Scotland looks very different post-general election, with the strongest performance for Scottish Conservatives since 1983. Niki Seth-Smith looks at what lies ahead for Scottish politics.
This tweet was sent in the wee hours of Friday morning, when the swing from the SNP to the Conservatives was becoming clear. This was before the real Alex Salmond, former leader of the party, lost his seat, and the popular spoof account @AngrySalmond considered packing up (it didn’t).
Losing some seats was no surprise. We all knew Scotland had reached ‘peak Nat’. The SNP had gained a near monopoly on power (56 seats out of 59) in 2015. But the Tory surge was spectacular, toppling not only Salmond but also Angus Robertson, the party’s deputy leader and its leader in the House of Commons. Thank god the awe-inspiring Mhairi Black stayed, having made an appeal to her “fellow young ‘uns”.
At least since Thatcher and the poll tax, the so-called ‘Tory scum’ have no place in the imagined community of Scotland. There have always been Scottish Conservatives of course, but it’s true that last weekend’s performance was the strongest since 1983. Adulation is being heaped on leader Ruth Davidson, causing (unrealistic) suggestions that she might replace Theresa May.
As usual, it’s less to do with the leader than journalists like to conclude. Far more influential than a single personality was IndyRef 2, which admittedly sounds like a bad movie sequel. Despite the SNP governing Scotland since 2007, the Conservatives were able to use to great effect the accusation that the nationalists cared for one thing only: breaking from Britain. The SNP manifesto included a “triple-lock” on a second referendum, to be held “at the end of the Brexit process”. As the votes came in, as Tory gains became clear, alongside with the Nationalists’ losses, Davidson gleefully proclaimed IndyRef 2 “dead”.
Now Davidson is positioning herself as the defender of both the Union and of Scotland itself. In a Conservative-DUP government, her 12 seats would hold serious clout. But this has consequences. Scotland backed staying in the EU by 62% to 38%. Davidson was a key Remain campaigner and, as a result, she will fight for a soft Brexit. In an Edinburgh press conference on Saturday, she flexed her new muscles, making her position clear: calling for an “open Brexit, not a closed one, which puts our country’s economic growth first”.
Nonetheless, the SNP is still the third largest party in Britain, and still holds a majority in Scotland. And it’s not clear to what extent the Scottish people voted along Unionist vs. Nationalist lines. However, a few things are certain.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is staying in place, and perhaps predictably warns against “rushing to overly-simplistic judgments”. The party will most likely keep IndyRef 2 on the down-low for a while, and their activists firmly on a leash. The polls indicate a minor drop in support for Scottish independence since the 45/55 result in 2014. There certainly wasn’t the post-Brexit ‘get us outta here’ surge expected by some.
Either way, the SNP have time to wait and see. In a couple of years, whoever is in government will most likely bring back a bitter pill from Brussels – either that or no deal and punishing WTO rules. In that scenario, the Scottish may then be reaching for their Saltire and EU flags.
Then there’s Labour, and the progressive alliance. Corbyn initially said another indy vote would be “absolutely fine”, as if this was the no-brainer it should be for a party that now boasts its democratic spirit. But the 2017 manifesto says another ballot is “unwanted and unnecessary” and even failed to mention Dugdale’s plans for a federal Britain. It’s hard to see how they can maintain that position. They face the possibility, if not this month, then in the years ahead, of going into government with the SNP, in coalition or on a vote-by-vote basis.
But if Corbyn continues to look like a plausible future Prime Minister, support for independence is in danger of fading further. The Yes camp has a strong radical left contingent, for whom “For the Many, Not the Few” is a rallying cry. Labour won 6 seats this time around. They will be looking to win back more support from their traditional base, especially since Sturgeon has been steering her party further into the ever-elusive centre ground. Just before the elections, Vice published an interview with Irvine Welsh, on politics and T2 Trainspotting. He said: “I’m not so much a supporter of Scottish independence as I am of post-imperial Britain,” while praising Jeremy Corbyn. Welsh was a brilliantly boisterous voice for Yes back in 2014. But for many like Welsh, independence was seen as a means to break from Conservative rule and austerity, to move away from foreign aggression, and embrace a more internationalist future. The People’s Vow of the Radical Independence Campaign provides a good example of this offer. While Corbyn is committed to Brexit, and the party manifesto supports renewing Trident, he is more closely aligned with this politics than any Labour leader since Michael Foot. The Yes movement must now compete to provide a more inspiring vision of the future.
As I write, Theresa May is apparently striking a deal with the DUP in Belfast, although this proposed ‘government of certainty’ is already starting badly. After various Conservative politicians called, or implied, that Jeremy Corbyn was a “terrorist sympathiser,” their leader has approached a party with strong historic links to Loyalist paramilitary groups.
The irony bites deeper in Scotland. While south of the border people are sharing ‘Who are the DUP?’ articles (Adam Ramsay’s is excellent), the party’s brand of politicized Protestantism is not so unfamiliar in Scotland. In fact, the Orange Order, who have around 50,000 members in Scotland, organized the biggest anti-independence march, with many marchers bussing in from Northern Ireland. What’s also remembered is the campaign of fear against the very idea of a Labour-SNP deal. Of course someone was quick to update a certain Conservative Party poster from 2015:
Also, for Ruth Davidson it’s personal. After the approach to the DUP, she tweeted this not so subtle protest:
She has apparently since received “categoric assurances” from May that there will be “absolutely no rescission of LGBTI rights in the rest of the UK”. Still, if the deal goes through, she will be sharing power with people who think she, and her life choices, are an abomination.
We have to join up the dots here.
The UK’s ‘constitutional question’ is better understood if we consider that Britain may not survive at all. At least not as we know it. That may be no bad thing, but we seem to be taking the route blindfolded.
Northern Ireland is already in crisis, post-Brexit. Sinn Fein have called for a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the UK, although May has refused and the DUP would not stand for it. Talks at Stormont are only resuming in the aftermath of the elections. Before that, parliament had not been functioning for months. Jonathan Powell has warned that a DUP coalition or ‘confidence and supply’ would threaten 20 years of peace. He was chief negotiator in Northern Ireland in the period when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. He understands the grave importance of the British government’s neutrality.
Scotland has lost influence, only to gain it from another quarter. It remains to be seen whether Labour will change their minds on IndyRef 2, or steal enough of the Yes camp away with their vision of the future. All is uncertain, and we don’t need Russian hackers for that.
Yet as Alex Salmond said in his defeat speech, “And tremble false Whigs, in the midst o’ your glee, For you’ve not seen the last o’ my bonnets and me.” It’s from Bonnie Dundee, an old Jacobite song by Walter Scott. There’s no doubt Salmond will return in some guise. As will the prospect of Scottish independence. What state Britain will have reached by that time, with what possible relationships to Europe and the world, is anyone’s guess.
Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and fiction writer, published in Al Jazeera UK, Vice, LRB blog, New Humanist, openDemocracy and others. She lives in Athens, and is writing a novel.