The unending and apparently increasing hysteria of the London commentariat in response to the spectacular rise of the SNP in Scotland continues to dominate the UK media. It is clear that many of the pundits – many of whom, amazingly, are actually of Scottish origin – really don’t get it.
Again and again the argument devolves to ‘why do the Scots hate the English so much?’ clearly implying that the only reason Scots would not wish to be governed from 400 miles furth of their borders must be that they dislike the English. It is both a petty allegation, because it offends the basis of democracy, and plain old wrong.
When I was 17 I left home and went to London, like so many other young Scots. The story of my time there is not germane, but I was amazed by how obsessed with money the people were. It seemed to be all they ever thought about. In later life I came across the same attitude not only from Londoners but from others in the South East. ‘You have to go where the money is.’ Even more strange, to me, was that amongst the most profoundly affected by this notion were expatriate Scots (who managed to add an insufferable air of superiority into the mix; but that is also another story.)
The rise of the SNP since 2014 cannot be explained in terms that someone whose sole measure of value is monetary can readily understand. The good folks of London and the southeast, who apparently have swallowed whole the lie that the economy is ‘booming’ – we are curious as to what kind of ‘boom’ it is that can only be achieved by subsidising the richest companies in the country by £11 billion a year in order that they can underpay their workforce, but, hey. Anyway those good folks clearly cannot comprehend why the Scots would even think about getting off this (imaginary) gravy train.
So they think we must not like them.
I think we should explain things so that they might understand why their cosy little political arrangement looks about to come crashing down like a house of cards.
The first reason is constitutional. Westminster’s famed ‘first past the post’ electoral system is specifically set up to ensure that a party achieving less than half the vote share may still command an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. At the same time, the system is essentially bipartisan with one or other of the two ‘major’ parties enabled, by the voting system, to form a government supported by that commanding majority.
What may be less obvious is that it is also designed to favour London and the southeast, because this is the most populated part of the UK. That seems democratic enough in itself; but there is another problem.
Because of the constitutional arrangements above, the two major UK parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have become totally focussed on winning over the ‘floating’ voters in London and the southeast. The Conservatives are the natural party of this region, and so Labour has, since the rise to power of Tony Blair, turned itself into a very slightly modified version of it. Time and again, the Labour Party has sworn to follow the Conservative economic line because its leaders believe that to stray from it will alienate those crucial floating voters.
Nothing illustrates the catastrophic failure of the post-Thatcher era than this. Tony Blair adopted Thatcherism and called it ‘New Labour’, all in order to win those southeastern votes. This policy has led to, as we have mentioned before, a situation where there is simply no choice for voters: it’s Blue Tories or Red Tories and that’s your lot. This has disaffected the electorate such that the first past the post voting system has been compromised.
The present Tory administration was only able to govern in a coalition with the feckless ‘Liberal Democrats’ (a misnomer if ever there was one). Similar arrangements have applied before, for example in the 1970s when the ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ propped up a failing Labour Government, or, less well known, in the 1990s when the Ulster Unionists (now the DUP) held up Major’s lame duck Tory administration; however, formal coalitions are rare and happen, historically, only at times when the UK is under severe existential threat. This happened during World War Two.
Now, however, the political landscape has changed such that today, it appears that coalitions may become normal.
While the system favours the southeast and London, it is not exclusively dependent upon it. In becoming increasingly right-wing to attract votes in London and the southeast, Labour has alienated its voters elsewhere. Labour high command believed that the tribal loyalty of its supporters outside the southeast of England would always be enough to carry it through, and as long as there was no credible left-wing alternative, they were able to rely on this.
In the north of England, there remains no such alternative, but in Scotland and also Wales, there is now. Here too, Labour counted on historic tribal loyalty to hold up its vote, and made no changes to its overall policy when confronted with SNP gains in the Scottish elections. Its leaders reckoned that the voters would always come back to Labour for the general election, since the SNP could never be one of the two big parties that are supposed to be able to form a Westminster government.
This might have continued, even with the collapse of the first-past-the-post voting system, but for a catastrophic mistake made by Labour in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Since a Tory-led campaign would inevitably be rejected by the Scottish electorate, Labour was persuaded to be the face of Unionism in Scotland.
This meant that Labour had to present the case for Unionism on behalf of the government. But that government was identified in Scotland with the Tory Party, which is toxic there; the poison stuck to Labour. This was exacerbated by David Cameron’s crass and opportunistic attempt, immediately after the result was announced, to link the promises of further devolution which had been instrumental in achieving a rejection of Independence, for the while, to so-called EVEL – English Votes for English Laws.
Many people who had voted ‘No’ in the Referendum saw that this as a betrayal of the promises, which most observers believe secured a ‘No’majority. Doubtless Cameron had his own reasons – centred on votes in London and the southeast, as usual – but in Scotland the gesture was badly received.
This set anyone who had campaigned for the disUnion up as a target. And that target was the Labour Party.
In other parts of the UK this might not have mattered, because as we have said, there is no credible left-wing alternative to Labour. But in Scotland that is not the case. The SNP has positioned itself significantly to the left of Labour on a wide range of issues and furthermore the SNP is the party of government in Scotland. Its credibility is cast iron and bullet-proof.
The landslide which all the polls predict will virtually wipe out Labour in Scotland has two principal causes therefore; the first being the establishment of Labour as a right-wing, neo-liberal party and the second its clear identification with the Tories during the Referendum debate.
Labour did not recognise that it had not taken its Scottish voters with it. During the last few weeks, many disillusioned former Labour voters have been reported as saying that ‘Labour left me, I didn’t leave it.’
This is the crux of the issue. There is a fundamental difference between the vast majority of Scots and the people of London and the southeast of England. This difference is visceral but Labour’s high command simply thought it could be ignored. And the difference is that while for London and the southeast, it is indeed, all about the economy, in Scotland it simply is not.
Scots are not obsessed with money the way people in London and the southeast are. Those Scots who are so obsessed, move to London – and so are no longer Scottish voters. Those who remain in Scotland are interested in other things, notably quality of life, free education, good health care, fair treatment of the elderly and vulnerable, social inclusion and a justice system available to anyone. Scots do not, in general, seek to become filthy rich but instead, to have a nice life, in reasonable comfort, with good health care. This is exactly what ‘austerity’ is denying them.
It should have been blindingly obvious to the Labour high command that their strength in Scotland would remain only while the party was seen as being the only one that could deliver the things that Scots value. But Labour has adopted right-wing policies, in order to please the voters of the southeast of England, to the point that it simply is not a credible left-wing party any more and, worse, as far as Scotland is concerned, it does not reflect Scottish values. It has become Tory Party Lite and almost as toxic in Scotland as the original version.
This landslide was just waiting to happen and it counts as the most massive own goal of any British political party in recent years; it is one that Labour high command should have been able to predict, too.
There are many reasons why the defenestration of Labour in Scotland is welcome, not least its arrogant cronyism and presumption of the right to voter support despite slavishly following Tory policies like ‘austerity’ and a replacement for Trident. Its downfall has nothing to do with Scots ‘hating the English’ and everything to do with their having completely different, incompatible, values.
The real, underlying reason for Labour’s fall from grace is simple: as far as Scotland is concerned, it’s not about the economy, stupid. Both Scots and English people must realise that this is a profound difference and reflects two completely, and arguably increasingly, different national characters.
At the same time the changing nature of voter patterns and the likelihood of another hung Parliament means that the SNP, if it securs the share of vote that all the polls suggest it will, will hold the balance of power. Since there is no evidence whatsoever that Labour will be able to recover in Scotland — and many in the party now consider Scotland a ‘lost cause’ — then as long as the constitutional crisis brought about by having inadequate voter choice remains, the likelihood is that the SNP will continue to play a pivotal role in UK politics, although they could never themselves form a government. Well, so be it; the SNP is simply using a system designed by others.
The disUnion may stumble on for a few more years, but unless London and the southeast moves back from the right, it cannot survive in the long term. The differences in values between the two national characters is now linked to a failure of the first past the post system such that the larger, English component may have no choice but to heed the will of the Scottish one. For decades a right-wing England has dominated a left-wing Scotland and considered it fair and even ‘democratic’. Now that same England may be faced with a left-wing government that is held in place by Scotland’s votes.
Those in England who say this is undemocratic only reveal their misunderstanding of what the disUnion actually is and demonstrate that they do not consider it to be one nation at all; or rather, perhaps, that they see it as ‘Greater England’. They underline the intrinsic failure at the heart of the disUnion: Scotland and England are different countries.
Scots don’t hate the English; they just aren’t English themselves.