Imagine a Parallel Universe Scotland without the SNP
Scottish Review, March 29th 2017
Nearly every adult in Scotland has an opinion and view on the SNP: the good, the bad, the positive, the negative and the indifferent.
The SNP have been a constant presence in public life at least since Winnie Ewing’s famous and oft-cited Hamilton by-election victory: a result which did much to bring into being the modern SNP and the contemporary Scotland we live in.
Yet, the SNP are now such a powerful force that it is hard to imagine that only two generations ago it wasn’t always so. In the 1955 general election, the Nationalists only stood two candidates, winning a total of 12,112 votes (0.5%) and there were discussions about winding up as a separate force. Nearly a decade later – in 1964, the party won only 64,044 votes (2.4%) and was still largely irrelevant in Scottish life.
What if the SNP springboard that really took effect in 1966-67 and culminating in Hamilton had never happened? Imagine a politics where the contemporary SNP never emerged as an electoral force, but remained forever at the margins. Exploring such a parallel universe Scotland gives a sense of what could have been, and an idea of what the SNP have contributed to in public life.
First, Westminster’s Scottish contingent would be dominated by Labour, and even more, by dull Labour backwoodsmen. The 2015 UK general election saw Scottish Labour, on the backs of Tory-Lib Dem austerity, win its highest number of MPs – 57 out of 59 – reducing the Tories and Lib Dems to a single seat each. This was all though to no avail, as the Tories (elected upon English votes and seats) could simply ignore such an outcome.
Secondly in this imagined world, the title ‘Scottish Labour Party’ would remain a misnomer. Scottish Labour, such as it is, is kept on a tight leash by London. The party briefly considered devolution in the 1970s and 1980s, but with no electoral threat from a self-government party decided to remain committed to the historic centralisation it had championed under Attlee and Gaitskell.
Despite eighteen years of Thatcherism, Labour continued to believe in Britain and the power for good of British government and the state. Hence, when it was returned to office in 1997, despite warm words in its manifesto about ‘being sensitive to Scottish concerns and interests’, it turned its face emphatically against any greater autonomy. Thus, the New Labour era, like every previous UK Labour Government, stood against a Scottish Parliament – the party of Keir Hardie and Tom Johnston showing a clear consistency when in office.
In this parallel ‘SNP lite’ world, there was a party of self-government called the Real Scottish Labour Party – established in 1995 in reaction to Tony Blair becoming leader and the party’s rightward shift as it pursued the votes and interests of ‘middle England’. At first, its support was miniscule, but it attracted a cadre of talent and politicians who found the mixture of arrogance and complacency in Labour unattractive and representing the worst of machine politics.
Mainstream politics was nearly entirely bereft of ideas, dynamism or much competition in this parallel world. The retreat of the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s hurt them badly and reduced the talent pool who were publically prepared to stand for them. Neither uber-Thatcherite or old style Tory paternalists, they were caught between a rock and a hard place, and regularly pilloried and caricatured as being out of touch, from another age, and even of being ‘unScottish’.
This other world saw the Lib Dems have a significant foothold in the middle classes who were repulsed by Labour’s worst tendencies and the hard edge of Toryism. They were also distinctive in being the only one of the three big parties that consistently supported home rule and a Scottish Parliament. The latter was dismissed by the big two as the politics of losers who couldn’t get their hands fully on UK Government decisions, and was treated with derision (as indeed the Lib Dems were by Labour and Tories).
Many parts of public life survived the Thatcherite and New Labour eras unreformed. One of the worst was local government that continued an endless ‘jobs for the boys’ culture of patronage. Decades of unchallenged Labour one-party rule in the West of Scotland produced in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, a corrupt, cronyist politics deeply dug and fortified by distortions of First Past the Post. This was exemplified in the 1995 council elections when Labour won 59% of the vote and every one of the 79 council seats, driving the last Lib Dems and Tories out of Glasgow City Chambers.
What avenues did Scotland have to protest all this? Very little. When the Tories were in power in Westminster, Scotland turned en masse to the Labour Party, their vote peaking at 55% in 1997 after eighteen years of Conservative rule. When Labour were the UK government, this wasn’t an option as a statement of dissatisfaction, and a large part of the country was wary about voting Tory or Lib Dem. The same was true in Labour’s local fiefdoms.
Slowly through the last years of the 20th century and first two decades of the 21st century, popular discontent with this state of affairs rose and fermented. Scandal after scandal emerged until the 1999 Glasgow City Council involving private developers getting their hands on the entire stock of council housing at huge knock down prices, with sweetener payments to senior Labour councillors and officials saw arrests, charges and prison sentences. UK Labour felt it had no choice but to intervene and shut down the local party.
A further jolt came with the EU referendum and narrow UK Brexit vote of June 2016. Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU, and all the prominent figures of the main three UK parties north of the border enthusiastically campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU.
However, a Scotland without a Scottish Parliament had no vehicle to channel discontent about Brexit and its popular will being ignored. This brought out further into the open decades of frustration at Labour treating Scotland as a safe banker of forty to fifty seats, and feeling it could take the country and public opinion for granted.
Brexit brought a surge in support for the Real Scottish Labour Party, aided by its new impressive leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale who had taken control of the party prior to the Brexit vote. Their confident centre-left politics, combined with a significant tranche of Labour defectors such as Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish, who were frustrated at their old party’s continued dominance by dinosaurs and its shortsighted lack of support for a Scottish Parliament, swept all before it.
By the end of 2016 the new force was regularly polling over 50% in the polls, and the public and media felt it brought a new energy and electricity into the previously stale political scene. One of the party’s most popular stands with voters was for Scotland’s majority desire to remain in the EU to be recognised and accommodated in the UK, otherwise, the return of a majority of Scottish mandate MPs in 2020 would see withdrawal from Westminster and an immediate referendum on independence. The new party continually stressed that this would be a vote of last resort, if the UK Government continued to be so intransigent.
Opinion polls post-Brexit supported the calling of such of a referendum, with 55% to 60% support for independence. Whatever the future held, Scotland had changed dramatically, becoming as one visiting Tory minister said in spring 2017 ‘a different country’ and ‘one on the brink of independence’. How this happened so quickly left many of the old parties, institutions and media scratching their heads with disbelief and doubting what they saw before them.
In 2020 after a hard, no compromise Brexit by the Tory Government – with little sensitivity shown to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish – Scotland returned a massive majority of Real Scottish Labour MPs. The UK Government quickly agreed an independence referendum, believing it would easily win, but Scotland voted 61% to 39% for independence. Majorities of Real Scottish Labour, Labour and Lib Dem supporters voted for independence, and only Tories did not. No one at the time noticed that the vote was held on the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, but then with no conventional nationalist party of any size, such references and rhetoric were very much on the margins.
After Scotland became independent, people wondered how this had all come to pass so quickly when the SNP – under the romantic nationalist leadership of Pete Wishart – remained so small and insubstantial. The general consensus which emerged post-independence was that the weakness of the SNP was actually an aid for independence, as the main argument for change was centred on democracy, not nationalism or righting any perceived ancient past wrongs.
Others weren’t so sure and imagined a parallel universe where a Labour Party forced by a popular SNP legislated for a Scottish Parliament in the 1970s or 1990s. Would that have been enough to hold back the tectonic plates which had been shifting mostly unobserved pre-Brexit?
Many writers and academics spent years looking at the unique nature of Scottish nationalism and its genuine cross-party nature, not restricted to one distinct party, and saw it as a hallmark of its success. But underneath it all, some dared to wonder that however Scotland had turned out in the last few decades, in all probability, we would have ended up in exactly the same place by 2020: a proudly European, internationalist nation on the verge of independence.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..