SNP revolution means it’s now make or break time for the union

By Ben Wray, a journalist with CommonSpace, which is an online Scottish news, analysis and opinion website.

They used to say if you pinned a red rosette to a monkey in Glasgow people would vote for it, such was the overwhelming dominance of the Labour party in Scotland’s biggest city.

Labour is not just a political party in Scotland – it has been symbolic of Scotland’s political culture for decades, a way for people of identifying who they are, spanning generations of the working class. The party started in Scotland with Keir Hardie over a century ago, and for the last half century it has comfortably won every General Election in Scotland.

The Tories in Scotland have never recovered from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and they continue to take a beating at the ballot box at every opportunity. Indeed, the Conservatives polled their lowest percentage of the vote in Scotland for 100 years just last week. For decades, Labour in Scotland has had no real opposition, challenge or reason to be concerned about its prospects.

No more. The SNP “tsunami” at the General Election, as one Labour MP called it, would see not even the best Labour swimmer survive.

Another – who claimed anonymity – told The Herald prior to the vote on 7 May: “I’m now set to Defcon f****d. I’m expecting to leave and never come back. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how weak your (SNP) opponent is; it’s over.”

The result must have been worse than any of the Labour MPs expected – the SNP left each Unionist party with just one MP left standing. It was almost as if one Lib Dem, Tory and Labour MP remained just so the Nationalists could taunt each party over its demise; akin to hostile takeovers when a new owner leaves one person from the old board on as ‘a prize’.

The numbers are quite staggering: the Nationalists won 50 per cent of the popular vote, up from 19.9 per cent in 2010; they won 1,454,436 votes, breaking the previous Scottish high of the Tories in 1951; they had swings across the country of over 30 per cent from Labour to SNP, with a high of 39.3 per cent in Glasgow North East; and the party’s previous best result was 11 MPs in 1974, adding an extra 50 MPs from the 2010 result of six.

So how can it be explained? The SNP has found itself at the vanguard of a perfect storm that has been slowly brewing since devolution and has picked up pace drastically since the financial crisis. Constitutional concerns are simply a motor for deeper discontents: the SNP’s breakthrough to become a minority government in 2007 was driven by opposition to the war in Iraq and the marketisation of Scottish public services.

When the SNP had proven itself to be competent in power, the electorate saw little in Labour that made them want to return, and instead gave the nationalists a shock majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011.

At that point the referendum question kicked in, and has been the key factor in Labour’s demise. The Labour party could not have got its campaign more wrong: it arrogantly stood side by side with the Tories in defence of the union, it provoked the ire of independence supporters with fear-mongering tactics – indeed, the Better Together pro-union campaign was known as ‘Project Fear’ – and its lack of any hopeful vision for Scotland within the UK.

At the same time, the biggest mass movement in Scottish history was brewing. The SNP was by no means the only driving force of this – it involved all sorts of campaigns, but was mostly driven by people outside of official politics, activists knocking on doors in places where doors have not been knocked in a long time.

In the final two weeks of the referendum campaign and the week after the vote, something bigger happened than just mass campaigning in every community across Scotland – there was a clear and striking shift in the political consciousness of a large proportion of Scotland. The last ditch promise of ‘The Vow’ from Unionist parties to deliver more powers for Scotland left many criticising what they saw as utterly craven and opportunistic British Unionism, and then David Cameron’s ‘English votes for English laws’ speech in the hours after the referendum defeat settled people into an anti-union mentality.

At that point, people shifted en masse to find the quickest route to punishing the Unionist parties, especially Labour. The SNP was the obvious vehicle, and quickly became the biggest party per population in Europe in a matter of weeks, rising eventually to over 110,000 members.

Labour compounded its problems. Officials thought once the referendum was out of the way everything would go back to normal, and all they therefore needed was a more talented leadership to take on new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, and it would all be fine.

Enter Jim Murphy, a hard line Blairite who attained infamy for shouting at people in town centres across Scotland during the referendum campaign on behalf of Better Together. Schooled at Westminster, they thought he could come back up and wipe the floor with Sturgeon. Instead, he was gubbed.

Sturgeon’s appearances on the UK-wide TV debates brought the SNP’s anti-austerity message to a British audience, and they liked it – she brought great surprise to political onlookers when was voted by viewers as the winner, sending the London media into a frenzy over a woman they’d barely heard of. Her popularity grew. People in England started asking why they couldn’t vote for the SNP.

Murphy’s desperate effort in the final weeks to switch from trying to win Yes voters back to trying to sweeten No voters by attacking the idea of a second referendum may in hindsight be considered pitiful: while claiming the Nationalists wanted to re-run the referendum, he’d been reduced to resorting to the same arguments used in the Better Together campaign.

Murphy lost his seat at the General Election, and might yet lose his job as leader of the party in Scotland – he’s in the midst of a trade union rebellion which is likely to see either him or the trade unions go. There have been calls for the party to become independent from UK Labour, and to return to its roots – but it’s difficult to see how a party full of people bred on the Blair-Brown era can transform itself.

For the SNP, with success comes new challenges. Its General Election victory was premised on a commitment to not being about independence, but inevitably with such a sweeping victory the referendum question is posed once more.

Sturgeon’s strategy is a gradualist one – build up power until the party’s hegemony is unquestionable, and then cruise to a referendum win. One senses the first minister would prefer to leave the referendum question until the 2021 parliament, but she has not ruled out putting a referendum in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament election, and most of the 110,000 members would expect her to do so.

The other constitutional challenge is how to advance the devolution agenda without undermining the party’s strength. The SNP has been able to blame Westminster for Scotland’s problems and use the Scottish Parliament as a platform to do so, but that may become more difficult if the Tories ditch the devolution-by-increments strategy and instead plum for some sort of “federal offer”, as Boris Johnson put it.

A growing number of voices in the Conservatives understand that the right sort of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland could leave the British state in charge of the most important levers of government, and force the SNP to make all of its own decisions over tax and spending within a strict fiscal straightjacket. For now, Cameron remains committed to just pushing ahead with the Smith Commission, but smart Tories know that Smith isn’t going to cut the mustard as far as derailing the Nationalists is concerned.

Sturgeon has said full fiscal autonomy is what she wants, and in many ways it would not be too far off her vision for independence within a currency union, energy union, monarchy union, and so on. However, she would have to find a way of addressing the funding gap of some £7.6bn from a steep fall in oil prices, which would require more borrowing or more taxes. That may push the SNP out of its current comfort zone, of either having to look to more radical economic solutions or of moving away from commitments to end austerity.

If she fails to navigate that tricky path, it could put her whole independence strategy of gradual increases in power – and powers – in jeopardy, and give the Unionists renewed hope that Scotland isn’t on an irreversible path to breaking from Britain.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.