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.

, ,

  • Dan

    “Sturgeon’s appearances on the UK-wide TV debates brought the SNP’s anti-austerity message to a British audience, and they liked it –”

    Well, that’s what the media and the corrupted polling organisations would have had you believe, except when it came to the bit, the Conservative message was soundly endorsed.

  • Starviking

    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.

    Really? I don’t recall that fact being in the news. Any references?

    indeed, the Better Together pro-union campaign was known as ‘Project Fear’

    No. It was termed ‘Project Fear’ by the SNP. At least 50% of the Scottish Electorate do not buy that term.

    it arrogantly stood side by side with the Tories in defence of the union

    Well, they were on the same side – for the Union. Is that too hard to understand?

    Let’s say they decided to work on their own for the Union… We’d now be being beaten over the head with the fact that the Unionists couldn’t even produce a united front!

  • barnshee

    Some 85% of the UK voters live in England
    To put it politely they don`t give a monkeys about Scotland OR NI which they regard as an albatross around the taxpayers neck and a pain in the arse.
    No loss should they go.

  • mac tire

    “the Conservative message was soundly endorsed.”
    Yeah, just over one third of the electorate plumped for them. Soundly endorsed, indeed.

  • Neil Young

    Jim Murphy embarked on his 100day tour of Scotland shouting at people through a m,egaphone, he was not there to debate, merely bark at people, Youtube him, but of course thats not how it was portrayed by the compliant unionist media. The Term project fear was actually coined by Blair McDougall who ran the campaign, and yes obviously YES supporters picked up on this but the term was their own. The Labour poarty bosses in Westminster decided to back the union, their members were never consulted hence the reason so many Labour party members, supproters councillors and ex councillors and ex MP’s decided to back YES.

  • Zeno

    Actually 24% of the electorate voted for them. 36.9% of those that turned out voted for them.

  • Westprog

    The SNP might have been popular as an example, but the prospect of the English being governed by a party that quite explicitly said it was there to represent Scottish interests was an election-winner for the Conservatives. Any possible deal that Labour would have made with the SNP would have been for Scotland’s benefit. When Tony Gregory made a deal with Haughey, it was for his constituency.

    The Conservatives won this election on the basis of their unpopularity. They were so unpopular in Scotland that they could destroy Labour just by sharing a common platform. The Lib Dems were destroyed by association as well. If Cameron is doing this on purpose, then I wouldn’t bet against him luring the SNP into a similar trap over fiscal autonomy.

  • handelaar

    In the unlikely event of all Yes voters from 2014 having just voted for the SNP, that would mean the turnout on Thursday among last year’s Yes voters is 89.8%.

    Of course that’s not true; either Yes turnout was even higher (Greens and Socialists also got votes), or — which is of course most likely — the referendum result is no longer what people think.

  • handelaar

    No, it was called Project Fear by the Better Together campaign.

    Mods: Are we just letting people make up lies now?

  • Robin Keogh

    Zeno, the electorate strictly speaking are those who vote as opposed to the registered electorate which include those who vote and those who dont vote…just spliitng hairs my man

  • Robin Keogh

    If I remember correctly the polls a few days before the referendum suggested a slight lead for the YES campaign, this was quickly followed by the ‘vow’ and hey presto we got our 55/45 result. A poll conducted a few months after suggested that YES were at 51 versus 49. I wonder is it possible that in the heat of the vote that now some Scots are regretting their choice and wouldnt mind another crack of the whip. I imagine Nikky might not want to see momentum slip as happenned in Canada yrs ago, she needs to be very canny to aviod a Tory snakebite. If she is smart she will just keep demanding stuff that the tories cant deliver which inevitably will lead to a ref mark two.

  • Zeno
  • Thomas Girvan

    What about the Govt. giving the Scots Devo max with tax raising powers, and the money saved from the Barnet formula subsidies going to all the DLA brigade in Northern Ireland?
    Everyone’s a winner!

  • Robin Keogh

    Yes I am and I am being pedantic

  • Robin Keogh

    I think he and sturgeon said but just because they said that doesnt mean it cant happen within a shorter period

  • kensei

    This is why the Union is in real trouble. The reaction to Scotland’s voters voting for what they wanted resulted in England voting explicitly against it. That’s not a situation that’s going to be stable for very long.

  • Zeno

    That’s not what pedantic means.

  • Zeno

    Jim Gibney in the Irish News is also predicting the demise of the Union. It must be a Shinner thing. We know they are not good at predicting the future, but that aside, if Scotland were to leave the Union does Northern Ireland not become more valuable?

  • Robin Keogh

    you would argue over the shape of a toenail Zeno honestly….pedantic means being obsessive on detail

  • Robin Keogh

    How would u imagine the north of Ireland would be more valuable?

  • Zeno

    Landmass, territorial waters…….. somewhere to stick Trident and cheap to run.

  • Jim Fraser

    Yup, handelaar is right, it was Better Together insiders who called themselves ‘Project Fear’. And if you don’t know that, you know very little about what happened during the independence referendum. You really shouldn’t make things up, it make you look foolish. On siding with the Tories you have something of a point: if Labour were for No they could hardly avoid being on the same side as the Tories (and the BNP; the Orange Order; Ukip; a Holocaust denier, etc.) However, it was the way they wholeheartedly joined in the scaremongering of Project Fear that I think people disliked. Even No voters told me on their doorsteps that when Osbourne said: “You can’t have the pound, it’s ours!” they were amazed when Ed Balls chimed in in the same language. It’s probably a complete coincidence that it was after Gideon’s budget when Ed said there was nothing he would change, that many voters in Scotland decided to vote SNP instead of Labour.

  • mac tire

    Absolutely Zeno. Though I agree with Robin – you are both being pedantic.
    My point still stands. Furthermore, they were soundly whipped in Wales, Scotland and here. Soundly endorsed? My arse they were.
    Not that Dan cares. He was making an anti-SNP point.

  • Zeno

    You weren’t being pedantic Robin. You were being wrong.

  • Robin Keogh

    LOL Zeno ur nuts man !

  • Reader

    Jim Fraser: when Osbourne said: “You can’t have the pound, it’s ours!” they were amazed when Ed Balls chimed in in the same language.
    Have you a link for your Osborne quote? The chancellor only said what ought to have been obvious – there was not going to be a currency union. There were other ways for Scotland to continue to use the pound, as Salmond actually pointed out.

  • Reader

    Is this necessary? Robin – why not post a credible link to a definition of “electorate” that squares with your own? Even assuming you do well in your chosen career, it will be years before you get to define terms for public discourse.

  • Zeno

    LOL…….. brilliant.

  • John Collins

    I firmly believe you are spot on. Westminster has no longer any need of these ‘outposts’ for their security

  • Mirrorballman

    “somewhere to stick Trident and cheap to run”

    Seriously?

  • Zeno

    Nah I didn’t really think about it, but it’s always possible and we do have M15’s back up hub here.

  • handelaar

    For Jaysis sake, you’re not even reading the comment directly above your own before repeating a lie that’s already been quashed.

    One more time. NO IT WAS NOT THE SNP “who came up with the perjorative ‘fear’ term”.

  • Robin Keogh

    LOL, I know its nuts

  • Robin Keogh

    I was really just trying to point out the difference between the registered electorate and the active electorate, it wasnt meant to turn into a showdown.

  • Heidstaethefire

    You’re partly right. Both said (individually) that in their opinion it was a once in a generation thing. Then the Scottish electorate decided to intervene, and, lo and behold, Scotland’s constitutional future patently isn’t settled. This post has somehow landed in the wrong place,

  • Heidstaethefire

    “Project Fear” was Bitter Together’s own name, which unfortunately for them , slipped into the public domain. With regard to Murphy, I saw him in Glasgow barking through a megaphone at the public, surrounded by a few placard waving acolytes. I suggest you google his last one in St Enoch’s Sq/Buchanan St. You’ll get more of an idea of what was really happening than from any description I can give you. It might also interest you to know that somebody from Murphy’s own constituency party phoned the numpties who were filmed to tell them where Murphy would be.

  • Starviking

    Thanks for the link handelaar, and as for making up lies – The Yes side were the ones actually using the term in the media.

    And actually, the link is interesting, because it shows that “Project Fear” was not used as the term for the campaign – it was a jokey reference to Salmond’s undoubted reaction to the campaign*.

    So yes, someone on the Better Together side used the term ‘Project Fear’, and no – it was not the term BT used, internally or otherwise, for their campaign – at least going by the currently available information.

    *Going from memory at the mo, Herald is not allowing me full access to the document at present.

  • Starviking

    But they certainly used it – a lot.

  • Starviking

    And yet a Google Image search of Jim Murphy with megaphone only gets one hit of him with one – a pretty tiny one at that. More of him with a microphone in hand.

    Of course, there’s lots of the Yes side trying to stop him speaking, and one of Sean Clerkin using a large megaphone to stop Jim Murphy speaking.

  • Starviking

    Rubbish, from the news source it was obviously an offhand comment.

  • Starviking

    Please link to a video of him shouting at people through a megaphone – as I have been unable to find any solid references to that, save for a pic of him with a small megaphone in hand.

  • Neil Young
  • Heidstaethefire

    Just tried, and it is hard to find. Good job I’m not paranoid. However if you google My Little Underground Sean Clerkin it will give you some sense of it. It also has a link to Wings Over Scotland which gives a diagrammatic photograph. In fairness I should point out that this is an independence supporting site. Also worth reading is Derek Bateman post on May 4th Shut Up And Listen (that’s the name of the post, not an instruction to you)
    The more interesting questions, however, are how did all this come about and why.

  • Jim Fraser

    Truly, it was not obvious, Reader. You might as well say it was just as obvious that, had there been a Yes vote, they would have sensibly changed their tune pretty swiftly. It’s an opinion. As to a reference, I paraphrase, but if you think that wasn’t the message they were giving the Scottish electorate you have been sadly misinformed. It was certainly one of the reasons given by people on the doorsteps here when asked why they were switching their vote from Labour to the SNP.

  • WindsorRocker

    Is this large SNP vote not simply a fall out from the referendum. I’m not arguing that there hasn’t been a swing in Scotland over the last 10 years or so to where we are now but it would be hard to argue of a radical shift from last September.
    The discontents who were beaten in the referendum came back to the polling booth to vote for the SNP whereas the non voters amongst the NO 55% who came out in September went back to their garden centres and golf courses (sound familiar?) as they didn’t see any difference between the 3 parties who were mainstream pro Union.
    This parliamentary cycle will be critical for the SNP, if things are still the same 5 or 6 years on then those discontents who shore up the SNP surge will become disillusioned and they will disappear like snow off a ditch.
    Got to agree with the conclusion of this though. The current fiscal arrangements allow the SNP to blame Westminster and if the UK is to survive well into the 21st century then some form of federal arrangement is needed to leave the SNP with actually managing tax and spend decisions on their own without blaming London. It is telling that Scotland did vote for tax raising powers over 15 years ago but the SNP have never once used them.
    It essentially boils down to who decides the level of public sector debt. Currently that is Westminster so when the block grant is cut and Scots who complain are told to raise their own taxes to supplement it they come back with the nonsense of “paying for things twice”. In any federal system there would have to be some kind of split of public sector debt as a baseline so that each region would then have debt limits to work with.

  • Starviking

    I think you’re confusing “microphone” with “megaphone”.

    Care to review your assertion?

  • Zeno

    Robin, it looks like this…….. demographics isn’t working, so the SNP or Brexit will deliver the dream.That’s what clutching at straws means.
    If you really want a United Ireland.
    Ditch Sinn Fein.
    Persuade us that it’s going to work.
    Produce an economic case.
    Stop goading themmuns.
    It’s not that difficult.

  • Jim Fraser

    What, Starviking, the Project Fear thing? Certainly they didn’t have a logo for it and run an ad campaign, but in the minds of the Scottish electorate the cap definitely fit.

  • Robin Keogh

    Hi Zeno. Demographics is not producing the goods in elections but u have to take into account that the age cohort with a strong CNR plurality is in the 18 to 30 age category. As i have said before, it will be ten years before we see the outworkings of that. I dont care what delivers unity tbh. SF dont have a unique position on the UI plan. SDLP, FF and FG are all united ireland parties, with considerable sympathies within British Labour and other areas. SF alone will never deliver a UI. As for goading Zeno in fairness you have the market cornered there in your posts to me about SF election performance.

  • Neil Young

    It was Blair McDougall, who ran the Better Together campaign who dubbed it “project fear”. He’s still happy to admit that scaring peopke was an essential part of their campaign, without which he doubts they would have won.

  • Neil Young

    You’re overthinking and no.

  • Starviking

    Really Neil? I think you’re squirming. You said Jim Murphy was shouting at people though a megaphone.

    Come on, give us the times that Jim Murphy uses a megaphone in those videos.

  • Zeno

    “Hi Zeno. Demographics is not producing the goods in elections but u have to take into account that the age cohort with a strong CNR plurality is in the 18 to 30 age category”

    OK,if I understand you, you are saying that the under 30’s are less likely to vote but when they get to be over 30 if they come from a CNR background they will mostly vote nationalist?
    That sounds fine in isolation, but every year since the GFA the CNR over 30 population must have increased yet the vote has declined by 48,000. You are expecting more votes as the over 30’s group increased yet the opposite is happening.
    The unionist vote has also declined by even more. That suggests that people are moving away from the old fashioned ideas of Nationalism and Unionist as they get older. The biggest group is those that don’t vote at all. Do you really think that just because someone was born a Catholic they are automatically a Nationalist/Republican and at some point they will all rush to the polling stations?

  • John Collins

    This once in a generation thing is hogwash as. Back in 1799 the Irish representatives voted against a proposal for an Act of Union. Yet a few months later the British authorities reignited their campaign in which they achieved their desired result by bribery and false promises. In politics there is no such thing as once in a generation.

  • John Collins

    The brits have already said they have no strategic interest in holding on to NI.

  • Zeno

    In a hypothetical case where Scotland leaves the Union that might well change. Scotland won’t be leaving the union, so it’s not worth discussing.

  • Robin Keogh

    Well that certainly appears to be the pattern. The older age cohorts vote in large numbers while the younger once are less inclined. Voters appear to vote along socio religious lines. Thats not something i am making up, its well acknowledged that the North is unique in this sense compared to other democracies.
    In many ways u have proved the demographic point yourself, yes the nationalist vote has dropped by 48 thousand while the Unionist vote has droped by 70 thousand, reflecting the changing population. We do not know why the missing 40% choose not to vote. We have no way to even measure for sure if its the same 40% year on year. Ultimately it makes no difference anyway, in representative democracy if you dont vote you have no impact and no voice.
    Moreover, the decline in voter participation is not unique to the North, its similar across western Europe which countries have nothing like the political cleavages and challenges we have (except maybe Belgium).
    However motivatinal factors can influence voting culture, issues such as the flag and the Unionist pact can mobilze and galvanise supporters. Since the fleg issue, twadell etc. there has been a moderate surge in the Unionist vote by approx 1.5%. Will this surge continue? Most likely. SF managed to get 16,000 more votes this year than they did last year for example. Did these people not vote last year? or Did they vote for somebody else? or are they new voters recently added to the register? Or where they motivated to come out by the pact or some other driving issue?

  • Zeno

    “That sounds fine in isolation, but every year since the GFA the CNR over 30 population must have increased yet the vote has declined by 48,000. You are expecting more votes as the over 30’s group increased yet the opposite is happening.”

    So the Catholic population is increasing and the over 30’s in that group are increasing and the Nationalist vote is falling, but you put that down to voter apathy but you think they will at some point all come back to the flock, so to speak?
    Before you answer, bear in mind that almost half of the population describe themselves as neither Nationalist nor Unionist.

  • Zeno

    Well?

  • Starviking

    When you consider that to oppose a proposition you have to expose the demerits of the proposition, of course the cap fit for some voters. That does not make the perception of the No campaign as “Project Fear” any more real.

  • Starviking

    The more interesting questions, however, are how did all this come about and why.

    Indeed. You would think that if Jim Murphy had been yelling at people with a megaphone the pic would be all over the net. It’s the old propagandic “make an assertion and hope it will stick” thing.

  • Jim Fraser

    We could argue the toss on this one until the cows come home, my friend. I only know that people on the doorstep were spontaneously talking about exactly how pissed off with the way in which the Labour party had enthusiastically joined in with what they called Project Fear. When I said: “But surely, if Labour had been sincerely for No they had to stand with the Tories, how could they avoid it?” the answer usually ran along the lines of: “They need to be taught a lesson”. I’m sure this had nothing to do with Labour’s subsequent loss of Scottish seats. I appreciate that the Project Fear moniker may have not been much used in your circles, but in Scotland in Labour ‘heartlands’ I can tell you it was fairly widespread. However unfairly it might have been used.