be more accurate this time around – with people reluctant to divulge their true voting preference when asked…and one can easily imagine that in a time of economic pressure, the incentive to seriously place yourself and your family’s direct financial interests first might well be much greater. So, in the same way as likelihood to commit crimes increases with poverty and economic threats to one’s family, perhaps – if one really buys into the vanishing myth of Conservative fiscal prudency with their current ideologically-motivated incompetence – one also is more likely to commit as similarly selfish and destructive an act as voting Conservative.
Certainly, according to Ashcroft’s post-election poll, 49% of Conservative voters believe they are already feeling the benefits of an economic recovery. Most LibDem voters said they weren’t feeling an economic recovery yet, but were expecting to…and then we have voters of all the other parties. The majority of Labour, UKIP, Green and SNP voters all declared they were not feeling any sign of the economic recovery, and were not expecting to do so – and that is hardly surprising: in the last year, in Edinburgh alone, the referrals to foodbanks have increased from 35 a month to 350 a month. That threat is increasingly present within people’s circle of experience, and likely to be an influence – yet something seemed to speak louder than accelerating social decline to those that returned a majority Conservative government last week.
One wonders if there is a darker reason – maybe in some of the lashing out of Scottish Labour after Thursday’s rejection by their taken-for-granted electorate. Perhaps this is predictable: despite the SNP offering to be a genuine force for social justice and moral conscience for a Labour Party with a track record of being rather good at losing its way once in government, there have been attempts by the remnants of Scottish Labour to blame the SNP for Labour failing to get enough seats to form the government. A first cursory analysis dismisses this argument – even if all 59 seats in Scotland had gone to Labour, they would still only have had 291, still far away from the required majority, or even capable of making a significant coalition with anyone else. But there is another narrative that argues for the rise in the Scottish bloc vote as a repellant to Labour voters in England.
Put simply, is the decline in the Labour vote in England since 2010 a direct response to ‘anti-Scottish xenophobia’? That was the language that The Venerable Gordon Brown used to condemn Cameron’s campaign in the last two weeks. In that time the SNP was compared to the Third Reich, Salmond presented on giant posters as the stereotypical Scot pickpocketing an English voter… One important point is that criticising the SNP surge without evidence that they have actually lied to the electorate (because a clearly deceived electorate – as we were with Blair in 1997 – is not culpable) means directly criticising the electorate that is planning to vote for them, rather than the party itself. At the best of times, this is a dangerous move for any politician, as exemplified by Farage attacking one of his studio audiences during the debates – but a Scottish audience is likely to react even more contrarily to such an attack. ‘Thrawn’, as they say. ‘Oh, you bluddy think so, do ye?’ as Billy Connolly puts it.
It is true that this may simply have been a strategy by Cameron for immediate post-election gain: as Lesley Riddoch noted on polling day “English voters are being primed to overreact hysterically should Labour try to form a minority government on Friday – whether it’s a formal deal that includes the SNP, discreet dialogue or semaphore signals at dusk.” But the Conservative-supporting press campaigned to vilify the people of Scotland (by virtue of their electoral choice), making clear that when the Conservatives talk about ‘OneNation Britain’, we now know exactly which ‘one nation’ they are talking about. It is unclear whether this campaign had traction by bringing underlying chauvinisms to the surface, or created those chauvinisms anew, but one reporter from Nuneaton made clear that benefits claimants, immigrants and Scots were now seen as the three undesirables – perhaps because Scots fulfil stereotypes of the first two groups perfectly adequately down in the shires…
Paul Kavanagh neatly summed up the inherent genius of Labour embracing this strategy on results day: “Labour blames the SNP for its defeat. The Unionist parties went around screaming to anyone who would listen – which would be the BBC and Fleet Street – that the SNP would eat your babies. Labour smiled indulgently on the antics of Ian Smart when he called the SNP fascists and supporters of the Nazis. Labour looked upon a mildly left of centre social democratic party and it saw a scary monster. Then they blamed the SNP because voters in England were afraid of the imaginary monster that Labour had invented.”So Scottish Labour contends that even the possibility of SNP influence was sufficient to scare voters in England from Labour – and if that is the case, then perhaps the Union is more finished in the hearts of England than we previously thought. As Ian Bell put it yesterday: “If true, what does it mean? That Scottish voters should have declined the choice of a lawful party and declared themselves subordinate to the prejudices of English voters? If that’s the case, there’s no place for us within the UK. Does it mean, equally that voters in England will simply not countenance the participation of properly elected Scottish MPs within a government they regard as theirs alone? If so, the road is the same and it leads in one direction only.”
That Labour failed to contest the narrative of a ‘threat’ from Scotland, thereby falling neatly into a Conservative trap, is perhaps the saddest aspect of this. It is not hard to dismantle the argument of the ‘Scottish threat’: England has 82% of the MPs, therefore an automatic veto with a ‘majority’ of 533 votes. This was an obfuscation of a constitutional issue/problem as a political issue/problem: English MPs have total control of Parliament, and always have had – no vote counter to that would happen without 219 MPs in England choosing to vote with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. One of the very reasons why there is such widespread support for English Votes for English Laws in Scotland, is not because of widespread support for Scottish Conservatives (at this general election, despite a strong campaign by Ruth Davidson, their vote share fell to 14.9% – its lowest ever since they were founded in 1965): as Neal Ascherson put it yesterday in The Guardian “I think most Scots feel their MPs should not decide purely English issues. After all, before devolution they had 292 years’ experience of English MPs outvoting the Scots on Scottish issues.” Surely, given his arguments for the Union in the run-up to last September, Miliband could have come out fighting AGAINST the ‘othering’ of Scots, pointing out the basic arithmetic that undermines the portrayal of Scottish electoral choices as an ‘external threat’, and making Labour the party of an actual United Kingdom. During the Referendum campaign we were told ‘Scotland should lead the UK – not leave it’. Apparently that leadership is very much not wanted – and indeed any idea even of influence is to be shunned.
Personally, I prefer not to think that ‘fear of a Scottish vote’ was really a strong motivating force, as I would rather not think that we were so reviled by an electorally significant portion of England. Because if so – why is there still a Union? And – as an equally logical corollary – can we stop referring to it as a Union, and just say it is an Empire? (The definition being, ‘Supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority’. A contentious question for another post, I think…)
As McWhirter put it “the entire post-war edifice of Scottish politics was pulverised into dust” last week. Nor were Labour and the Conservatives the only parties punished in Scotland: with less than 5% of the vote, LibDems paid out £170K due to lost deposits in 340 seats (my sister was apparently one of those candidates, when none of us knew she was even standing: ‘shy LibDem’ syndrome, perhaps?). Ascherson, again: “the meaning of last week is that the SNP has been adopted as ‘Scotland’s party’, not least because it has no strings to London.” If parties were smart, they would reconstruct themselves as autonomous units, in order to produce the required clear water for the electorate in Scotland to trust them again. If they simply don’t care, they won’t. Which will send its own message.
Does this election, as some have said, truly mean the launch of a trajectory towards a federal UK? Unlikely – as noone is interested in federalising England. Is it really so ‘impossible’ that Scotland’s vote for home rule will be ignored? Yes, of course – regardless of how much this vote was a clear mandated call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament than Smith was offering, the arithmetic is clearly on the side of the Conservative government. But such a strategy of turning a blind eye is somewhat fraught, if you truly are intent on preserving that Union, as opposed to consolidating short-term political advantage, creating, as it does, many avenues that fast-track independence.
As Alan Bissett noted, Scotland having to suffer another five years of Conservative-led government is a direct consequence of the ‘No’ vote – I don’t think that is an unfair observation, as one of the most resonant arguments in the Referendum campaign was that independence was the only way that Scotland could guarantee having no more Conservative governments dictating to it from London without a Scottish mandate. With a ‘No’ vote in place, it was only a matter of time before it happened – but what I find particularly distressing is that the left vote seemed to take a vacation in England, when the incumbent government had such a poor record on the economy (massively increasing the debt, failing to get the deficit down to 65% over the time period that it originally said it would completely eliminate it), and was promising to continue its savage cuts to a welfare state that were ideological and irrelevant (if not actively counter-productive) to getting the economy to recover. The positive attributes to what Eddy Robson dubbed “The best crisis since the abdication” were body-swerved in favour of Austerity Max.
A week before the Referendum was lost last year, Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal wrote the following on Bella Caledonia: “A butterfly rebellion is coming close to winning Scotland away from the forces of the British state. I think we’ll do it, but either way, they can’t beat us. We are already half of Scotland and we keep growing. They are weak and we are strong. When the people of Britain see their titans defeated by a rebel army who used infographics and humour, what is there to stop them following? England needs its butterfly rebellion as well.” That conclusion seems hauntingly prescient now, as we ask the question: is there any potent left remaining in England? Labour was hardly a radical left platform at this general election, but if an underlying xenophobia was really more powerful than the prospect of an unleashed Conservative government, indeed was strong enough not just for people to go to the Conservatives but to move straight to UKIP instead of a fundamentally right of centre Labour party, then what hope is there for any longevity for the concept of Britain?
Cameron can be bold – but it is hard to see how anything that he does is going to do other than pass the historical title of ‘Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ to his successor.
“For the long dark decades of Tory rule, Scotland was told that getting a government we didn’t vote for was simply the price of the Union. Now the tartan high heels are on the other foot, England might get the government that Scotland votes for. Ed, Davie, Nick and Nige scream that Scotland’s choices are illegitimate and unwelcome. But to no avail, no one in Scotland is listening to the four hoarse men of the Jockalypse.” (Paul Kavanagh, 7/5/2015)