On the 70th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day the United Kingdom awoke to stark evidence it is in reality the Disunited Kingdom as never before. The political landscape thrown into relief by the general election of May 7 is in the throes of seismic change. There is a serious prospect that Scotland, propelled by the sweeping victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP), will pull out of the 300-year-old Union by the end of this decade. Equally, that Britain will quit the European Union even earlier.
Both these potential eventualities may never happen, of course. But, by winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and half the popular vote, the SNP is set to win more powers for the Scottish government in Edinburgh and retain its overall majority in Scottish parliament (Holyrood) elections a year from now – perhaps en route to a second referendum on independence it might win, especially if the English vote to leave the EU. The unexpectedly decisive victory of the centre-right Conservatives (not foreshadowed by six weeks of opinion polls) and the dismal performance of the centre-left Labour opposition under its unconvincing leader, Ed Miliband, who instantly resigned, could make that anti-EU vote more likely.
The UK result is another nail in the coffin of traditional centre-left, social democratic parties in Europe following on from the travails of the SPD in Germany and, now, the PS in France. Labour failed to develop a narrative for change that even began to challenge the Tory story of economic recovery and “security” – in the shape of (largely uncosted) pledges on middle-class welfare payments and, above all, escape from the clutches of the empowered SNP dictating to an enfeebled Labour Party. The Conservatives’ election guru, Lynton Crosby, masterminded a largely negative campaign that vilified Miliband with the aid of most of the press, boosted the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (as if she needed it) and undermined the threat to its ascendancy from the anti-immigrant, anti-EU UK Independence Party. Project Fear 2 (a play on how the SNP described the 2014 anti-independence campaign in Scotland) won easily.
The Tories made substantial gains at the expense of their former coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, who almost experienced the same disappearing act as their German sister party, the FDP, and lost most of their seats, with their own leader, the passionately pro-EU Nick Clegg, just hanging on but quitting as party chief. More significantly, they ate into (aspirational) working class votes that, in Tony Blair’s era, went to Labour; this was true especially of the English Midlands. In swaths of northern England, UKIP, running an anti-immigrant, anti-freedom of movement (inside the EU), won enough support to damage Labour and help unseat Ed Balls, the shadow finance minister and brilliant ‘Big Beast.’ It lost its long-standing leader, Nigel Farage MEP, in the process.
Its core vote eroded, Labour under Miliband pitched its tent to the left of Blair (who was and is effectively repudiated despite winning three elections in a row). It urged tighter regulation of financial and consumer markets, the break-up of the banks, increased taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage and generalized moves to a living wage – and it lost heavily, partly because economic growth sapped its case that living standards were in inexorable decline for the many and partly because it combined this with measures to cut immigration and welfare spending (both the domain of the Right). Many commentators now believe its electoral base is fatally wounded for the long term.
In Scotland, ironically, a once petty bourgeois nationalist party, the SNP, copy-and-pasted Labour’s main tax and spend policies but ran on a terrain to the left of what had been the dominant political force in the country for 80 or more years. Sturgeon made the incumbent SNP – it has been in power in Holyrood for eight years – the insurgent party and stormed Labour’s citadels. Seats held previously by Gordon Brown, ex-premier, Alastair Darling, ex-finance minister, and Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour leader, fell on swings of up to 40%. A party deemed too left wing in England collapsed in Scotland because it was painted as too right wing. Fundamentally, however, the SNP’s anti-austerity campaign offered hope and a revitalised sense of national identity (“civic nationalism”) that could bring social and economic renewal: “social democracy” Caledonian-style. (Evidence that it could do no such thing was simply swept away).
Two nationalisms – English and Scottish – emerge strengthened from this election. (Wales is a different entity again and Northern Ireland always has been). Judging by his early public utterances, David Cameron, Tory leader and prime minister, realizes belatedly that his campaign to treat the Scots as a not-to-be-trusted, illegitimate bunch of nationalist lefties has put the Union of 1707 at risk. There is talk, at last, of a new constitutional settlement that could mean greater powers for Holyrood – en route to a federal/confederal Britain. It’s far too early to assess whether this path – without the constitutional settlement proposed by Miliband – is viable but it has come closer.
Cameron might, equally, test the SNP/Sturgeon’s nerve by proposing “full fiscal autonomy” – control over virtually all taxation and spending – to the Scots under this settlement. With the oil price still half what it was pre-referendum last year and a large and rising budget deficit, this might prove irresistible after all. The SNP has no intention of presiding over a weakened economy and/or welfare regime after the promises to “end austerity” it has made. That would hardly be fertile ground for a second – and successful this time – independence referendum. Some of us also believe that, having replaced Labour as the natural party of government in Scotland, the SNP might well accept a federal solution rather than full-blown – and utterly virtual in real terms – independence.
If the break-up of the UK may (or may not) be on the cards, an EU referendum might hasten that outcome. Some believe that the election result giving Cameron a clear majority government strengthens his hand in “renegotiating” the terms of UK membership. Others (this correspondent included) argue that the new intake of Tory MPs is likely to be even more Eurosceptic than that of 2010 and, harried still by UKIP, will demand both impossible terms and an early plebiscite. (There have already been suggestions from “senior Tories” that such a referendum could come as early as next spring – before the May elections in Scotland). Polling data here is very volatile but if “Grexit” goes ahead, bringing renewed existential threats to the Eurozone, a No to the EU vote would be enhanced.
And here’s another irony to savour. The 56 SNP MPs will now be the most actively pro-EU bloc in Westminster now the LibDems are so few – and Labour’s stance against a referendum may alter under a new leader. Sturgeon has made plain that an English vote to leave the EU would be a “game-changer” triggering a second vote on Scottish independence as Scotland, on current form, would vote Yes to Europe. The Scottish working class has begun the march towards the SNP goal of independence; the more hesitant middle class might follow suit in the wake of such an outcome and embrace the party’s (old) vision of “Independence in Europe.”
Europe – or indeed Britain’s place in the wider world – hardly figured in the prolonged election campaign. But the result is bound to have significant effects on the EU’s future course – and not least for that of social democracy that, more than ever, needs to reinvent itself to make it fit for the 21st century.