Scotland’s Peaceful Revolution and the End of the Old Britain

Gerry Hassan

The Hindu, May 16th 2015

Britain feels and looks very different now from only a week ago.

The general election threw up many surprises – the re-election of a majority Conservative Government, the scale of the Scottish National Party (SNP) landslide, and Scotland and England pointing in completely opposite political directions.

The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, reducing the dominant Labour Party north of the border from 41 seats at the previous election to a single seat. A whole host of luminaries lost their seats including Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran.

How did this happen, when only seven months ago the SNP lost the independence referendum, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron considered the whole issue ‘settled’? And what does it mean for the SNP’s aim of Scottish independence and the future, if any, of the UK?

The mood of Scotland at this time is difficult to fully convey. Scottish public opinion, despite its centre-left credentials and traditions, doesn’t do outward celebrations of victory. This isn’t the culture of a Milan or Buenos Aires where people take to the streets in their cars tooting and cheering to mark a political event.

Allowing for this Scottish reticence there is a sense of quiet satisfaction in parts of the country. Many people felt that Scottish Labour had become the political establishment – complacent, out of touch, showing little respect for their own professed values – and wanted to punish them.

The explanations offered for this range from observations that ‘Blair destroyed the Labour Party’ to ‘the Iraq war’, from ‘I don’t know what they stand for anyone’ to ‘they are the same as the Tories’ and that ‘Labour do not stand up for Scotland, but take their orders from London.’

A mixture of public anger and disappointment exists towards Labour in Scotland that has built up over decades. It began to find voice when Labour lost the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections to the SNP, by the thinnest of margins, leading to a SNP minority government under Alex Salmond. There then followed the 2011 Scottish Parliament election SNP landslide, and then the May 7th Nationalist triumph.

There is a general air of goodwill towards the SNP and its record as the Scottish Government. People like the sense that the Nationalists talk Scotland up, think positively about the potential of a self-governing nation, and are competent and credible in how they administer devolved services.

The SNP have now been in office for eight years, and yet are still able to present themselves as insurgents and outsiders, particularly in relation to Westminster. This is strengthened by Labour still being perceived as incumbents and insiders -responsible for many of the shortcomings of modern Scotland.

This may not be altogether fair, but it undoubtedly had traction in the recent May election – with both Labour and Westminster being held to account by many voters for what is wrong in Scotland, and the SNP rewarded. This state of affairs cannot last indefinitely.

A critical factor in all of this was the experience of the independence referendum. Scotland voted 55:45 to stay in the union last September. Just as important, for three years Scotland’s constitutional status was debated up and down the country resulting in an unprecedented 85.6% turnout.

The referendum question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ allowed for two simultaneous debates, one on the constitution, the other on what kind of country and society people wanted to live in. This emboldened the SNP and independence opinion.

The degree and depth of democratic engagement altered the parameters of Scottish society. This was combined with two other factors which have worked in the SNP’s favour.

First, when the campaign began, strategists in ‘Yes Scotland’ (the official independence organisation) felt that the voters had no mental map of what an independent Scotland would like and thus presented a conditional vision of independence, retaining many key institutions of the UK (Treasury, monarchy).

However, over the course of the campaign, the constant discussion of independence meant that it became normalised, and by the end, the ‘idea’ of independence had moved centrestage, so much so that after the vote one poll showed 69% of Scots believing independence was inevitable.

Second, on the morning after the September 18th vote, Alex Salmond took responsibility for defeat and resigned as SNP leader, handing on the baton to Deputy Leader Nicola Sturgeon. This allowed the SNP a seamless transition, the chance to renew, and importantly, to change tone from Salmond’s abrasive style to Sturgeon’s more conciliatory manner.

All of this is magnified by longer-term factors: the decline of the Scottish Tories, Labour’s hollowing out and replacement by the SNP as the dominant party, the secularisation of society and weakening of religion, and changing patterns of work, economy and industry.

Scotland in many respects in the last forty years has become more like elsewhere in Western Europe, and with this people increasingly wish to emphasise their distinctiveness in national identities and cultures.

The SNP have played all of this well – nurturing a soft civic nationalism and social democratic sentiment, which sits at ease with most Scots, and is far removed from the right-wing populism of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who won the 2014 European elections across the UK, as could be imagined.

Success brings with it its own pressures. The SNP’s near-clean sweep of Scottish Westminster constituencies means that many supporters now expect immediate change. The SNP campaigned on three main themes: an end to UK austerity, opposition to Trident nuclear submarine renewal, and more devolution of powers to Scotland.

No substantive concessions will be forthcoming on the first two, but on the third, with Prime Minister David Cameron conscious that his Conservative Party won 14.9% of the vote and one seat in Scotland, the former their lowest vote in 150 years, a more pragmatic line may well be evident from Westminster.

The big issue underneath all this is the independence question. Some Nationalist supporters are hoping for progress on this very soon, or more realistically, a SNP manifesto commitment in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections to a second referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon has consistently said in the 2015 campaign that a vote for the SNP was not one for independence. At the same time, she has not ruled out bringing the question back if there is a change in ‘material circumstances’. What this is remains imprecise, but the most likely trigger would be the Tory initiated European Union in/out referendum that will take place at the latest by the end of 2017.

If the UK voted to come out of the European Union, and Scotland and England found themselves facing in different political directions, this would be more than enough to justify a second independence referendum. Scotland has consistently been perceived as less Eurosceptic than England, and the gap between the two nations has grown markedly in recent years.

Even if it doesn’t happen as simply as above, the UK is in a very peaceful and very British way, fragmenting and fracturing, and becoming a series of very different political cultures. This was more than obvious in the recent UK election where there was no one overarching ‘national’ contest going on, but a host of sub-national, regional and local contests.

In this, Scotland is the most assertive and advanced in decoupling itself from the union of the United Kingdom, while Wales and Northern Ireland follow in the slipstream, becoming more autonomous and distinctive.

The old United Kingdom, familiar to people around the world, no longer exists. Its traditions, histories and values have given much we should be thankful for, as well as much there should be a sense of shame and atonement for. In recent decades ‘Britain plc’ – the corporate, business and political class version of the country – has grown less and less inclined to support or understand millions of working people and focused on the self-interests of global winners and elites.

The overwhelming consensus in Scotland is that this Britain isn’t good enough and that changing it might not be possible in the immediate future. Scotland increasingly aspires to a ‘revolution of the normal’ – to be democratic, progressive, and a modern, European nation, characteristics which Britain is sadly increasingly turning its back on.