The 2019 election and the End Games of Imperial Britain

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 17th 2019

The 2019 UK election campaign had few memorable moments, but despite this the result will have implications for most of us for the rest of our lives.

Maybe this is what ugly history looks like. The phrase ‘British politics’ is now a misnomer. There is no real UK-wide politics, rather a distinct four nations politics, and within this all kinds of divisions and cleavages – of young and old; within the working class; in education and housing; and between and within cities, towns and rural areas.

A stark contrast is the different UK and Scottish mandates. Boris Johnson’s Tories were elected with 43.6% of the vote, 365 seats and an overall majority of 80. This is the highest Tory vote since 1979 and first overall working majority since 1987. Caveats should be made. For all the media hype of Johnson’s appeal to former Labour voters, he and his government remained throughout the campaign hugely unpopular by historic standards – with Johnson as unpopular as John Major was in the 1997 Labour landslide.

The SNP meanwhile won 45% of the vote and 48 seats in an election in which Scotland’s place in the union and the EU was centrestage. This is a much more significant SNP result politically than 2015. That earlier result produced ‘the 56’ against the backdrop of the indyref and a febrile political mood which could not last. This election triumph is part of a longer-term set of trends – which with the shadow of Brexit – will have more lasting impact on Scotland’s future.

The State of the Political Nations and Tribes

The mood of the parties in the election aftermath reflects their success, failures and expectations. The Tories are trying to present themselves as non-triumphalist; the SNP know that bigger battles are to come; while Labour and Lib Dems are subdued and in denial about the mess they are both in.

The Conservatives are trying to find a plausible mix for a post-Thatcherite politics, which is a work in progress. Despite it being 30 years next year since Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, her legacy still defines and divides supporters and opponents.

Boris Johnson often gives the accurate impression that he believes in little beyond the promotion and self-belief of ‘Boris’ – one day liberal mayor winning and running London; the next writing in a careless and callous manner racist articles while never taking responsibility for his words.

While numerous opposition voices have tried to portray Johnson and his government as ‘far right’, the Tories have been on a journey post-Thatcher. There was the attempt of Cameron’s compassionate conservatism which failed at the alter of austerity, Theresa May trying to break from selfish individualism, and now Johnson’s attempt to pivot towards a more pro-public services and spending approach after a decade of cuts.

There is little prospect of the Tories delivering on what is being called their Northern agenda. Academics such as Matthew Goodwin might wax lyrically about the appeal of ‘Johnsonism’ and claiming he has lanced the boil of ‘the Europe question’ – judgements which will look foolhardy in a short time.

There is also the claim of Boris Johnson’s working class appeal with Tony Parsons writing that ‘Boris Johnson has been swept to power by millions who never voted Tory in their lives. Now he has to keep them.’ A fact check is that the Tory vote 2017-19 rose by 325,468; Johnson’s working class appeal like Trump’s is tiny and mostly folklore, as much about the incompetence and out of touchness of opponents.

The SNP on 45% and 48 MPs can now reflect on a campaign which did not exactly set the heather on fire; that had mixed, confusing messages, and about which the party leadership became increasingly anxious. Yet, on polling day they proved effective and successful. The motivations for voting SNP were many: about Brexit, Boris Johnson, Labour and Lib Dem inadequacies, as well as independence, and the party would do well to remember the many factors in their wide appeal.

Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership – serious, cautious, grounded – is a reflection of the character and priorities of many Scots and many recognise themselves in her. The next couple of years will require these qualities and more – going beyond controlling managerialism on education and health, being able to listen, reflect and admit mistakes, and articulating a different language and politics to win an independence majority.

The Lib Dems are in a state of shock and disillusion. The election and leader who promised so much turned to ashes. It seems another world but pre-campaign polls put the Lib Dems on 18-20% and Labour on 21-26%. The party seemed perfectly placed to make a pitch to Remain Labour voters and to knock over Corbyn’s crumbling house. Lib Dems imagined this was a perfect storm of 1983 combined with a Cleggmania election effect, allowing the coalition years to be forgiven and a new dawn arise.

The over-reach began with the ridiculous ‘cancel Brexit’ policy and ‘Jo Swinson for PM’, but who could have believed she would be such a hapless campaigner? The party is struggling to accept reality. Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine post-vote tried to spin defeat as the party winning an extra million and a half votes compared to 2017 and put their travails down to the perfidious FPTP. That won’t wash; these are self-inflicted wounds.

Talking of which there is the plight of Labour. The post-election national divide seems to have come down to who is most to blame – Corbynistas v. Blairites – when the rot is much more serious and no one in the party can escape responsibility.

Corbyn said post-vote ‘We won the argument’ which is delusional. But the moderates and right-wingers have little to offer, and any real Blairite influence is mostly the imagination of Corbynistas inventing phantom enemies.

The party membership is overwhelming Corbynite and the old mainstream social democracy has little footholds or ideas, being in retreat across the world. However, despite the popularity of many left policies in the manifesto, such was the scattergun nature of Labour’s 105 page document with its daily extras – wittily called ‘advent calendar socialism’ – that they have brought the Corbynite project beyond Corbyn into disrepute. That leaves the party without a convincing credo: unable to go back to the recent past while unsure of future direction.

This brings us to Scottish Labour who had a miserable campaign. They are getting perilously close to inviting their irrelevance and a future like the French Communist Party. It was once a magnificent and feared force but being unable to reform and change it began to decline, and when it did, it collapsed, dominated by cheerless elderly men going on about the golden era of the Stalinist 1950s.

This past weekend has seen an open debate about Scottish Labour break out on the subject of independence and Scotland’s right to self-determination. This has seem some of the promising talents in the party such as former Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney and MSP Monica Lennon, as well as stalwarts like Neil Findlay, signal that they are willing to reconsider the party’s stance.

This feels a cathartic moment, of light and reality disturbing the cobwebs of Labour’s deepest recesses. A Labour Party moving away from the unionism many have always instinctively disliked, as well as shifting beyond the ambiguities it had in the recent election, to championing Scotland’s right to self-determination, would be a seismic change. It could even at some point herald a new era for Labour.

Scotland’s Different Political Journeys

Scotland’s political journey reflects generational and societal shifts: the rise of the Tories in the 1950s which gave way to Labour which was then followed by the ascendancy of the SNP.

Eileen Reid, eldest daughter of Jimmy Reid, grew up in the labour movement and has until now resisted the appeal of the SNP. But at this election she publicly declared that she had voted SNP and felt that for her it was a tumultuous and even overdue decision. When I asked her if it felt like crossing a rubicon and almost like a revolutionary act, she reflected: ‘It felt just like that. It broke a political logjam in my head.’ She said of her new world: ‘I feel like I belong to something, that world! Haven’t felt that for years with Labour.’

Walter, from Shawlands on Glasgow’s Southside, has travelled from Labour to SNP and for the first time voted Tory. The first reason he offered was Labour proposing to ‘nationalise Broadband’, threatening pension funds and his pension, but when pushed he admitted that wasn’t the main reasoning which he listed as Brexit, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, in that order.

Walter said with no prompting that he ‘could not stand that woman’, meaning Nicola Sturgeon. His list of complaints included that she was stuck on one message and tone, and the way ‘she laughs at her own jokes’. He used to admire Alex Salmond, regarding him as a leader, but no longer thinks that believing his behaviour has fallen post-office, disliking him even more than Sturgeon.

A different voice came from Farid, a taxi driver from Algiers, who has lived in Glasgow since 1993. He has UK and Irish passports, married an Irish woman and has three children. Our conversation included the Algerian fixed election which took place on the same day as the UK’s, the potential of its young people and economy, and the uprising last week against its rulers. We touched on the legacy of colonialism, French rule, and what he called ‘the new colonialism’ which still exists, drawing upon Frantz Fanon.

He loves Scotland and Brexit had turned him into someone who hadn’t voted in 2014 to someone looking forward to another indyref and wanting to vote for independence. He was a joy to speak to: hopeful for the future of Algeria and Scotland and the collective ability of people to rise to the challenge even in difficult situations.

Radical Scotland and Future Britain

The forces of radical change in Scotland and the UK are not as strong as they sometimes think. There is a tendency amongst insurgents to quickly fall for their own mythologies, calcify and become conservative: it happened to the Corbynistas and their constant references to the Corbyn surge of 2017 to deny the Labour leader’s growing unpopularity. A similar dynamic can be seen in parts of the independence movement with people believing that, because of the progress to 45% in 2014, moving to 60% will somehow be smooth – not recognising that the 2014 progress was low hanging gains, and that subsequent advances will become cumulatively more difficult.

This propensity is reinforced by the weakness in both of radical left currents. Hence, Corbynistas have created an ecology of social media sites, energy and enthusiasm, but despite having control of the party, have not generated many detailed policy prospectuses. Instead, a younger generation of radicals seem to have fallen for the myths of self-actualisation: that saying something makes it real and is a substitute for real political change; the limits of this were evident in the Labour manifesto with many ambitious policies bounced on voters with no warning or preparation.

The Scottish independence movement is shaped by the dominance of the SNP and weakness of the left inside and outside the party. Twelve years into office the SNP has a lack of radical voices in prominent places, or indeed radical policies. This is reinforced by the lack of political pull of left forces beyond the SNP – with the decline of Labour aiding Nationalist centrism, while the Greens have always lacked a radical edge, and RISE which emerged from Radical Independence not living up to its hype.

How we understand Scotland and the UK in these turbulent times will be challenging. It isn’t good enough, as Iain Macwhirter did on Sunday, to compare the respective UK and Scottish mandates thus: ‘The election results north and south of the Border may appear wildly different, but they are both expressions of populist nationalism’. The Tory victory clearly is, but the SNP is as far from populism as it is possible to imagine.

The UK faces a set of existential issues – where a free market ideological right-wing have a vision for the future of Britain: a dysfunctional, Dickensian, deregulated nightmare for most of the population. It has traction with strongholds in old and new establishments, aided by the absence of a competing vision from Labour, whether Corbynista or non-Corbnyista, the Lib Dems or Greens. Without that compelling vision, policies and constituency, Britain’s future is certain to be one of inexorably moving rightward – no matter Boris Johnson’s post-election rhetoric.

With this the faultlines of the British state will continue to grow deeper – with Scotland and Northern Ireland having the right to exit at some point. But the future of England and Wales matters to all of us – and whatever we do in this northern nation we will have to work collaboratively to defeat the forces of reaction and immiserisation south of the border. The imperial mindset at the heart of the British state – not just geo-politically, but economically and socially invoked by Farid from Algeria – has to be defeated. That can only come with an alternative story of Britain and England – and Scottish and Northern Irish self-determination could be the catalyst for that dramatic change.