The SNP’s victory in the Glasgow East by-election has kept this irrelevant pot boiling.The Labour Party has always claimed to represent the interest of the worse off majority but now finds itself deeply unpopular to the point of facing a crisis. Labour has had untrammelled power for over ten years, and yet now finds itself rejected because it has failed so spectacularly. Bernard Shaw once wrote that any government that robs Peter to pay Paul can count on the support of Paul. Labour has failed to achieve even this modest level of vote buying.
Part of their problem was that Peter is just too strong to let himself be robbed – the organised ranks of capital and the disorganised might of the market are strong enough to see off any challenge that doesn’t seek to remove them entirely from the picture. Labour tried to accommodate itself with business in order to achieve modest social goals – but this simply left it prey to the mood swings of the market, with Paul’s position unchanged.
One noticeable change Labour did manage to get through was devolution. We’ve discussed in these pages before how this was as much jobs for the boys and girls – as well as providing a handy redoubt for Labour forces for when they would eventually lose Downing Street. Their colossal votes in Scotland and Wales would make them the permanent natural party of government in those areas, and would allow them to circumvent to rock solid Tory core in the English south east. It would, they hoped, stymie the challenge from Welsh and Scottish nationalists to their dominance in those areas.
After all, they believed that the desire for the retention of the United Kingdom is strong. Hence why Gordon Brown has tried to wrap himself in Britishness – a neat bit of stealing Tory clothes to win their supporters over, while his own supporters have nowhere else to go. At least, that’s the theory. The problem is, however they were wrong about the Nationalists – the voters found they could go to them.
In 2007 Labour lost control of the Scottish parliament. They had never had a full majority there (the proportional electoral system they introduced makes that an unlikely event) but they had been the biggest party. It was a close run thing, but they were beaten into second place by one seat (and about 20,000 votes). Not only that, but a new PR system for local government meant the smashing of the old Labour family run fiefdoms throughout Scotland, with almost all councils falling to no overall control.
A part of all that was the demise of the Scottish “Socialist” Party, one of the most successful leftist parties of the last fifty years. It had had six seats in the Scottish Parliament, before it had imploded over the behaviour of its charismatic leader Tommy Sheridan suing the News of the World over allegations on his private life (plus a touch of SWP skulduggery). It had latched on to regional nationalism, as a successful means to electoral success.
The Scottish Nationalists had tacked left, making social democrat noises to pick off Labour supporters. There is nothing intrinsically left-wing about nationalism. Being a nationalist does not necessarily commit a person to any particular reforms or economic principles. Indeed, technically, the SNP is a one-issue party – for an independent Scotland. Their history, though, is marked by debates between the minority of hardliners wanting to stand for nothing but independence, and the dominant pragmatists who want to win political power by offering to administer the current situation, and knocking the maximum demand into the long grass. This allows people to safely vote for the party of independence without necessarily voting for independence. In truth, they stand for no principle different than the other parties, offering to represent and work hard for “you”.
Having formed a minority government, they plan to use events in their favour. Just as Labour’s first British government dressed up in Ruritanian Privy Councillor’s costumes to prove that they weren’t revolutionists, so too the Nationalists have accepted political responsibility within the Union to try to show that they are trustworthy and to win people to their cause while in power. Of course, they generate heated debates between themselves and Westminster, and try to provoke controversy. Of course, they intend to legislate for a referendum on independence – but only after they have been in office some while. So, even if that is rejected, they have a fair chance of holding onto their jobs.
What some commentators look to, though, is after the next UK election. It seems increasingly likely the Tories will end up ahead of Labour. It is even possible, after the Glasgow East by-election result, that the SNP could take a majority of Scottish seats. Following the death of John MacDougall Labour MP for the Fife town of Glenrothes there will be another by-election in the autumn. This is another Labour safe seat, and losing again may be fatal for Gordon Brown’s premiership – and spell almost certain disaster at the next general election.
David Cameron has announced that he believes that Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on legislation in England just as English MPs cannot vote on Scottish issues (because those matters are devolved to the Scottish parliament). Considering that his party won a majority of English seats at the last election, he would say that. If Scotland breaks away this would make Labour’s return to power in Westminster that much harder, and the SNP would have their cherished dream.
The indications are, though, that Scottish voters will not opt for independence. At heart, then, the SNP, like Labour, has achieved political success at the expense of its core project. At heart, in both cases this is because they have sought power by telling people they agree with what they think, rather than trying to change minds. The quick route to power is to buy people’s votes with popular policies – but the danger in that is that you attract people who support those policies, but not necessarily your wider aims. They’ll simply up and leave when someone offers them something better. Political time, effort and consciousness are wasted arguing to and fro on such nonsense.
Ultimately, such baubles are thrown around by the political hacks in order to win for themselves the major prizes. Workers have nothing to gain from the redrawing of the boundaries, but regional entrepreneurs and bureaucrats certainly do have a chance of making good if only they can persuade the electorate to back them. Capitalism knows no boundaries, money has no accent. Yet the Scottish question continues to play a major part in the ongoing passing show of UK politics.