Gerry Hassan on the end of British politics and what it means for Scotland
There is no such thing as British politics. This was evident in the fragmented picture of 2015, and confirmed by the 2016 contests. This has consequences when England represents 84% of the population and a similar number of Westminster seats. It gives the Tories a built-in advantage – aided by Labour’s now confirmed serial Scottish disadvantage – which emerged last year and has been underlined by the May elections. The age of ‘Labour Scotland’ is over: a story of a once impregnable social democratic land shaped by Labour and collectivist ethos. It is a picture replayed across large swathes of Europe. Of course Scottish Labour (the party) was not as popular as ‘the idea’ of ‘Labour Scotland’ – never once winning a majority of the vote – peaking in the 1960s and 1997. Some of the same caveats can be said of SNP Scotland. They too have a vision of Scotland and the future (like Labour at their peak) that they have convinced themselves and many voters of – which appears compelling and optimistic – while being competent in office.
Yet the Nationalists even at ‘peak SNP’ in 2015 never won a majority of votes: 49.97% in 2015, now 46.5% in the constituency vote, 41.7% in the regional vote, with 63 seats out of 129, two seats short of a majority. Non-SNP Scotland is a majority. And just as with non-Labour Scotland – who it was essential for Labour to understand and reach out to – so the same is true for the SNP. They have to recognise the limits of their appeal, politics and version of Scotland. That’s good politics, and not doing so is bad politics. The Scottish Tories now have a new found place and purpose in politics, based on their increased appeal and the popularity of Ruth Davidson. They finished second in votes (22.9%) and in seats and will form the main opposition to the SNP: the best Tory result at any level in Scotland since 1992. All of this struck a very different tone and content – not just from the dog-whistle politics of Zac Goldsmith’s disreputable campaign against Sadiq Khan for the London Mayor, but also from Cameron and Osborne.
Scottish Labour found a new basement level of support – winning a mere 22.6% of the constituency vote and 19.1% of the regional list vote – putting the party in third place behind the Tories on the list vote and seats. The party under Kezia Dugdale tried to place itself in a more assertive left-wing space compared to the SNP – without going anywhere near a Corbynista position. They found themselves caught between the dynamic of the 55% pro-union majority – which the Tories had no qualms standing up for – and the 45% pro-independence camp – which is made up of the SNP, Greens and a significant section of Labour’s former vote. They ended up not being sure which way they faced, and found themselves punished. Anas Sarwar, newly elected as a Glasgow MSP, said that Labour ‘are not comfortable as nationalists, and they are not comfortable unionists.’ It leaves Labour in an uncomfortable, ill-defined middle ground. It was a Scottish election of much subtlety, tactical voting and regional differences. The SNP are rising in the West of Scotland and Glasgow, and declining in former rural areas. The Tories have emerged from thirty years of being seen as a pariah party and as toxic, rising in Edinburgh, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders, and middle class, prosperous areas. Labour only held out in a few isolated constituencies, and not one part of the country can be described as a Labour heartland – a seismic change from twenty years ago.
Labour ‘are not comfortable as nationalists, and they are not comfortable unionists.’
All of this leaves big questions about the future. Has Scottish Labour served its purpose? The answer, at least for a generation, if not longer, looks as if it has. That begs the question of how Labour and non-Tory Britain can assert itself to challenge what could be an uninterrupted period of Tory rule. Are the Scottish Tories able to make the case for a Conservatism different from South of the border? If the main fault line becomes SNP vs. Tory does that offer more prospects for a politics of ideas, based on centre-left v. centre-right, or will everything be seen through the prism of the union? How long can the SNP’s ‘Big Tent’ continue? All such political projects eventually begin to decline, part based on your own choices, as well as mistakes. Will the SNP, shorn of their parliamentary majority, but seemingly dominant for the foreseeable future, be able to speak for centre-left Scotland, and not disappoint their supporters?
How will a politics of redistribution, working class politics and challenging inequality find voice – and will the SNP be pushed further left by the Greens and even the Lib Dems? Politics are set to change dramatically. The SNP need a different tone and style. The era of just being anti-Tory is no longer enough: going on about Thatcher, Blair and ‘Red Tories’. The usual shibboleths of ‘opposing Tory austerity’ and #indyref 2 (whether you are for it or against it), will no longer do. Scottish politics is going to become about difficult choices – one in which the Nationalists are no longer quite so ascendant, Tories have new confidence and Labour struggle to find a place and be heard.
This article appears in the latest issue of CHARTIST. Click on magazine above to download