Scottish Politics: The Same But Very Different!
The Guardian Comment, May 9th 2010
The state of Scottish politics now stands at a great moment of uncertainty and confusion. The Scottish election results themselves throw up numerous questions and dilemmas for all the parties, which they are just beginning to digest, and now have to frame in the context of the post-election negotiations between the UK main parties.
Scottish Labour had a triumphant holding of the line. Scotland was the only nation or region of the UK to witness an increase in the Labour vote (2.5%), and a swing from Conservatives to Labour (0.9%). Labour strength (42.0%) is still more a product of Conservative weakness (16.7%), and the way FPTP aids Labour spectacularly in Scotland (41 out of 59 seats) due to the cluster of its seats in the West of Scotland – where none of the other parties make more than a cursory showing.
Labour won a higher vote in the North East of England (43.6%), but did so in a three party system, whereas Scottish Labour won its slightly lower vote in a more competitive four party system which reduced the Tories to a devastating fourth place.
The election result is a humiliation for the Scottish Conservatives and for David Cameron’s attempts to woo voters north of the border. Whereas across the UK the Tories increased their share of the vote by 3.8%, in Scotland they did so by a paltry 0.9% – their worst performance in any of the nations and regions of the UK (barring the special case of Northern Ireland).
There are lessons in this for David Cameron’s Tories. His moderate, middle of the road, agreeable, compassionate conservatism resulted in the sum total of one seat which they held before, and no real movement in a host of marginals. Jim Murphy easily won East Renfrewshire for Labour, and the SNP held off what were meant to be serious Tory challenges in Perth and North Perthshire and Angus.
The larger picture is even more disconsolate for the Scottish Tories. In four Westminster elections in a row the Scottish Tories have won under 20% of the vote and are clearly going nowhere. From 1997, when they were reduced to having no Scots Westminster representation, they have become even more an unrepresentative gathering of elderly old Tory ladies with little idea of modern Scotland, and of earnest, young men who are fanatically unionist and come across as mildly obsessed.
The results are no better news for the SNP and Lib Dems. Alex Salmond’s SNP fought one of the most inept Nationalist campaigns in living memory, filled with hubris and chippyness, with ‘More Nats, Less Cuts’ seemingly designed to be as inappropriate as it could be given the times, and concerned out of proportion with getting Salmond on the TV Game Show that was the Prime Ministerial debates.
The party won a mere 19.9% of the vote and held its existing six seats, but made no inroads in its target seats. There are now clearly limits to the Nationalist, catch-all, populist politics, and questions over whether the party can adapt post-crash and how it will perform in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.
The Lib Dem held all their 2005 seats, losing their one by-election gain, but even more the party’s Scottish message, image and relevance north of the border was blurred by a number of factors. One is the party’s long association with Labour, which has led some to see it as ‘rural Labour’, while the party’s nervousness about getting into bed with the SNP in the Scottish Parliament prevents it fully shedding this reputation. What is the point in being kingmakers if you can’t deliver; something which Nick Clegg may find he has a growing empathy with.
The party’s election results showed that the Lib Dems are not a national party, but one of local heroes – as long as they represent mostly rural constituencies in the Highlands, North East and Borders. The Lib Dems made no advances in the central Belt, spectacularly failing to win Edinburgh South (Labour majority 405), and Glasgow North, two of its main target seats.
Labour are the big gainers out of the Scottish election. Many of the Scottish commentariat, myself included, have spent years questioning the nature and hold of Scottish Labour, and predicting its slow decline. It now turns out that the party’s sheer resilience and reach is still there, despite the hollowing out of much of the old party machine, and that fear of the ‘Tory bogeyman’ still allows Labour to motivate and get its vote out.
Labour might have been the political establishment in large parts of Scotland for years, and this leads to all sorts of cronyism, nepotism and a state of ‘undemocracy’, as the recent Glasgow Labour scandals showed. Yet, at the same time, this has also allowed Labour to dig in deep in communities up and down Scotland, to built years and years of identification and loyalty, which although they have weakened in recent decades, still endure and easily trump its opponents. There is an unattractive sense of entitlement in sections of Scottish Labour, that this is ‘our nation’ and we have earned the right to govern it, but there is also a ferocious sense of pride and fighting back when cornered. This was seen after Labour lost the Glasgow East by-election, and many saw this as the beginning of the end. Instead, the party came back and turned it round, winning Glenrothes and Glasgow North East. So Scottish Labour had already underwritten the extent to which stories of its death were greatly exaggerated!
The Scottish political environment now has two distinct scenarios. A Tory minority government with one seat and less support than last time – Mrs. Thatcher won 31% and 22 MPs in 1979 – would seem like a return to a very familiar world. Back to the 1980s and the politics of ‘no mandate’.
The other possibility, a Con-Lib Dem alliance would reconfigurate dramatically Scottish, just as it would British politics. It would do so in Scotland along lines which have some similarities to the 1940s and 1950s. Then Conservatives and Liberals used to co-operate and stand common candidates, a practice which continued to the end of the 1950s. Their coming together now would bring together the two rural, also ran parties in Scotland. It would give them well over one-third of the vote and twelve MPs, allowing them to run a fully functioning Scotland Office.
It would also be music to Scottish Labour and the SNP, who would see it as allowing the main battlelines to be between them fighting over who could best represent Scotland’s interests, while taking on the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
A Tory minority government would invoke the political mindset of ‘deja vu’ and ‘Groundhog Day’, making this absolutely explicit and unapologetic, and do so in a manner which some would find very appealing, and others dangerous.
The Con-Lib Dem alliance would at least throw up new contours and boundaries in Scottish, as it would UK politics, and disorientate at least for a while some of the assumptions which have driven Scottish politics for so long.
Whichever arrives, Scottish politicians have to learn to develop new approaches and thinking rather than relying on their old clichés and soundbites. There is a time and a season for everything. Mrs. Thatcher and what she did cannot remain the defining set of political metaphors and memories for ever; eventually people have to stop going on about the poll tax, just as previous generations had to stop going on about Jarrow and appeasement.
Scottish politics since Thatcher has involved easy clichés, gripes and in the last decade the spending of much public money. Those cosy, comfortable assumptions have outlived their usefulness, and have to be put aside in the more unpredictable and difficult economic and political environment we now find ourselves in.