In the election just passed, the Conservatives increased their 307 seats of the 2010 election by 24 (a 7.8% increase). That was a good result for them. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) increased their 6 seats by 50 (an 833% increase). In taking all but three of the 59 seats in Scotland (Labour, Conservative and LibDem hold one each), the SNP achieved the most astonishing voting swings in living history, exceeding 30% in numerous constituencies.
How did it happen? We don’t really know, and that’s crucial for understanding the broader implications of the election.
There are two credible theories.
According to the first (and I admit this was my assumption on election night, as I watched the results rolling in), the votes for the SNP were votes for nationalism. In short, they were votes to break up the United Kingdom — a re-run by proxy of the independence referendum of September. In this interpretation, the Scots who want to stay as part of the UK split their votes as usual between the mainstream parties, while all the Scots who voted Yes in September this time went with the SNP.
For people who like being part of a United Kingdom, this is an unhappy reading of the election, but it fits the zeitgeist. Just as the clowns at UKIP think that the UK is all wonderful and lovely, and would be doing fine it wasn’t for those darned foreigners over the channel, so the SNP nationalists think that Scotland is all wonderful and lovely, and would be doing fine if it wasn’t for those darned English across the border. Such thinking is always seductive if you’re already convinced of your own innate superiority — which a lot of people do seem to be. The end-game is of course that Scotland becomes independent of the UK, and then the Edinburgh Nationalist Party arises when the good people of Edinburgh realise that their city is all wonderful and lovely, and would be doing fine if it wasn’t for those darned other Scots all over the place. Repeat till fade.
So much for the nationalist interpretation of the SNP victory. The other possibility is that Scottish people were voting for everything else that the SNP stands for. And that makes some sense, because down here in England, the one thing I heard over and over after the first televised debate was that people were impressed by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. I was hearing this from all sorts of people, including someone who is traditionally a staunch Conservative: they they liked the SNP ideas. Apparently there was a flood of enquiries from English people asking whether they could vote SNP.
So what actually were the SNP ideas that everyone liked?
Well, obviously Scottish independence is a big one. But let’s leave that aside. What is the broader policy of the SNP? Here’s the Guardian’s summary:
- Increase top tax-rate to 50%, mansion tax, bankers’ bonus tax
- Stop welfare cuts, especially disability funding
- Increase NHS funding by £24 billion by 2020
- Increase the minimum wage, oppose zero-hours contracts
- Increase building of affordable homes
- Action on climate change
- Opposition to leaving Europe (the details are complicated)
- Opt out of the corporation-run TTIP
- No replacement for Trident
Well, well! What do we have here but a classic leftist manifesto? Tax the rich, maintain or increase benefits for the poorest, support public services, reform labour laws for the benefit of workers, make housing affordable. This is classic socialism.
(Interesting that my Conservative friend, when seeing these policies expounded by a party that he wasn’t already familiar with, instinctively liked them. I think that if he’d heard the same policies proposed by Labour, he would have given them short shrift, because he already “knows” that Labour Are Bad. But the policies themselves, in isolation from party politics, are intrinsically appealing to most people.)
So the second possible explanation for the unprecedented swing towards the SNP is that a lot of people really wanted to vote for progressive policies, and didn’t see them in the Labour or LibDem manifestos (or, needless to say, those of the Conservatives or UKIP).
If this interpretation is correct, then Scottish people were not voting for independence (which after all they had rejected, if narrowly, only six months earlier), but for the only socially progressive policies they were offered. It’s an idea that also casts a more appealing light on the 44.7% Yes vote in September: maybe those in Scotland who wanted independence wanted it because they felt an independent Scottish government would give them a more compassionate society than the one Westminster was giving them? (That’s certainly the case for the most ardent Yes-voter I know, who explained this to me at some length in a pub a couple of months before the referendum.)
So which is it? Did the Scottish populace stampede towards the SNP out of nationalistic fervour, or from desire to move to the left? To my mind, this is the most important question in British politics today, for reasons that will become apparent as this series continues.
Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh, writing for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, does not believe that the increase in SNP support is tied to increasing nationalism. He argues — with evidence, which you can see for yourself — that “if anything, fewer people than before emphasise their Scottish national identity distinctively”; and that “the strongest determinants of both independence and SNP support were pragmatic evaluations about economic prospects, trustworthiness and political personnel”.
Or as commenter Stephen Osborne pithily expresses it: “the Scottish independence movement is a social movement not a nationalist one.”
If that interpretation is correct, then it has profound implications for the rest of the UK.
[Read on to #3: why did Labour lose?]