Glasgow, the Day After a Massacre
What’s left of Scottish Labour licks its wounds, while a victorious Scottish National Party ponders just how it’s going to work with those loathsome Tories.
GLASGOW — In Glasgow, there is hoary political cliché: voters would elect a monkey wearing a red Labour rosette, such is the party's dominance in Scotland's largest city. After Thursday, those lazy assumptions are gone forever.
GLASGOW — In Glasgow, there is hoary political cliché: voters would elect a monkey wearing a red Labour rosette, such is the party’s dominance in Scotland’s largest city. After Thursday, those lazy assumptions are gone forever.
The political earthquake that hit Scotland in the early hours of Friday morning was not unexpected. For months, opinion polls had predicted that the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) was set for a sweeping victory in the general election, winning almost every seat in Scotland. And yet, when the results finally arrived, the impact was no less jarring. Overnight, Scotland’s political landscape has been razed, with potentially seismic long-term repercussions for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Thursdays’ vote represented a seismic change from more than a decade of minimal change in Scotland at U.K. general elections. In 2010, not a single one of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland changed hands. The SNP, which went into the election with six seats, now holds 56. The nationalists’ previous best general election return was 11, in 1974.
Stories of improbable victories abound: In Glasgow North East, for example, Willie Bain, who was thought to hold the safest seat in the west of Scotland, lost his Labour seat by a margin of 58.1 percent to 33.7 percent – the swing of almost 40 per cent from the 2010 election, setting a U.K. record for volatility. Similar figures were recorded across Scotland: In Coatbridge, for example, the sitting Labour MP, in office since 1982, was swept from power by a swing of more than 36 percent to the SNP. In Paisley, Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander was defeated by a 20-year-old who has yet to sit her finals at university. In the Highlands, the SNP’s Drew Hendry solidly beat Danny Alexander who had been Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury in the coalition government at Westminster.
Labour lost all but one of the 41 seats it took in 2010. The party, founded by a Scot, Keir Hardie, and effectively forged as a political force in the heartlands of industrial Scotland, could struggle to regain power again.
The SNP’s general election victory was widely welcomed on the streets of Glasgow Friday. The SNP had never won a general election seat in Scotland’s largest city before, though the city voted for independence. Now, all seven Glasgow MPs are Scottish nationalist. Aiden, 25, who works in a coffee shop and had voted nationalist for the first time, was “delighted with the result,” he said. “We need a change and that’s what this is.”
On Thursday night at a sports arena in Glasgow’s East End, ashen-faced Labour activists stood solemnly watching the returning officer on stage announce the results of each of the seven seats in the city. All fell to the Scottish nationalists, with huge swings away from Labour incumbents. “We are in different territory,” Frank McAveety, a former Labour member of the Scottish Parliament and sitting councilor told me as he stood watching the returning officer declare yet another SNP victory. Labour, he said, did not offer Scottish voters a clear narrative. “We need to find a way that we are telling the story of Scotland’s future.”
But Labour’s problems in Scotland run too deep to be resolved with simply a more compelling story. The party has long dominated Scottish politics — especially at the local level, Labour has controlled Glasgow city council for all but four years since 1952. But in recent years, Labour has looked increasingly lethargic and out of touch. The party’s share of the U.K. general election vote remained strong until Thursday – it won over 40 per cent in 2010 – but Labour lost control of the devolved Scottish parliament in 2007, and was badly beaten in the 2011 Scottish elections.
Lacking resources and active members, Labour often struggled to compete with the SNP on the ground during this general election campaign. Even in Labour held seats the party was often thin on the ground, forced to reply on mailshots and phone calls to get their message across. Meanwhile, the SNP has been buoyed with the youthful vivacity of over 75,000 new members — and pre-election polls suggested that more than 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted SNP — since last year’s independence referendum.
The euphoria that spread among SNP supporters on Thursday night as seat after seat turned the party’s distinctive shade of canary yellow has been tempered in recent days by the wider U.K. picture: The Conservatives – widely loathed in Scotland – won an unexpected majority. Blamed for the de-industrialization that still scars much of urban Scotland, the Tories remain unpopular in much of Scotland. Many Scots are wary of another Tory administration. Thursday was the Conservatives worst ever performance north of the border, even though the party’s sole Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell, held his seat in the Scottish Borders.
David Cameron’s success raises difficult questions for the super-charged Scottish nationalist cohort at Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, has said she will not work with the Tories, potentially leaving the phalanx of new SNP MPs effectively impotent on the backbenches. There is precedent for this in Scottish politics: During the 1980s and 1990s, the large Labour delegations Scotland sent down to London were effectively frozen out of power during almost two decades of Conservative rule. This fed demands for a local parliament that reflected Scotland’s more left wing electoral preferences.
If the new SNP intake does find itself without influence in the House they could propose another option: leaving Westminster, and the United Kingdom, altogether. Certainly the fact that Scotland has once again voted left – this time for the SNP – and has found itself governed once more by the right could add more pressure for another referendum on independence.
But Thursday’s result does not charge the basic arithmetic of independence. A majority of Scots would still vote to stay in the union, despite the ringing endorsement handed to the SNP. Sturgeon will not hold another referendum until she and her party are confident of victory.
But a psychological blow has been struck to the three-centuries-old union with England. This general election campaign has done more harm to the union than last year’s referendum: Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives’ strategy of depicting the SNP as nefarious separatists that would hold a Labour government to “ransom” was brutally efficient in key English marginal seats, but has damaged cross-border relations.
Whether Cameron is willing, or able, to find a new accommodation with Scottish nationalists is unclear – although without one, the union looks increasingly doomed.
On Friday, Cameron said he would fulfill pledges for greater devolution – that is more powers for the Scottish Parliament. But any such deal would be contingent on restricting the rights of non-English MPs in the House of Commons to vote on issues that only affected England. In exchange for dropping their opposition to this, Scottish nationalists could be offered full control over tax and spend.
Such a piecemeal approach to constitutional reform, however, is part of the reason the U.K. is threatened with disintegration. Devolution has been a largely ad hoc reaction to demands for self-government, often designed in line with the interests of major U.K. political parties rather than voting publics in the devolved regions. A fully fledged constitutional convention to discuss a new arrangement for governing across the U.K., possibly under a federal system, might solve these issues but “looks as far off as ever,” said Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen.
Regardless of what happens in Westminster, the SNP look set to consolidate their power in Edinburgh, a city far more central to their eventual goals – that is, independence. If there is to be another referendum, the nationalists will need to win another majority in Scottish parliamentary elections, slated to take place next May.
Their chances are looking bright. On Friday, at a press conference Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy was defiant, telling journalists that his party would “bounce back” from its most disastrous performance in history. But with just a single seat in Westminster and their lowest poll ratings in decades, Labour is a long, long way off regaining its mantle as the party of Scotland.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
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