The end of the Union?

A victory for the Scottish National Party in this week's Scottish Parliament elections would be less a Braveheart cry for 'freedom!' than a snub to New Labour.

Lee Jones

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According to most Westminster politicians, the United Kingdom faces imminent demise. Three recent polls suggest that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is set to beat the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament elections on Thursday (1). Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other Labour bigwigs have fearfully rushed north of the border to campaign against the ‘chaos and disorder’ that Blair warns will ensue if the nationalists win (2). But is the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England really about to be torn asunder?

One clue is that we’ve heard all of this before. Back in May 1998, the SNP was polling at 41 per cent, five points ahead of Labour, with a full year to go before the first Scottish parliamentary elections (3). Labour eventually received 39 per cent of the vote to the SNP’s 29 per cent at the ‘first past the post’ constituency level, and 34 per cent to 27 per cent at the ‘additional member’ (proportional representation) regional level. The eventual result was the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition that has governed Scotland since (4). We saw the same thing in 2003, with the SNP polling ahead of Labour, but at the ballot box Labour’s electoral lead over the SNP actually extended (5). So we should be wary of setting too much store by polls. The real question is why, given all this precedent, the newspapers are talking about a ‘meltdown’ for Labour (6).

The real story in Scotland is a sad tale of the disconnection of politicians from the electorate, which leads both SNP and Labour hacks alike to read polls as the genuine expression of what ‘the people’ want and expect. Rather than a powerful demand for freedom and independence, the real story is disaffection and apathy. Despite the apparent threat to the Union, it seems most Scots couldn’t give a toss.

How did devolution get on to the agenda in the first place? Back in 1978, the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan put forward the Scotland Act, based on the recommendations of a Royal Commission. The Act provided for a referendum, but demanded that at least 40 per cent of the total electorate vote ‘yes’ in order for a Scottish Assembly to be created. In the March 1979 vote, 51.6 per cent voted ‘yes’; but the turnout was so low that the 40 per cent threshold was not reached. The government wasn’t helped by the fact that a number of its own MPs campaigned against devolution, against party policy. Within three months the Callaghan government was itself thrashed at the polls by Margaret Thatcher.

In subsequent years, Labour flirted with various kinds of constitutional reform, and there was mention of a Scottish Parliament in the 1992 manifesto – if only through fear that the party might never muster enough support to rule in Westminster again. However, the (brief) period of mass rallies in support of home rule came after the election that year, with Scots apparently disgusted that having voted overwhelmingly for Labour north of the border yet again, they would have to endure another five years of Conservative government.

By 1997, support for devolution was still apparently strong. The polls and the focus groups told New Labour’s strategists that including devolution in the manifesto was a no-brainer. But when the referendum finally came in 1998, to Labour’s surprise it hardly represented a powerful demand for change. True, 74 per cent voted for a parliament, but the turnout, at 60 per cent, was even lower than in 1979. Still only 45 per cent of the electorate had voted for devolution. While this represented a little more enthusiasm than the vote for the Welsh Assembly, which barely squeaked by, or the London Assembly, which was created on a 30 per cent turnout, the Scots were hardly clamouring for home rule.

Not for the first time, New Labour’s ‘modernising’ intellectuals had badly misjudged the real mood of the country. What Scots felt passionately about was not devolution, but getting rid of the Tories. Conservative rule had been a disaster for Scotland, decimating traditional heavy industries. The Tories were a predominantly English party and so, given the apparent inability of Labour to win power at Westminster, devolved rule represented the only way to get rid of them. But this could obviously have been achieved without devolution – as indeed it was in 1997, when the last Tory MP in Scotland lost his seat. In fact, it was only the post-devolution political system that gave the Tories a lifeline in Scottish politics.

The lack of genuine enthusiasm for devolved government and the rise of anti-politics were further illustrated by successive poor turnouts at Scottish parliamentary elections. At the first elections, held in 1999, turnout was under 60 per cent. If devolution was supposed to stem the mass retreat from politics experienced since the 1980s, it was a dismal failure: by 2003, turnout had slumped to under 50 per cent. Scots are even less excited about their own parliament than they are about distant Westminster – Scottish turnout in the 2005 General Election was (a still unimpressive) 61 per cent (7).

The glaring misjudgement about the popularity of devolution reflected New Labour’s growing distance from the people who had been its traditional supporters, and its growing reliance on polls, spindoctors, strategists and swingometers to win elections. More substantively, overnight it created a ‘national’ stage for the SNP to parade upon. Devolution, which Scots had little interest in, helped transform the prospect of Scottish independence from the fringe issue it had always been into a mainstream political platform.

But while the anti-independence parties now appear to tremble in fear at the prospect of the break-up of the UK, with Labour perhaps ruing its decision to create the Scottish Parliament and Gordon Brown banging on about ‘Britishness’ at every available opportunity (partly to disguise his own reliance on Scottish votes), the fact is that independence remains a fringe policy without much real support.

It is often claimed that 80 per cent of Scots support a referendum on Scottish independence – SNP leader Alex Salmond repeated this statistic in interviews throughout early April. However, according to the most recent polls, only 32 per cent of Scots actually want Scotland to become independent, a figure unchanged since January (8). The startling disconnect between these two figures might reflect a desire for a period of campaigning and open debate. It might reflect a desire on the part of anti-independence Scots to have the debate once and for all and see the SNP lose. Or, it might simply reflect the bizarre results that are typical in polling, since to answer questions on what you may or may not support is an inherently passive activity with no real consequences, despite the media’s obsession with polling data.

In any case, it is clear that the rising ‘threat’ of the SNP and calls for independence don’t express any particularly deep-seated desire on the part of Scots to don kilts, daub themselves in woad and fight, Braveheart-esque, for their ‘freedom’. Although there are doubtless some committed nationalists, votes for the SNP are also a very easy way to reject New Labour in a part of the country where most people still can’t bring themselves to vote Tory. Devolved government is attractive for the exact same reason as 1997 – to protest against an unpopular government in Westminster. It’s just that now the incumbent party devoid of an inspiring vision is New Labour.

But is the SNP actually offering anything more attractive? Their vision for Scotland seems a dismal mixture of the anti-politics that drives voters towards them and derivative, mainstream policies typical of any major party. The only policy statement on the SNP website’s homepage is a rejection of the planned Trident replacement (9). The ‘hot issue’ in early April was property tax, with the SNP pledging to reduce it by realising 1.5 per cent efficiency savings in the annual Scottish budget, while lately the SNP has pledged to cut student debt, increase access to leisure centres, and make Scotland more environmentally friendly (10).

This is not exactly thrilling stuff – no sign of a real clash of exciting visions for the future to overcome the stultifying nature of British politics. The SNP aren’t even real nationalists: the party’s plan immediately to take an independent Scotland into the EU, which would instantly compromise their hard-won sovereignty, reflects their basic sense that Scotland cannot, in fact, stand on its own in the world. An independent Scotland would scarcely be any different to the Scotland we have today. In fact, Alex Salmond recently said that independence was not a ‘one-way street’ but that an independent Scotland could actually re-join the UK in the future (11).

So if the SNP’s rise is disconnected from any powerful impulse towards independence or any attractive alternative vision for society, why are non-nationalist politicians so terrified? Largely because the SNP ‘threat’ represents the hollowing out of their own vote, the rise of anti-politics and the gradual collapse of that shared sense of destiny that used to hold the UK together. The election campaign in Scotland is a weird round of shadow boxing: the SNP tries to rally a population that does not support its calls for Scottish independence. The SNP’s opponents, rather than offering an attractive alternative vision for the country as a whole, talk up the equally implausible bogeyman of the collapse of the Union with all its attendant disasters for the people of Scotland.

Labour and the rest may even be secretly grateful for the rise in SNP support. Rather like the mythical groundswell of working-class support for the BNP in England, it gives them a bête noir to bash in the absence of anything more meaningful to offer.

Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in international politics at the University of Oxford. He blogs at Speaking Our Mind.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport discussed Conservative leader David Cameron’s recent apology to Scotland in Not saying sorry is the hardest thing to do. Simon Knight discussed the introduction of ASBOs in Scotland in Scotland’s anti-social bill. Glaswegian writer Dolan Cummings wondered why the Scottish Executive sees racism everywhere in One Scotland, many racists?.

(1) SNP leads poll as Holyrood closes, BBC News, 30 March 2007

(2) Election campaigns reach climax, BBC News, 29 April 2007

(3) SNP takes poll lead over Labour, BBC News, 6 May 1998

(4) Scottish Election Results, Wikipedia

(5) SNP pulls ahead of Labour in Holyrood Race, 5 April 2003; Scottish Election Results, 2003, Wikipedia
(6) Labour faces meltdown as SNP heads for power, The Times (London), 28 March 2007

(7) Election 2005 Turnout: How many, who, and why?, Electoral Commission, October 2005 [pdf]

(8) Independence ‘not one way street’, BBC News, 29 April 2007; Fact Check: Do the Scots support independence?, Channel 4, 18 January 2007

(9) SNP homepage, accessed 30 April 2007

(10) Council tax sparks campaign row, BBC News, 9 April 2007; Election scuffle as tempers fray, 28 April 2007; Independence ‘not one way street’, BBC News, 29 April 2007

(11) Independence ‘not one way street’, BBC News, 29 April 2007

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