Old Britain has gone. But what comes next?

Posted By: May 09, 2016

Alex Massie.Jan 7, 2016
  Alex Massie is Scotland editor of The Spectator @alexmassie  

Alex Massie asks if an an SNP-dominated Scotland and a Tory-dominated England have a long-term future together

Scottish elections used to be sleepy affairs. In 2010, for instance, every Scottish constituency returned the same result it had in 2005. To all intents and purposes the contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown stopped at the Tweed and Solway – 2015 was different. So different, in fact, that last year’s general election should henceforth be termed ‘The Scottish election’.

Like its theatrical counterpart, the mere mention of this Scottish election should produce shivers of dread wherever Labour folk are found. There had, it is true, been signs, for them as wanted to see them, that all was not well in Labour’s ancient heartland but even so few observers foresaw the scale of the massacre that was to come.

Eighteen months ago, Labour held 41 Scottish seats in the House of Commons and it looked as though David Cameron was likely to be a one-term Prime Minister. Not just that but he would be remembered as the man who struggled to beat Gordon Brown on points, only to be then knocked out by Ed Miliband. As political battle honours go, this was hardly a record of which to be proud.

The case for independence had not been proven but nor had the Union benefited from a rousing declaration of supportBut then everything changed. Scotland voted, last September, to remain a part of the United Kingdom but it did so on a provisional basis and without much enthusiasm. The case for independence had not been proven but nor had the Union benefited from a rousing declaration of support. Scotland, long semi-detached in a psychological sense, seemed a place apart all over again. An independence of the mind, perhaps, if not a formal declaration of separation.

And that, as I say, changed everything. The SNP, beaten on referendum day, won the peace; 100,000 Scots flocked to join the party, the equivalent of one million Britons joining the Conservatives or Labour, and opinion polls confirmed that the nationalists were on track to win a thumping victory at the general election. By definition, this would come at Labour’s expense.

So it proved. The SNP won 56 of the 59 seats the party contested. Labour’s Scottish difficulty was Cameron’s opportunity. Could voters in England really trust a Labour government dependent upon SNP support for its existence? How, in any event, could Labour do a deal with a party that, in Scotland, was its mortal enemy? It was a trap. Because every time Miliband denied he’d cut a deal with the SNP, the nationalists could argue Miliband would rather be in opposition than in power relying on SNP support.

In other words, he’d put Cameron back into Downing Street. Why, Nicola Sturgeon asked, would anyone in Scotland support that kind of Labour Party? Asked to pick his poison, Miliband reached for both bottles – with predictable consequences.

Ah yes, Nicola Sturgeon. The new SNP leader, enjoying the twin advantages of relative novelty and not being Alex Salmond, emerged as the undoubted star of the election. Her brand of social democratic politics was not, in truth, all that very different from Miliband’s but her ability to project a distinct left-wing ethos eclipsed the Labour leader’s. Why, Labour activists across Britain were tempted to think, can’t our guy speak like that?

Labour’s Caledonian apocalypse diverted attention from the party’s almost-equally abject performance in EnglandLabour’s Caledonian apocalypse diverted attention from the party’s almost-equally abject performance in England. Scotland took the headlines but Labour’s problems are by no means confined to the lands north of the wall. Even so, absent recovery in Scotland, Labour must henceforth do even better in England than would be the case if the erstwhile people’s party’s northern fastness remained intact.

At the time of writing, this seems a forlorn hope. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to prominence was less a new dawn than a desperate cry for help, confirming the parlousness of Labour’s position. Absent any Tory recovery in Scotland and any Labour rival in England, the future of Britain looks muddier than ever. Can an SNP-dominated Scotland and a Tory-dominated England have a long-term future together?

If the Prime Minister’s determination to press ahead with so-called “English votes for English laws” was a less dramatic shift than sometimes claimed, it nonetheless confirmed a further fraying of the constitutional bonds binding the British peoples together. The future, apparently so clear as recently as last September, suddenly seems fraught with hazard.

Perhaps it seems paradoxical that the Scottish election returned a Tory prime minister to power. But Scotland’s political realignment has helped crystallise the argument in England too. New powers for the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, as well as a beefed up Scotland Bill, confirm that one old Britain has disappeared for good – but we are barely any closer to understanding what might replace it.