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Reflections on the revolution in Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon dominated in a way Alex Salmond could not have. But where now for the Union?

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

Never before — at least, not in living memory — has there been such a disconnect between north and south Britain. We vote together, but cast our ballots in very different contests. Scotland and England, semi-detached in the past, are more estranged than ever. The mildewed contest between David Cameron and Ed Miliband touches few hearts north of the Tweed; the battle between Labour and the SNP still mystifies many of those sent north to observe the strange happenings in Scotland.

Edmund Burke wrote of another revolution: ‘Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.’ Something similar might be said of this Scottish insurrection. The bells are tolling to announce the death of Labour in Scotland.

Is this some kind of national awakening or has, as some despairing unionists aver, Scotland gone mad? In truth, it depends where you start. We tend to think, because Scotland is only a small place, that it is uniform. But the post-industrial towns and former mining villages of Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire have little in common with prosperous Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In these forgotten places, despair is an all-too-common currency. The nationalists offer hope, and is it reasonable to ask those who have the least to scrutinise promises of an earthly bonanza more closely than anyone else? Five years ago every Scottish seat returned the same result it had in 2005. Scotland’s election was a sleepy affair. Now there are almost no safe seats and almost every contest pits the nationalists against the best-placed unionist candidate. How did it come to this?

Never underestimate the consequences of dumb luck. The SNP have exploited opportunities they did not create themselves. The margin between success and failure is precious thin. If the SNP had not won Cunninghame North by 48 votes in 2007, Alex Salmond would probably have been unable to form a minority administration in Edinburgh. Upon such trifles does the fate of a nation turn.

And if Gordon Brown had backed Wendy Alexander’s challenge to ‘bring it on’ and held a referendum on independence in 2008, it’s likely that the question really could have been put to bed for a generation. The SNP were not prepared for such a contest then and would in all likelihood have been heavily defeated. Six years later they were ready — and although they lost the battle the war goes on.

The referendum has not gone away. If you voted ‘yes’ last September, why would you vote for a unionist party now? Where you stand on the national question dictates where you stand on most other things too. If ‘yes’, then SNP; if ‘no’, then anyone but. It doesn’t matter if the SNP’s sums do not add up. What matters is that they offer an alternative.

There is irony aplenty, however. The SNP castigates Labour as nothing better than ‘Red Tories’ even as the nationalists scurry to copy Labour’s policies (especially on tax). Labour wags complain that there’s a majority in Scotland for Labour’s manifesto — it’s just that many Scots will vote SNP to make sure Labour’s promises are kept. The SNP will be happy if they are heard in Westminster, but equally pleased if they are not. If the former, they will boast of their influence; if the latter, they will complain that, yet again, ‘Scotland’s voice’ is being ignored.

The alternative is another Tory-led government. This, too, is the kind of obscenity with which the nationalists can live. Nicola Sturgeon’s loathing of the Tories is deep, long-held and sincere, but she can appreciate that from the narrow perspective of the SNP, another Tory government for which only one in six Scots voted is no disaster. No wonder this election is an each-way bet for the nationalists.

Meanwhile, the scale of Labour’s collapse remains breathtaking. One senior figure has let it be known that the party may yet hang on to ten seats in Scotland. How the mighty are fallen. Even Labour’s optimism is hewn from pessimism these days. Across Scotland, Labour MPs look at their constituents and no longer recognise them. Fortresses that were supposed to be impregnable turn out to have been built from papier-mâché.

In truth, this disaster — for Labour and, perhaps, the Union — is not an overnight calamity. The prevailing winds in Scotland have been nationalist for years; the referendum has simply upgraded them to hurricanes. Devolution conceded the limits of Westminster’s authority and those limits, once admitted, were easily pressed.

Little — or at least, not as much — of this would be happening without Nicola Sturgeon. You needn’t be a nationalist to feel a twinge of pleasure that Scotland’s first minister has given such a good account of herself on the UK stage. Her message is, by virtue of being both simple and widely believed, devastatingly effective. Only the SNP will act in the national interest; only they are ‘standing for Scotland’.

This infuriates unionists, who complain, with reason, that the SNP is not actually the will of the Scottish people made flesh. Nevertheless, as class divides are eroded, identity becomes more, not less, salient. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, for whom British identity matters hugely, are the only other party enjoying themselves in Scotland this year.

Sturgeon reaches parts of Scotland that always lay beyond Alex Salmond’s reach. Even though she has been a public figure for 20 years, she has allowed the SNP to start afresh, unencumbered by the hefty baggage that comes with Salmond. It is a neat trick, and a winning one. If Salmond offered the rest of the UK a ‘hand of friendship’, no one would believe him. Sturgeon’s gift is that many people, including some in England, seem inclined to think she might be serious.

The SNP have offered a political home for an expression of cultural and national identity. Forty years ago a third of Scots answered ‘British’ to the question: ‘What nationality best describes you?’ By 2001 that percentage had halved. Asked to select ‘something that is very important to you when you think of yourself’, 45 per cent mentioned their Scottish identity.

All the while the Scottish Labour party never had to rethink itself, because it was still winning elections. But the British Labour party’s makeover, designed to make it electable in England, necessarily distanced the party from a Scottish organisation that many Scots still felt was entirely roadworthy. Tony Blair’s Labour party was not their Labour party and, for both groups, that was the point.

In Scotland, this is an intensely personal election. ‘My vote, my country’ is the animating spirit of the day. Nationalism is our new secular religion and saltires outnumber the union flag two to one. Every vote mattered in the referendum and, unusually, almost every vote can count in this election, too. Which makes it all the more galling that Cameron and Lynton Crosby have run a campaign encouraging Scots to vote SNP. Each time they raise the spectre of a Labour government dependent upon SNP support, a small cheer is heard at SNP HQ. This, after all, is the most popular election outcome in Scotland. A Labour government backed and ‘kept honest’ by ‘Scotland’s voice’. English voters might fear this; their Scottish counterparts welcome it. To the extent that such an outcome causes ‘chaos’, it is a chaos that has been encouraged by the Conservative and Unionist party. Many leading Scottish Tories can hardly contain their fury.

Identity politics defeats all comers, however. According to the British Election Survey, 51 per cent of SNP voters agree that ‘when people criticise my party, it feels like a personal insult’. Not just a personal insult, but a national one as well. La patrie, c’est nous.

The problem for unionism is that so many of its followers have yet to understand that it has a problem. Laughably, Cameron says the constitutional question is ‘settled’, while Miliband has nothing to say on the matter at all. Neither shows any sign of having thought about anything other than crawling into Downing Street next week.

Scottish unionists have few reasons for optimism these days. There is, perhaps, just one sliver of consolation. If — and this is necessarily a matter of considerable conjecture — Miliband becomes prime minister, Scots may find they rather like a Labour government dependent upon SNP support. If ‘Scotland’s voice’ is heard in London, then the argument that Westminster is unreformable and inevitably indifferent to Scottish interests loses some of its salience. That’s a hefty bet, fraught with risk — not least because any such arrangement requires the Tories to accept that SNP votes are just as legitimate as any others.

It would require the Tories to put country before party and resist the siren calls of English nationalism that may yet endanger the Union as surely as their Scottish counterparts. It would require a unionism of greater sangfroid and generosity than anything we have seen recently. But ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is far from the worst advice available. The alternative is an escalation of nationalist rhetoric both north and south of the border.

This election will be remembered as the Scottish election. The prevailing winds favour the nationalists and change is coming. Meeting that challenge demands a better unionism than we’ve seen lately. There is power in a Union, but only if it’s made relevant to all. Otherwise this old song, first sung in 1707, will end.

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