How quickly five years can flash past. I remember following the 2010 election and consequent coalition negotiations with great interest, mainly for the historical interest involved in the first return of the first full coalition government in the post-war era. This time round things are different, and I’ve had to confront my own sense of apathy to arouse any interest in the proceedings. One cause of this is the much-reported imminent collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland and the resurgence of the SNP, with clear echoes of the independence referendum campaign last year. Been there, done that, and the downbeat sense of pessimism the high ‘Yes’ vote earned on a platform built largely on the denial of reality still lingers and has since been endlessly reinforced by the general election campaign here in Scotland.
I have been asked why the SNP is set to capture the Labour vote so effectively when the ‘No’ result in the referendum was apparently decisive. There are a lot of explanations for this, and in my opinion most of them relate directly to the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum. First of all, the vote wasn’t decisive; no vote except the one the legitimises independence is ever going to be decisive for many in the ‘Yes’ campaign in their aptly-called ‘neverendum’.
More significantly, that campaign allowed the SNP to capture the language and label of ‘progressive politics’ despite the obvious contradictions involved. The SNP benefitted from the characterisation of the ‘No’ campaign as Tories or Tory apologists, thereby tapping into the deeply-rooted sense of injustice directed at the Tories in Scotland since the introduction of the Poll Tax. The inability of the Conservatives to successfully reinvent themselves in the context of Scottish popular politics in the decades after that (Ruth Davidson being effective in person, but too little, too late) left the SNP able to capture a dwindling Tory vote.
Of course, that does little to explain the collapse of the Labour vote. While I suspect it is being overstated, the trend is real enough and ominous for Labour. The incredible complacency of the Labour machine in Labour heartlands is one issue, handily demonstrated by the constrasting activity of the SNP’s campaign. But that activity itself is largely fuelled by the enduring emotional momentum of the ‘Yes’ campaign bandwagon. Inevitably enough, some blame attaches to Ed Milliband’s leadership; despite self-consciously positioning the post-Blair/Brown party to the left of the New Labour axis, this strategy has not been enough to reclaim ‘progressive’ and ‘anti-Tory’ votes in Scotland against serious competition.
Obviously I’d like to blame this on the ineptitude of the Labour leadership, but this might seem redundant just after Ed staged his own Spinal Tap ‘Stonehenge’ moment with his
obelisk of election commitments. What makes that escapade impossible to ignore, however, is that it clearly mimics Salmond’s positioning of a similar totemistic stone obelisk (this time about university student fees) at Heriot-Watt university last year. It’s difficult to avoid the sense that some of Miliband’s team are desperately searching through the Salmond playbook and clutching at random straws, which brings out the relative failure of Ed to convert such antics into winning back SNP votes all the more starkly.
At the larger strategic level Ed’s attempt to win from the left was always doomed; any party seeking a serious platform to win a British election will always be outflanked from the left, and even here Ed finds himself out-polled (in Scotland) by a nationalist party claiming to be ‘progressive’. The illogical basis of that position is a key element of the problem.
So what is the problem? I suggest that the irrationality of nationalism coupled with a strong sense of denial provides the answer. I’d measure this in part by voter intent. Most people I know voting SNP are not necessarily staging another take on the independence referendum (although some are). Most seem to be doing so out of a sincere but incoherent feeling that voting SNP will maximise Scottish leverage at Westminster when the odds are that the next government will be another coalition casting about for support. This sense of maximising leverage in the national interest allows progressive lefties newly recruited since the ‘Yes’ campaign to join forces with the traditionally conservative (with a small ‘c’) SNP supporters without asking too many awkward questions about whether the resulting policies can be reconciled with their ideals.
Although there’s always been a conflict between much SNP policy and the comfort zone of the rural conservative vote the SNP leeched from the Tories in the past, the really epic cognitive dissonance in this situation lies with the progressives. Essentially, if they wanted ‘progressive’ policies, then they would need to forget about the design of the flag flying over the town hall and start building alliances with parties which can deliver those policies in a Westminster context. The SNP will never have the number of MP’s necessary to form a government at Westminster, which has always meant that they’ve been dependent upon co-opting other parties into a coalition. This is where the Scottish nationalist bandwagon fails, and fails badly. The most obvious candidate for SNP support on their self-declared ‘progressive’ platform would be Labour, but even Ed Miliband has been forced (in the end) to disavow them, largely because of the destructive impact of their success on Scottish Labour and the tribal animosity involved but also because of their secessionist nature.
Which means that the best the SNP will be able to do is join in de facto opposition with Labour against a Conservative/Liberal coalition, or – the schadenfreude would be remarkable – in de facto opposition with the Tories against another Labour/Liberal coalition government. Miliband would be wise not to count on the SNP’s adherence to ‘progressive politics’ at the expense of exploiting a temporary tactical advantage in those circumstances. After all, as Scots who remember the advent of a Thatcher government with distaste might be surprised to learn, bringing down such a coalition to clear the way for a Tory government is precisely what the SNP helped to do in 1979.
Enjoyable though remembering that special bit of nationalist hypocrisy might be, it leaves the so-called progressives confronted with the fundamental reality that if they really wanted ‘progressive’ policies delivered by a British government, they would actually need to vote Labour or even Liberal Democrat to secure a government independent of factional minority coalition allies, rather than indulge in self-defeating nationalism to clear the way for a Tory government.
None of this will bother the SNP much. Whatever happens they will still be able to play the role of hypocritical and irresponsible opportunists at Westminster, endlessly posturing at Labour’s expense while all the time safe in the knowledge that any criticism of them can be characterised as unpatriotic and the Tories are still to blame for everything. Even when votes for and by the SNP put them in power.