Will May 2011 go down in history as the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom in its present form? Until now the suggestion that the UK might actually break up any time in the foreseeable future has been dismissed by political commentators and constitutional pundits as the pipe-dream of romantic nationalists – a proposition not worthy of serious consideration. Now, following Britain’s local government and Scottish parliament election results and the outcome of the AV referendum on May 6th, the prospect cannot be so easily dismissed. North of the border, the Scottish National party (SNP) has been swept to power with an overall majority. This is a development of enormous significance and by far the most important outcome of a national poll which has seen the Liberal Democrats wiped from the electoral map throughout most of Britain. Before commenting more fully on the Scottish result, a few observations may be made about the elections in the rest of the UK.
Most informed commentary in the immediate aftermath of the polls has concentrated on the collapse of support for the Lib Dems and the crushing defeat for the “Yes” campaign, a centre-piece of their policy, in the referendum on voting reform. It has been clear for many months that the Lib Dems would pay a heavy electoral price for their decision a year ago to go into a coalition with the Tories. The leader of the party, Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister, has suffered a more dramatic fall from grace than any political leader of modern times. He shot to stardom in the leadership debates preceding last year’s general election only to sink rapidly into public obloquy as he was perceived (correctly) to have reneged on firm commitments he had made to those sections of the electorate whose support he sought. The Tories have emerged from the English elections relatively unscathed. Given that they lead a government in the process of implementing the most severe cuts in public spending since the 1930s, this seems surprising. Their vote in the south of England and in their rural heartlands further north has held up. From a strong base the Tories made a net gain of three councils, giving them a total of 152; Labour made a net gain of 26 councils giving them control of 56. The Lib Dems lost 9 and gained none, leaving them in control of only 11 councils. Labour gained support in Wales at the expense of the Tories and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalists) leaving them one short of a majority.
The Tories are gloating over these results. They are particularly pleased about the failure of the campaign for the alternative vote (AV), which was overwhelmingly defeated in the referendum by 68% to 32%. This leaves the first-past-the-post system intact, pretty much ensuring that governments in Britain will continue to be elected on as little as 35% of the poll. This system has always favoured the Tories. Many – perhaps most –Tory MPs are gleeful at the humiliation of Clegg and the Lib Dems. Some are hoping that their coalition partners will crack up and break with the government, thus precipitating a new election which they are confident of winning. Such confidence is not necessarily misplaced. At first sight it seems puzzling that the Tories are not suffering more than they are. There are several reasons why they are not. In the first place the Labour party in opposition has not really opposed. They have not shaken off the mantle of “New Labour”. Ed Miliband has done little to convince potential supporters that he has either the personality or the policies to justify their support. The parliamentary party seems supine in the face of the Con Dem assault. Both Tory and Lib Dem ministers constantly repeat platitudes about the need to “clear up the mess inherited from Labour” and “act together in the national interest”. Most of this goes without challenge. Then there is the press. Of the eight main national daily newspapers, five, with a combined circulation of several millions, support the Tories. These papers were all firmly opposed to AV. The Lib Dems have largely themselves to blame for their present plight. They accepted the Tory offer of full coalition which bound them to every decision taken by the government. The volte face on student tuition fees did enormous damage to the party, and to Clegg personally, from which they have not recovered. There was no majority in the 2011 election for the severe austerity measures being enacted, and by throwing in their lot with the Tories the Lib Dems have aroused the intense hostility of the majority of those who voted for them. They have taken far more of the blame than their Tory partners. Now they are caught between a rock and a very hard place. They cannot afford to jump ship as they fear their fate in an ensuing election. They can only cling on in the hope that the hoped-for economic recovery resulting from the present pain will restore their fortunes by 2015. Now back to the most dramatic story of the day: Scotland.
Prime Minister Cameron may have a self-satisfied smile on his face today, but it is unlikely to survive his first encounters with Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond. The Scottish result is truly historic. For many years in British general elections, Scotland has been almost a Tory-free zone. In the 2010 election, from 59 constituencies they returned one MP to the Westminster parliament. Labour returned 41, the Lib Dems 11 and the SNP 7. This led Nick Clegg to say that the SNP was irrelevant. Now consider the outcome of the May 2011 elections to the Scottish parliament. The SNP returned 69 MPs, Labour 37, the Tories 15 and the LIB Dems 5. In addition, 2 Greens and 1 Independent were elected. In Edinburgh’s 129 seat unicameral chamber it gives the SNP an overall majority of 9 seats. This is an extraordinary breakthrough because the electoral system devised for the devolved parliament in the 1997 Scotland Act provided for a legislature elected by a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. Intended to prevent any one party achieving an overall majority, it was specifically directed against the SNP whose ultimate aim was independence for Scotland. Since 2007 the SNP has led a minority government with Salmond as first minister. Needless to say all the other main parties are totally opposed to Scottish independence, which they rightly recognize would mean the break up of the United Kingdom. Now, there is a majority at Holyrood (seat of the Scottish parliament) of twelve for parties committed to independence, as the two Greens and one Independent are also in favour. But does this mean that it is likely to be achieved during the term of the present Westminster parliament? Most “informed opinion” says no. Indeed, according to such opinion, it will never happen. But, behind such certainties may be detected a creeping tone of apprehension. David Cameron, commenting on the prospect of a referendum on independence, says “If they want to hold a referendum, I will campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fibre I have.” He may not be as lucky as he was in his opposition to AV.
According to current opinion polls support in Scotland for full independence stands at around 30%. It may well be that things will not have changed much in four or five years time. But these are very fluid and unpredictable times and it is possible to foresee a tide of opinion rising in favour of independence. Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for more than 300 years, since the Treaty of Union of 1707.There has always been a vocal minority in Scotland against the union. During the past forty years there has been much bitterness at the way Scottish interests have been handled at Westminster. This became intense in the late 1970s with the scuppering of the devolution bill. In fact, the withdrawal of SNP support from Callaghan’s minority Labour government led indirectly to his defeat on a confidence motion in 1979. This was followed by the defeat of the government in the election which brought Thatcher to power, leading to eighteen years of Tory rule. During those years Scottish opinion hardened decisively against a government that was responsible for the destruction of the Scotland’s mining and manufacturing industries and the exploitation of Scotland’s North Sea oil with scant regard for its declining economy.
The SNP led government has achieved a lot. They have shielded the welfare state from the assaults that are decimating services south of the border. Higher education and care for the elderly have been protected. Salmond has picked up the social democratic banner discarded by New Labour. The SNP now stands to the left of Labour in Scotland. With an overall majority in Edinburgh they have the wind in their sails and Salmond shows every sign of using his majority to wrest greater concessions from Westminster. There will be stormy days ahead and it is impossible to know how things will turn out. But there is every reason to hope that he will continue to operate with the skill he has shown over the last four years and it is not unrealistic to imagine that he may eventually carry a majority with his party to push for complete independence for Scotland. Such a development would lead to the most severe confrontation with the full power of the British state. If Scotland were to achieve independence it would deliver a well-deserved blow to a sclerotic institution and help reconstitute the territories of these islands as a federation more suited to the modern world.