Politics & Policy

In Britain’s Election, Thunder from the North

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (Andy Buchanan/Getty)
Last year’s referendum scotched the Scottish National party but did not kill it. Now it’s getting revenge.

Were it not for Scotland’s late-stage metamorphosis, Britain’s general election would have been over before it began. Because UKIP is draining Conservative support across the country, and because the Labour party is doing better now than it was in 2010, we should by rights be expecting a Labour victory on Thursday. Instead, we are discussing a set of extraordinary political changes that almost nobody saw coming. Scotland, it seems, is in flux, and may never be the same again.

“The loss of, perhaps, dozens of seats in [Labour’s] former Scottish stronghold,” writes the BBC’s Nick Robinson, “is what makes this election too close to call.” Robinson is correct. In 2010, Labour won 41 seats in Scotland, which, if added to the party’s projected total this time around, would put them just short of an overall majority, and in an excellent position to dictate terms to a would-be coalition partner. In other words, if this were a normal election, Labour would now be preparing for government. But this is not a normal election, and, if anything, Robinson has slightly understated the case. As of today, the opinion polling shows not that Labour are likely to lose “perhaps dozens” of races in Scotland, but that the party is going to be almost entirely wiped out north of the border. At present there are 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland, and of these, the polls have the Scottish National Party winning between 50 and . . . well, all of them. For decades now, the Labour party has counted on the socialist Scots to act as the Left’s bulwark against the conservative English. This election, they cannot. Who saw this coming?

To the uninitiated, this development looks as if it should be good news for the Conservative party, which has for years hoped to deprive Labour of its northern bastion. In reality, though, it has done little more than to provide the Right with a broad set of bad choices. It is certainly true that Tory voters in Scotland can keep down Labour’s totals by voting for the SNP. It is true, too, that a successful SNP contingent within Parliament would weaken Labour’s claim to a mandate in the event that there is no outright winner on Thursday evening. And yet one has to ask at what cost these benefits would come. It is all well and good for the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to promise that his party “will not do deals with any nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland who want to break up our United Kingdom,” and to observe, too, that “each vote for the Scottish Conservatives is a vote to keep the U.K. intact.” But in reality the Tories are not going to win in Scotland; somebody else is. Is it really better for the British Right that this “somebody” is a political party explicitly committed to the dismantling of the Union? And is preventing a stronger Labour administration really worth the alternative, which is a worst-of-all-worlds Labour-SNP alliance that would yield a national government that would be socialist in practice and secessionist in tone? Probably not.

It is not only the Conservatives who have been thrown for a loop. The Labour party, too, is struggling to work out what it should do. Theoretically, Labour’s best play is to a) assume that it has lost Scotland, b) aggressively court the SNP, and c) therefore bring the seats that it has lost back into the party’s fold by arranging a coalition. “If you can’t beat ’em,” Labour might think, then “join ’em.” While sensible on paper, however, this ploy would be fraught with political peril. For a start, by indicating that a vote for the SNP is a vote for a Labour-led coalition, Labour would all but free up the Scottish Left to abandon the party completely and — safe in the knowledge that their vote will not let the Conservatives back in — throw their weight unequivocally behind the SNP. This, obviously, could have deleterious consequences for Labour beyond this particular election.

Worse still, any attempt to cozy up with the SNP would likely hurt Labour’s prospects in England, where Scottish nationalism is deeply unpopular. At this stage, the last thing that Ed Miliband wants wavering English voters to think is that a vote for Labour will ultimately be a vote for a Labour-SNP alliance, and thus a vote for an oversized Scottish influence in English affairs. As of today, Labour has decided to go for broke. “Scotland can be the make or the break on whether we have a Labour government,” its leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, explained on Monday. “The message from the polls is clear — if Scotland votes Labour on Thursday, Britain gets a Labour government on Friday.” In the meantime, Labour’s national leader, Ed Miliband, has promised that Labour will form no alliance with the SNP. Has he left his party stranded? Time will tell.

Whether a Labour-SNP coalition would even be possible is an open question. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate just how acrimonious the relationship between the Labour party and the Scottish National Party has become in recent weeks. On Sunday, a hard-line SNP group that calls itself the “Scottish resistance” interrupted a Labour rally in the hard-Left city of Glasgow and screamed obscenities at Murphy, who, the protesters claimed, was a “red Tory” who had betrayed Scotland by standing against independence in 2014. After plastic placards were shoved into their faces, Murphy and his guest, the comedian Eddie Izzard, were forced to flee the scene in a car. Horrified, the SNP suspended the ringleaders. But the damage was done.

It would be difficult to overstate just how acrimonious the relationship between the Labour party and the Scottish National party has become in recent weeks.

That was an extreme incident, certainly. And yet walking around Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, I have been struck by how vitriolic is the nationalists’ dislike of both major English parties. I am by now accustomed to seeing anti-Tory posters in Scotland — often they feature creatively employed profanity and imaginative and amusing drawings of the poor being fed to lions — but I have never seen such animosity being thrown at Labour and its champions. In a pub on Rose Street, a heavily tattooed, bald-headed, thick-accented man tells me at the bar that he will “never vote Labour again.” “After that referendum,” he explains, “I’m SNP forever.” He is quick to tease me about the English. “You people are invaders here,” he says, half-jokingly. “Why would I vote for a party that wants to keep me part of a country I wanna leave? I don’t trust ’em to help Scotland.” This asseveration prompts a good number of nods around the bar. “I don’t dislike the Labour party, but we’ve got to put Scotland first,” a young woman interjects, echoing the language of the SNP’s charismatic and well-trusted leader, Nicola Sturgeon. “English parties can’t do that.” From a chair in the corner, an older gentleman in a tweed jacket objects. He doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but I gather that he is standing up for the Union. “Ha!” my tattooed friend says, kindly. “He’s old fashioned.”

In the rougher parts of town, artists have turned their attentions to lambasting the Labour party. “Let’s rid Scotland of Labour,” one popular sign says. Another features a stylized illustration of a nuclear weapon and carries the instruction, “Scrap Trident.” (Trident is the name of Britain’s nuclear-defense program. Labour supports Trident; the SNP does not.) One rather peculiar affiche features what looks like a sharp dinosaur’s claw, and an entreaty to “End Austerity,” which I am given to understand by the unprintable sentence beneath is something only an independent Scotland could achieve. Unusually for Britain, many of the flyers and pieces of graffiti draw no clear distinction between the two major national parties: both are apparently in the pocket of the capitalists; both want to destroy the health service; both oppose Scottish independence; both hate the poor and the environment. To illustrate this, one artist has stenciled the Tories’ green tree logo onto a garage door, and then painted it red. “Red Tories Out!” reads the haywire caption.

It would be easy to presume that this bitterness between Labour and the Scottish nationalists is the inevitable — and ultimately transient — result of what has in effect become a protracted political turf war, and that it will therefore dissipate once the last ballot has been counted. To indulge in such a presumption, however, would be to flatly ignore both the historical context in which the present standoff is taking place and the severe, maybe permanent, damage that was done during last year’s referendum. Evidently, the Scottish National Party has not forgiven Labour for its opposition to independence. That, perhaps, is to be expected. More interesting, though, is that the animus runs both ways. This week Jim Murphy admitted openly that he still holds a grudge against the SNP for its role in the Labour party’s decline in the late 1970s. “When the SNP voted down a Labour Government and brought Margaret Thatcher into power in 1979, my dad lost his job,” Murphy claimed in an interview with the Daily Record. “My family had to leave Scotland because they couldn’t find work in Thatcher’s Britain. I’ll never forget it, my dad will never forget it — he knows who caused that Tory government. It was brought in off the back of the votes of the SNP.”

Murphy has a kernel of a point. In 1979 the leader of the Conservative party, Margaret Thatcher, introduced a motion of no confidence into Parliament in the hope that she could persuade the MPs to force a general election. She was supported in her endeavor by the Liberal party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, and the United Ulster Unionist party — and, of course, by her own party, the Conservatives. After much deliberation, her motion was also joined by the SNP, which provided the crucial eleven votes that pushed the measure over the top. In consequence, rather than winning by 21, the incumbent prime minister, James Callaghan, lost the vote by one. Later that year, Thatcher was elected as prime minister. She would serve in the role for eleven years; her party would remain in power for 18.

Whatever happens on Thursday, these old wounds seem likely to be opened more broadly in the years to come. If the party does manage to win almost every seat in Scotland, the Labour party will be filled with rage, especially if the result is a Tory-led government. And if Labour manages to stem the bleeding and then to form an administration without the SNP, the calls for independence and for a potent “Scottish voice” will only be magnified.

It’s a funny old game, politics. When the SNP’s play for independence was defeated last September, most commentators predicted that the question would be closed for two decades or more. Instead, the party has gone from strength to strength, and the momentum that it built up during the referendum has been harnessed and placed squarely behind its general-election campaign. Now it is successfully harassing the two major British parties, and, should it succeed in engineering a regional takeover on Thursday, it will potentially manage to extract sweeping concessions to federalism or more. In the meantime, all eyes will be on Scotland, not London — and in particular on the few million swing voters who now hold the key to the whole national puzzle. For what was a losing team just a few months back, that’s not bad at all.

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