A Tale of Two Nations. And Two Leaders
Sunday Mail, May 10th 2015
We awoke on Friday morning to a very different world. A nearly completely yellow Scotland. A bluer England. And a patchwork Wales.
The first majority Tory Government elected since 1992 whilst Scotland passed in one night from Labour dominance to an even more impressive SNP strength. These and more things weren’t meant to happen.
David Cameron’s re-election as Prime Minister with a majority has taken many people by surprise. No UK Government sitting for a full term has seen its vote rise since Anthony Eden’s in 1955 – and that was an entirely different kind of world.
Labour is this weekend in a state of bewilderment, despite its decent campaign and the public reception of Ed Miliband. The party’s UK wide vote (30.4%) was its third lowest in post-war times – only exceeded by the 1983 humiliation and 2010 Brown defeat. The party has a fundamental problem across large parts of England, and all of Scotland.
The SNP’s victory necessitates that we look at everything anew. No Scottish party is meant to be able to achieve this kind of success in a modern age. It has won over half the vote: something Scottish Labour could never do once despite its years of popularity.
Whether people voted SNP or not we have to pause and reflect on this triumph. It says something about us, who we are, and where we see our future. The SNP have gained people’s trust and respect, and whatever their achievements and limitations in office, many Scots like the way they act and talk.
All through the campaign the SNP stated this election wasn’t about independence. Now comes the challenge of staying true to this, carefully not over-reading the nature of their landslide, and starting the campaign for the crucial 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.
Political success carries with its own pressures and expectations. It demands a certain humility and magnanimity: of appearing both confident and thankful that voters have decided to put their faith and trust in you, while recognising this is always contingent, and never a blank cheque. It is a tough balancing act. Who after all would want to be a full-time politician?
The situation Cameron and Sturgeon find themselves in is one of two very different leaders with two very different mandates inexorably linked.
David Cameron is feeling upbeat. He has defied all expectations. He has vanquished his doubters, many of them on his own side.
He has won his own government mandate. He can deliver his own agenda and be his ‘own man’. He can implement policies which no one debated or noticed in the campaign such as the abolition of the Human Rights Act or overturning the fox hunting bun. Then there are policies announced at the last minute which will face legal and practical challenges such as the housing association right to buy.
The Tories only have a waver thin parliamentary majority of 12 seats which will be vulnerable to rebellion and by-election loss and attrition. In 1992 John Major unexpectedly won a Tory fourth term with a slender 21 majority.
Not only did he eventually lose his majority and have to rely on Ulster Unionist support – something he seemed to have completely forgotten about in his stern lecture about SNP influence at Westminster being ‘a recipe for mayhem’ – but his Prime Ministership and Government was continually undermined by what he termed ‘the bastards’. They were right-wing, Eurosceptic plotters – who, at their most extreme in the form of Bill Cash and Teresa Gorman, serially rebelled against their own government.
David Cameron liked coalition. It suited his character and political dispensation. The Lib Dems freed him from his siren right-wing voices. Now he has no choice but to listen to them.
For the last five years people have said ‘what difference did the Lib Dems make in Government?’ Now we are about to find out as the tone and content of a majority Tory Government is revealed. It is going to be a rude awakening, and not very pretty or attractive.
The SNP’s success is a remarkable one. Only seven months ago the indyref was lost, and Alex Salmond resigned as leader. Now they have carried nearly all Scotland with them into uncharted waters.
The SNP’s greatest triumph so far is impressive and Nationalists are right to feel chuffed. However, ‘Peak SNP’ carries with it numerous challenges and vulnerabilities.
Expectations are high among Nationalist supporters. Some expect an indyref anytime soon; others expect the more than likely referendum at some point to be a simple cakewalk; while others think that with Tories in power in the UK and Labour routed the future is theirs.
Political hubris is nearly always an expression of pride before the fall. For anyone who doubts that cast a look at the state of Scottish Labour today. It was once an all singing, all dancing political machine which felt it had the world at its feet. ‘Don’t believe your own hype’ should be the first rule of politicians’ code.
The SNP’s impressive coalition isn’t simple a centre-left one; it brings together all sorts of interests and constituencies, some for social justice, some pro-business. There will be tensions between these, particularly when government cuts, welfare savaging, and austerity are continuing.
The SNP has to play the future carefully. A second independence referendum is only possible in the next couple of years with a SNP conditional mandate in 2016 based on the UK European in/out referendum in 2017. If Britain votes to remain in, Scotland’s referendum has to stay on the backburner at least for a few years.
Cameron and Sturgeon will determine the shape of Scottish and British politics for the next five or so years. Scotland’s constitutional status in the union and its future will be central to this, but that is not all it can be about, otherwise the political classes will end up having a rather insular debate.
Instead, Scotland’s constitutional evolution has to be explicitly about the challenges our society faces: how to do economic growth in a way which is fairer, more equitable and sustainable, how to support living standards in an age of constant uncertainty, and how we bring change and innovation to our pressurised public services?
This is a moment for the SNP to celebrate, but also for us to catch our breath, and widen our aspirations and horizons.