Scotland isn’t Mad, but Animated and Engaged
Sunday Mail, April 12th 2015
The election has definitely taken off this week.
There were the two Scottish leader debates. The Tories getting personal with Ed Miliband. Labour daring to talk about tax.
Scotland is in a different place. Some once thoughtful pro-union commentators have scratched their heads and come to the conclusion – ‘Scotland has gone mad’ and talked of ‘the madness of Scottish politics’.
It is never good to start citing ‘madness’ and nearly always reflects back on who said it. The fact that pro-union commentators think this demonstrates the degree of their disenchantment and alienation from the state of modern Scotland.
The Scottish election feels very different from any others in my lifetime. This is more than the SNP surge, or the condition of Scottish Labour.
The main Westminster election feels as if it is happening somewhere very distant and disconnected from Scotland. It feels as if it is occurring in a place with which we have a semi-detached relationship – where some of us occasionally go, but that most view with a sceptical eye.
This is because the previous pattern of UK general elections in Scotland since the 1960s has been for Labour to elect 40 plus MPs, and for people to cross their fingers and hope that they get a Labour Government.
Then the overall UK result was determined elsewhere. The best we could hope for was to contribute to pushing Labour over the top. This is no longer the case.
Instead, Scots do not look like they are prepared to just pray England does the right thing. They do not feel the same way about the Labour versus Tory battle as they used to.
Think of the way many of us used to see UK elections. It became, particularly from 1979 onwards and the election of Margaret Thatcher, a do or die battle between different values. A Labour Government elected on English and Welsh votes with Scottish support was the only way to express anti-Tory sentiments.
Yet, as the Tory decline became stark in the 1980s two things happened. People wanted more and more to get a Labour Government and saw the Tories as being unrepresentative and having ‘no mandate’ here. Slowly this began to make Westminster – when it was under Tory Government – appear ‘other’ and a far-removed place.
We are in a very different place now. Rather than Scottish voters being taken for granted and counted as a block vote in the Labour column, the tables have turned and their votes could now determine the result of the next UK election and government.
This was illustrated this week in a ‘BBC Newsnight’ item talking to Scottish voters. A group of mostly elderly working class Glaswegian voters said things such as, ‘for years we have been taken for granted’ and ‘now we have a say and influence’. This was nearly entirely the voice of what was once Labour Scotland asserting itself.
This has a resonance with the last stages of the indyref. In the last two weeks when Yes went ahead and the British establishment shook and trembled, Scottish voters – irrespective of whether they were Yes, No or don’t know – liked the feeling of making elites scared and of sensing their own collective power.
That was a seismic moment in Scotland and of how people see and understand themselves. It changes the dynamics of Scottish politics, possibly permanently.
The genie has been let out of the bottle and it won’t be going back anytime soon.
Let’s face it in Scotland, the UK and most of the West over the last 30 or so years most voters haven’t had many occasions where they can sense their innate collective power. That is the mood of Scotland today.
This new state of mind should not be seen as exclusive property of any one party. For the moment this new dispensation is behind the SNP and to a lesser extent, the Scottish Greens for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.
But this is about much more. It is about a desire and determination not to be taken for granted, as voters feel they have been in all those past Westminster elections. People want, as the referendum showed, a politics where they feel they have an ownership and control and where politicians respect and understand that voters have power.
It is a yearning and intent for a more DIY Scottish politics. Thus, whatever happens in this coming election, no one party – SNP or Labour, or anyone else – should dare to assume that it can put a lid on this popular feeling and offer the same old spin, manipulation and machine politics.
Scotland isn’t mad, but its animated and engaged, and long may that continue.