Friday, 6 May 2011

The Morning After

The sun is now rapidly climbing in the sky. It's morning – a good twenty two hours since I last got any sleep – and it's been quite a night. If you've seen any news then you'll know by now that the SNP have made historic gains in the Scottish elections. Labour have struggled, with their leader coming very close to losing his seat, and the Liberal Democrats have suffered a crushing defeat, losing their deposits in at least thirty seats.

So what happened?

It's interesting to see all the speculation on this topic, much of it from outsiders with a poor understanding of how Scottish politics works. Scottish nationalism, in particular, is often misunderstood, and that hasn't been helped by Labour attempts to tarnish the Scottish National Party in the run-up to this election. Although right wing extremist parties do exist in Scotland, they have only a handful of supporters, and the SNP is something very different. Scottish politics tends toward the centre left and the SNP fits fairly comfortably into this position.

If there's one guaranteed set of bad guys as the Scottish electorate perceive things, it's the Conservatives (bear in mind that during Margaret Thatcher's rule, unemployment in some parts of Glasgow was as high as 85%). Labour have therefore endeavoured to brand the SNP as 'tartan Tories'. They've had a boost in this regard thanks to the Sun's support of Alex Salmond, but still the illusion has only really confused outsiders. Most Scottish voters see the SNP as occupying similar ground to Labour, or perhaps being slightly to the left. The Sun's support is simply about selling papers – and, perhaps, about delivering what has been one of several minor but notable kicks to the Tories, reminders of what they might have to lose if Jeremy Hunt doesn't give Sun owner Murdoch the deal he wants over BskyB.

There has been a long tradition in Scottish politics of holding the SNP at bay using scare tactics. The prospect of independence has been heralded as a threat, and simultaneously the SNP used to be accused of being so single-minded that they couldn't competently pursue any other policy. This illusion was shattered when they did manage to take power in the 2007 Scottish election, forming a minority administration. Although they didn't get everything right in the years that followed (what government does?), nothing exploded and the country's economy didn't fall to pieces – they were, in a word, competent. That was all they needed to be. They proved that people didn't need to be afraid to vote for them, that they were a real choice, and that was all that really mattered.

The reasons for that lie elsewhere. The legacy of Conservative action in Scotland, especially urban Scotland, when combined with the first past the post system, meant that most Scottish people felt for a very long time that voting Labour was their only option. This became a generational thing, an emotional thing. Loyalty to Labour was often intense. But as any relationship advisor will tell you, obsessive love can become unhealthy and can leave one vulnerable to abuse. Just as the Conservatives didn't show much care for Scotland because they knew they wouldn't get votes there anyway, Labour stopped caring because they knew they would. They took Scotland for granted. They got away with it – but only as long as people believed they had no choice.

What happened last night for the SNP is in many ways similar to what happened in 2010 for the LibDems across the UK – vast numbers of people seizing their chance for change. Unlike the LibDems, however, SNP voters didn't seriously have to worry that by taking that chance they would split the vote and let in a party they truly despised. This wasn't because of differences in the voting system – the Additional Member System which Scotland uses doesn't make much difference in that regard. Rather, it was because the Conservative vote was already too low to represent a danger. Those hoping for an SNP victory had nothing to lose.

It's worth noting that, independence aside, there isn't really a great deal of difference between the SNP and Labour at a policy level. They frequently steal policies from one another and bicker over who had them first. Even when independence is factored into the equation is doesn't make a lot of difference, in part because many in the Labour party favour extensive further devolution and in part because most Scottish voters don't believe a referendum – all a Scottish government could constitutionally do about the issue – would result in the choice of independence, regardless of the SNP's overall popularity.

Is this belief correct? That's less clear. Certainly, most Scots reject the idea of independence when it's proposed outright. Issue by issue, however, they are likely to agree that Scottish control is needed. This suggests that the success or failure of a referendum would depend on exactly what the question was and how it was promoted. The SNP's decision to hold off a referendum until the second half of this parliament is an interesting one, suggesting that they believe support for it will grow. This may very well be the case if the current coalition government, with its policy of cuts, remains in power at Westminster; but the situation there is volatile to say the least (Ed Miliband says his party is now on an election footing), and it's hard to say how things might develop if the coalition collapsed.

Given a situation in which the SNP were starting to gain ground in the polls, in the run-up to this election, Labour, confused, panicked. They didn't know quite what was happening so they did the only thing they could think of and resorted to the scare tactics that had always worked for them. The problem is that people no longer believed in the danger they were being cautioned against, so instead of reacting with trepidation, they reacted with anger. As Labour's campaign grew more negative (and increasingly seemed to parody itself), more voters were put off them. They read that reliance on old tactics as symptomatic of arrogance. Labour didn't know that they were really on the verge of being dumped, so they became more possessive, which only made the voters want to get further away from them.

In this context, and given the collapse of the LibDem vote caused by resentment of the Westminster coalition, the only real surprise is that the scale of the SNP's impending landslide didn't become apparent sooner. In simple terms, the Scottish people have had enough. They want out of the old politics. That doesn't mean they're wedded to the SNP now, and in future there will be everything to play for. It does mean that they will not vote for a party which they don't believe treats them with respect. No more loyalty. No more love. Scotland has grown up, and whatever direction it ultimately chooses, it is ready to decide its own future.

1 comment:

  1. Whilte the Scottish elections and national elections are different kettles of fish, I wonder how much of this SNP love will carry on to the next national election. The nature of the system makes voting not-Labour much more of a problem for Scots (how many Lib Dem voters are unhappy to be party to the coalition?) but since independance must ultimately come from London sending more SNP representatives might be seen as a strong message.

    Labour in Scotland had a pretty underwhelming leader: it's a sorry state of affairs when I and many others find ourself thinking Annabel Goldie was a way better politican, even if I didn't agree with much of her policy. Frankly, I think Milliband is a pretty crappy choice of leader for Labour as a whole and not really Prime Minister material. But if it's between him and the Tories, I think the scare tactics might work better.

    George Q