British politics used to be defined by class; it is now increasingly defined by nation. In place of the old binary UK elections offering a choice of Labour versus Conservative with a side order of Liberal, Britain is now a multinational/multiparty democracy.
The Scottish National Party is now the leading edge of Scottish politics; the Conservative Party is the lead in England. But this is not a clash of cultural or ethnic nationalisms. Nor is it merely about ‘identity’ – Scots have been quite secure about their identity within the United Kingdom. The divergence between north and south is based on profound differences of political culture.
The 2015 General Election seemed to unify Scotland by wiping away political,religious, class, and geographical divisions, in one extraordinary electoral moment. It was, by any definition, a revolutionary event, even though no one was harmed in the course of it.
Unlike Labour or the Conservative benches in Westminster, there is not a single Oxford or Cambridge graduate among the 56 Scottish National Party MPs. Only 5% were privately educated.
In the UK parliament as a whole, 33% of all MPs and 49% of Conservative MPs went to private schools.
Matters finally came to a head for Labour during the independence referendum in 2014. The Yes Scotland campaign pitched independence very much as a continuation of social democratic politics under another name. The Scottish Government’s 670 page White Paper on independence, Scotland’s Future, published in November 2013, read in many respects like a Labour manifesto from the 1970s or 80s – intentionally so.
The White Paper didn’t explicitly call for higher taxation in Scotland, but it certainly indicated a return to tax and spend. And to policies on open immigration, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and land reform that were unmistakably left-wing. Its attitude to debt, borrowing and currency – and the problems of managing the transition to an independent Scotland – was very much from the Syriza school of national populist politics.
But the more immediate problem for the Labour Party was guilt by association with the Conservatives. The Better Together campaign was defined very much by elite interests: big businesses like Aggreko and BP, financial institutions like RBS and Standard Life, and, of course, the author of the ‘Declaration on the Pound’ of 13th Feb 2014, the combative Conservative Chancellor George Osborne.
This alliance with conservative interests did its greatest damage in Labour’s heartland areas like Dundee, North Lanarkshire, and its citadel Glasgow.
On BBC’s Question Time Special on 29th April, the Labour leader announced that he would ‘rather not govern’ in the UK if it meant ‘doing a deal’ with the SNP.
Mr Miliband appeared to be saying that it was legitimate to ‘do deals’ with the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or even the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, but not with the duly elected representatives of Scotland.
This couldn’t have been more damaging to the Scottish Labour Party in a UK election marred by shocking anti-Scottish rhetoric from Tory MPs like Owen Paterson who said that ‘the Scots’ were using English tax payers as ‘a piggy bank’.
The election night itself was heartbreaking for Labour as safe seat after safe seat fell to the hated SNP.
The nadir came at 4.00am on BBC Scotland’s Election 2015 programme when Ian Davidson – who had famously said during the referendum campaign that all that remained for the victorious unionists was to ‘bayonet the wounded’ – stuck the bayonet in Murphy’s back. ‘He should do the honourable thing and resign,’ he said. But Murphy, unlike Alex Salmond, didn’t do the decent thing.
Labour in Scotland is now in a very dark place. Labour clearly cannot continue in its present form.
Of Labour’s UK leadership contenders all but the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn rejected the idea of a separate Scottish Labour Party. Yvette Cooper said it was important to retain the current relationship with UK Labour because of the party’s ‘shared values’. However, given the rightward drift of the UK party towards ‘aspirational’ pro-business policies this suggests that Labour in Scotland will continue largely on its present course.