‘Peak SNP’ and how Scotland and the UK are changing

Gerry Hassan

New Statesman, April 28th 2015

Scotland is everywhere in the news only a few months after the indyref. Scotland and its politics are being widely discussed and portrayed not just north of the border, but by UK media and politicians, as well as getting significant international coverage.

Scotland feels different. It is as if something fundamental has shifted in how voters see politics, the consequences of their votes, and themselves.

For years a sizeable segment of voters have thought at Westminster elections that the most important issue was voting Labour and holding the line in Scotland in the hope of keeping the Tories out and electing a Labour Government. This sentiment so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have dissipated: the dam which once held so firm, has well and truly burst.

Now an SNP wave looks like it will engulf most Scottish Labour seats and notables in what will amount to a popular tartan tsunami remaking the political map of Scotland – one with profound implications for the UK.

Yet, as we speak, a little more than a week from polling day, most of Scotland (let alone the UK) does not really fully comprehend why this has happened and what it could mean. This is obvious in the pro-union camp of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, but also its principal benefactors: the SNP. Nationalist politicians may make great play of how disorientated Labour are by the new mood, but they too are not sure what has changed, only that post-indyref the wind is suddenly blowing in their sails.

One thing which has shifted is how Westminster and British Labour are perceived. It has been revealing that post-referendum Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has continually repeated the mantra that he is ‘not a Westminster politician’, and instead ‘a Scottish politician who goes to Westminster’. Such is the toxicity of the Palace of Westminster.

Scottish Labour is increasingly viewed in a negative light. Beyond the ranks of the Nationalists there is a sense of deep disappointment and even betrayal about its recent trajectory and history. This has become a mantra about the ‘sell out’ of New Labour, the absence of an effective centre-left social democracy in Scotland or Britain, and a yearning for a politics of substance. It mixes an elemental anger about Scottish Labour and an elegy for a past world where politics and choices were more clear and stark.

South of the border something is stirring too. And this is having an impact in Scotland. We have witnessed what at times looks like a kamikaze English Tory campaign which contradicts nearly everything said in the indyref. This has the result of undermining Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader and her party, who has distanced herself from such utterances. But even more seriously, it is weakening by the day the basis of the union.

One interpretation of how Scotland has changed is to see it as becoming post-indyref defined by ‘two tribes’: one SNP, the other unionist, Yes and No. And related to this the SNP advance is understood as the triumph of a ‘faith based politics’ and rise of irrationality over reason.

This is a caricature of modern Scotland and it is telling that the prognosis comes from leading pro-union commentators such as Alex Massie, Iain Martin and Chris Deerin. This section of unionist Scotland is, to put it mildly, disconnected and disaffected at the state of public opinion: referendum won, this whole thing was meant to be safely back in its box. But instead the natives are still restless and the natural order under threat.

The ‘two tribes’ account draws from the historical trope of a ‘divided Scotland’: a nation which couldn’t sit with or overcome its divisions, whether Highland and Lowland, Protestant and Catholic, West and East, and more.

However, this wasn’t underneath the headline figures the experience of the referendum. Under the Yes/No binary choice there were only two small camps on each side which were vociferously tribal and partisan. Both ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ strategies were predicated on at least 60% of the electorate having soft or potentially changeable views on independence.

The related argument of this is that the rise and untouchability of the SNP is due to the mesmerising hold of their ‘faith based politics’ which have weaved a spell on the minds of Scottish voters. This is supposedly the reason why the limitations of SNP politics and its record in government hasn’t become an issue. Sadly, this misses that voters have consistently seen the SNP in office as competent, while recognising that the government’s overall budget (and scale of cuts) is set by Westminster. Perhaps as important, all politics, credos and political parties involve an uneasy cohabitation between faith and fact.

What hasn’t cut through in the election campaign has been a sequence of increasingly desperate pro-union charges against the SNP. The Scottish Labour Party under new management with Jim Murphy since December last year have been hyperactive and frenetic, making policy announcements on a daily basis for months, all planned by the Blairite election grid, and all to no effect what so ever!

There has been the predictable diet of scaremongering and disinformation of parts of the press – which has become one of the legends of the indyref. Chief cheerleaders of doom in this has been the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’. Both have Scottish editions which invite its readers to accept a sadomasochist account of Scotland, where those pesky, scheming Machiavellian Nats are out to cause perpetual constitutional chaos and will stoop to anything to achieve their evil ends.

This has produced a range of over the top headlines which sound as if they are straight from Chris Morris’ ‘The Day Today’ with such claims as ‘Scotland has gone Mad’, an interview with Teresa May which resulted in the Mail front page, ‘SNP/Lab Pact ‘Worst Crisis since Abdication’’ while previously they have tried to label SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, the ‘Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’.

The Labour Party thought it had been given a political weapon early in the campaign when Nicola Sturgeon in one of the first TV debates declared that full fiscal autonomy was a priority for the SNP post-election. This allowed Labour to cite Institute for Fiscal Studies figures showing that this would produce a current deficit between spending and revenue in Scotland of £7.6 billion. But like everything Scottish Labour touches at the moment, it did so in a ham-fisted way which proved implausible beyond the tiny tribe of Labour true believers.

The SNP has presented a positive, progressive vision of Scotland – one that has been aided by the inadequacies of their opponents. Murphy has seemed to think taking the greatest hits from the New Labour manual would suffice, and when it hasn’t worked, has been bereft of any new ideas.

Tory Ruth Davidson has impressed, but is the leader of a future party which doesn’t yet exist and which she has little notion how to bring about. Lib Dem Willie Rennie is leader of a past party which used to exist and shows little sign in the near future of making a comeback. Little wonder that Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie shone so much in the referendum campaign, and fancies his party’s chances in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections; the same being true of the currents around the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign who are rumoured to be setting up a new party for next year.

The attractive, upbeat nature of the SNP and the limitations of their opponents look likely to be enough to see the political map of Scotland turn yellow on May 7th. The only doubt now seems to be whether Labour faces a wipeout, or can retain enough of a foothill of support, to envisage the possibility of a future comeback.

Yet, politics works in mysterious ways. ‘Peak SNP’ if that is what May 7th produces will radically alter the dynamics and contours of Scottish politics. A huge SNP Westminster intake will see the raising of unrealistic expectations which the party will struggle to control. A weak Conservative or Labour government will give the Nationalists the prospect of significant influence, but they cannot be seen to back the former, or bring down the latter.

Moreover, Scotland’s politics changing has altered its place in the union, and the nature of the union itself. This will have all sorts of unintended and unforeseen circumstances. One will be that in Scotland as well as the UK, the SNP’s policy prospectus and record in government will come under more detailed scrutiny. Another is that if Labour faces a Scottish Armageddon the current pro-union majority will coalesce around another, perhaps, more credible and convincing force.

Scottish politics are for the next few years going to be exciting, unpredictable and high profile. The coming SNP wave doesn’t mean that the party can assume its dominance is permanent, or that its interests and those of Scotland are synonymous: an assumption which has been inherent in how Cameron and senior Westminster Tories have talked about the SNP. Whichever way it develops the future shape and politics of Britain look likely to be determined by that of Scotland.