A Scottish watershed election


by Gerry Hassan, open democracy

Scotland emerges from its election completely and utterly changed.

A huge historic Nationalist victory; the worst Labour result in seats since 1931; the Tories still despite a decent campaign in retreat; and the worst Liberal result since 1970s.

This is a Scotland of surprises. The SNP won 45.4% of the constituency vote to Labour’s 31.7%, a lead of 13.7%; while on the regional list the SNP won 44.0% to Labour’s 26.3%, a lead of 17.7%. This has produced a Parliament of SNP 69 (+23), Labour 37 (-7), Con 15 (-5), Lib Dem 5 (-12), Other 3 (+1).

This was an election which was meant to be a foregone conclusion and which Labour clearly took for granted; while the assumption that the PR hybrid Scottish Parliament could not produce an overall majority for one party has been shattered; the SNP have won on 45% of the first vote over 70% of the seats: the sort of parliamentary misbalance which Labour used to achieve at Westminster.

Scotland’s political geography has been transformed in a watershed, realigning election. The constituency political map of 2007 was one shaped by a lot of Labour red in the Central Belt and lots of Lib Dem orange rural seats in the North East and Highlands. Now that map looks very different; the Labour red has been reduced to a few isolated islands, the Lib Dem orange obliterated apart from Orkney and Shetland; mainland Scotland from north to south, west to east is SNP yellow.

Labour used to have a gridlock on FPTP seats; in 2007 what it thought a bad year, Labour won 37 to the SNP’s 21; this time the SNP won 53 to Labour’s 15. Places which have never voted Nationalist have been won; Glasgow, a city the SNP have long had trouble challenging Labour’s grip saw five Nationalist constituency gains, in Edinburgh, the party won every seat bar one, and in Lanarkshire, a host of the most unreconstructed Labour figures fell to the SNP tsunami. Traditional places which have been more SNP, such as Dundee, Aberdeen and the Highlands have become even more so.

All of Scotland’s parties will be different. The Nationalists are a genuine, nationwide movement, Blair-like in the scale of its appeal. Scottish Labour no longer have many of the long-term ‘bedblockers’ who were seen as nursing their seats for live. Both Labour and Lib Dems have suffered significant reverses, but for the immediate, the Westminster leaderships in each, who are huge problems in each, will have more prominence and status, because of the scale of their losses.

The Nationalist victory carries with it huge opportunities and challenges. How does Alex Salmond keep his ‘big tent’ coalition together? How does he enact the hard choices which the age of austerity and public spending cuts implies? And how does he marry his safety first politics with the need for radical politics, challenging the gatekeepers of institutional life?

Then there are the issues of Westminster, the British state and independence. The SNP want to see radical reform of the Scotland Bill, which derives from the flawed Calman proposals of partial fiscal autonomy. They want more economic powers, more taxation powers and real fiscal autonomy. There must be a chance that the UK Government of David Cameron will make significant concessions.

Then there is the huge question of independence and the issue of the independence referendum. The conventional logic says with patronising wither that Alex Salmond can have his small victory today, but in the real world the separatist cause will never win a plebiscite. That’s still the best bet at the moment, but don’t be completely sure.

The SNP has an opportunity to reshape Scotland, a once in a generation moment, while the crisis of Scottish unionism, of a Labour, Lib Dem, Tory or non-party kind is a deep, long term, existential one. The independence referendum was once seen by unionists north and south of the border as a maverick, eccentric demand; then they said it was beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament; and now we are arguing about whether the Nationalists can win such a vote. So far this debate is moving in one direction. Such a vote will have many unintended consequences, change the nature of the UK, and be an international event.

Whatever one thinks of Alex Salmond’s brand of populist, opportunist, catch-all politics, it has paid rich dividends. Scottish politics and Scotland have been remade and will never be the same again. The SNP has been utterly changed and looks like it is morphing into an inclusive nationwide movement for change. The Nationalists under Salmond have developed a convincing story of what the Scottish Parliament should be: the fulcrum of public life and aiding the evolution of self-government.

The Scottish Labour Party, the party which gave so much to the dream of home rule and devolution has paradoxically been weakened and disorientated by the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Rather bizarrely from the earliest days of devolution, under Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, Labour had little idea what the purpose of devolution was about beyond seeing off the Nats.

What underlines all of this is Scotland’s future as a political community, society and nation. This election is a positive affirmation of that future, and of the desire to express it differently to the Westminster/Ukanian mindset. And that brings me to Tom Nairn, Scotland’s greatest public intellectual over the last four decades.

I am proud to call Tom a friend as well as an inspiration over my entire adult political life, and as Scotland voted SNP, and the British electorate turned its back by two to one on even the mildest degree of electoral reform, I couldn’t help but think back to the words and thoughts of citizen Tom. The British state, after the global crisis and the political crisis, is stuck in gridlock and seems unable to embrace the most timid and incremental reform; one parts of the British establishment see as ‘unBritish’ (ie: David Starkey, Alastair Roberts). This will have many consequences for how Scotland’s future evolves.

The Scottish debate will now develop its own form, shape and structure, but I think we have come to a new fork in the road: the end of one part of Scotland’s history, and the beginning of a new one. The old one was the account of Thatcherite/Tory bogeymen and the Old/New Labour dichotomy; the new one will be shaped by a Nationalist politics offering the prospect of a different kind of nation, one told in a very different voice, and shaped by hope, optimism and a sense of generosity.

It may not have the momentous feel of any one of the Arab Spring revolutions, but Scotland in its own way has just undergone its very own Scottish Spring.

Published with thank to Gerry Hassan: