New Politics and Old Time Religion
The local election results have shaken the kaleidoscope of Scottish politics. Meanwhile a new article tries to convert us to the cause of economic self-flagellation.
This edition starts with that rarest of things: local election analysis that actually waited for the local election results. After that I ask how it is the SNP don’t ever seem to have doubts, despite spending all their time trying to solve the problems that only exist after leaving the UK.
Scotland isn’t a Sea of Yellow
These election results have the potential to shake up the politics of both government and opposition in Scotland.
The SNP were always fond of showing maps of Scotland shaded yellow after their parliamentary victories. It was a visual representation of their argument: Scotland is different, Scotland is the SNP, the other parties aren’t Scottish. The map below showing the first preference leader in each part of Scotland is a reminder that this has always been arrogant nonsense. Scotland is a multicoloured democracy, not a sea of yellow.
The numbers behind the map paint a more complex picture than one of SNP dominance. A majority of first preferences were cast for pro-Union political parties, with the three nationalist parties’ share nearly 10 points behind. Similarly, the combined total of pro-Union councillors outweighs those who favour leaving the UK.
No doubt this was still a strong performance by the SNP, but it dents any claim to have a monopoly on Scotland. The result also begins to rob Nicola Sturgeon of the opponent she wants…
Labour are the Alternative
If the SNP’s strategy has been to convince voters they are the only ones who are ‘Stronger for Scotland’ then the Scottish Tories have spent the last few years arguing they are the only ones who are ‘Stronger for the UK’. During the leaderships of Ruth Davidson and Jeremy Corbyn it was easy to tell a story about Tory strength and Labour disarray. Under the spirited Sarwar and serious Starmer, it is now the Tories who have a national leader who is dragging down the Scottish ticket.
This election saw real votes cast confirming what opinion polls have been indicating for some time: the Scottish Conservatives are now in third place and Labour has reclaimed its place as the pro-UK alternative to the SNP. That is bad news for Douglas Ross who will find it hard to look like he’s advancing on the SNP when it is obvious that his party is in retreat.
The catastrophic results for the Conservatives in Scotland and the rest of the UK are also bad news for Nicola Sturgeon who needs the Tories as the enemy. She knows the Labour party - whose commitment to the Union comes from a place of economic pragmatism and internationalist solidarity rather than British nationalism - are placed to do something that a Conservative-lead Scottish opposition cannot: strip away soft supporters of her own party.
That Labour was just one seat away from replacing the SNP as the biggest party in Glasgow is a signal of how the enthusiasm of 2015 has been replaced by something far more grudging. Some of Labour’s best local results were in the most vulnerable SNP held parliamentary constituencies. Labour now have new councillors who can lead local campaigns at the next election.
Perhaps more troubling for the First Minister’s plans is that the results show that English and Welsh voters are just as scunnered as we are with Johnson. With the projections suggesting Labour are set to win the next election, she will struggle to argue that leaving the UK is necessary because reforming the UK isn’t possible. She lacks a language to deal with this new reality, falling back on a ‘they are all the same’ message which makes her sound like she doesn’t think it matters whether we have Johnson or Starmer as Prime Minister.
One last word on the Lib Dems finally beginning to recover. In the projections for what Thursday’s vote shares would mean come a UK General Election, Labour can govern with the support of the Lib Dems. They don’t need the votes of nationalist MPs (though I would argue they never did because they can always call the SNP bluff and challenge them to bring down another Labour government). This could rob the SNP and Tories of the narrative that they have both benefitted from at elections - that Labour will be a puppet for the SNP.
As the pieces settle over the coming weeks, we might find ourselves in a very different political landscape.
When Politics Becomes Religion.
After Charles I was executed in Whitehall, the Scottish Parliament crowned his son King. Oliver Cromwell marched his army North and sent his famous appeal to the Church of Scotland not to support Charles II. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken?” The response came back: “would you have us be sceptics in our religion?”
He won’t thank me for making this comparison, but Brian Wilson channelled Cromwell when we were preparing his friend Alistair Darling for his TV debate with Alex Salmond. We knew that the fatal weakness for Salmond was his unwillingness to be honest with voters that leaving the UK meant giving up the benefits of being in the UK - the most tangible example of this being his refusal to admit that we would lose the Pound as our currency.
The team had prepared a brutal cross-examination (“what is your plan B, Alex”) but lacked a killer one-liner to finish it off. Then Brian suggested Alistair finish with “I want you to do something that I know will be difficult for you: contemplate for one moment that you might be wrong.”
It was a great line that got to the fundamental problem for Salmond and all nationalists: how can you trust the political judgement of someone whose politics are a matter of faith rather than facts?
All of this came to mind reading a new article by Andrew Wilson, the likeable lobbyist who was tasked by Nicola Sturgeon to answer the question that Alex Salmond couldn’t.
In it, Wilson acknowledges the size of Scotland’s very large deficit (which only exists, remember if we leave the UK). As in previous publications by him, he suggests solving it, in part, with big cuts to defence spending. He also tries to frame cutting ourselves off from our share of UK funding as akin to ‘levelling up’ - as if there are leaders in other parts of the UK who suggest that the way for their economy to catch up with London is to decimate their public spending. Actually, for us, it would technically be worse than decimation - that would just be cuts of a tenth - it would be ‘septimation’ of our public spending, but anyway…
Wilson also argues that to afford the far higher borrowing that Scotland would need to avoid the most painful austerity, we will have to operate without a currency of our own “for a period of some years”. This is because an unproven currency would make that additional borrowing too risky.
He also acknowledges that just as Brexit has created trade barriers between the UK and the EU, moving that border to Gretna or Berwick will erect barriers to our most important customer. “Scotland returning to the EU will create challenges,” he says but dismisses them as mere “transitional challenges.” He invites us to think as a hypothetical nation, not as real individuals and families who have jobs to lose or bills to pay.
As an attempt to pay lip service to the huge economic risks of breaking up the UK this approach might have some political value, but it surely also raises the question:
if the course of action you are advocating means you need a scheme for dealing with the unsustainable financial situation you will create;
if that plan involves cutting defence in the middle of the most dangerous times in Europe since the Second Word War;
if you are telling us the fiscal pain might be so severe that we have no choice but to spend years as the only advanced economy without a currency;
if you find yourself trying to sell as an opportunity the very hard border you admit will harm trade…
…why does none of this make you question whether any of this is a good idea?
The answer, as from The Kirk to Cromwell, is that to entertain such doubts would be to become a blasphemous sceptic to the nationalist faith.
If you doubt that Scottish nationalism is now more religion than politics, here is Wilson’s conclusion arguing that a bit of devotional self-flogging will do us some good:
“The process will not be simple; it will be hard work and take effort; but, like most acts of self-improvement, it will also be satisfying and meaningful.”
In 2014 the SNP policy machine went to work to explain the opportunities that would come after leaving the UK, today they toil to explain away the problems that exiting the UK would cause. The benefits then were material and immediate - more money for public services or welfare. The benefit offered now is spiritual and deferred - your reward might not come in this life, but the pain in the meantime will be cleansing.
When it is obvious that in both our parliaments we have the opportunity to build something better, rather than engaging in more destruction, why in the bowels of Christ do they not think it possible they may be mistaken?
Blair, I as a Conservative voter (my husband is as a Labour voter) am happy that Labour has done so well because I don’t want to live in a one party state. I am disappointed that Conservatives have done so badly but not surprised -we need a strong leader that sticks to his position. I am very disappointed that you describe pro UK Conservatives as British Nationalists - we’re not nationalists- that’s the SNP. Us Conservatives in Scotland want the best for Scotland and that means Scotland remaining within the UK. That’s what you and Labour want too. How does that make you pragmatic and me a nationalist?
The Nats are trying to spin that the election results were “seismic” for them when in fact 34% of an average 40% turnout actually turned out to vote for them. In other words, those who voted with their feet, ie, didn’t vote, were the winners on Thursday. Nicola’s spin doctors and vast media machine can spin it all they like but the resurgence of Labour, the unexpected excellent showing for the LibDems and the lack of committed nationalist voters will be a worry for them. Bring it on.