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A nation divided

The June 2017 general election will be remembered as an occasion where the political map of the UK was dramatically and unexpectedly redrawn. This was the case no more than in Scotland where the outcome indicates the birth of a three-party system. The major headline was the SNP losing its hegemonic status, going from 56 to ‘only’ 35 — still a majority of Scotland’s 59 seats. These setbacks were compounded by the loss of nearly 500,000 votes, with the SNP total vote falling from over 1.45 million to under 980,000. This is partly explained by a decline in turnout, from 71% to 66%. Major losses sustained by the SNP to both Conservatives and Labour will have profound long-term significance. The Tories gained over 320,000 votes and increased their number of seats from 1 to 13. On the other hand, the number of votes for the Labour Party only increased by around 10,000 to a total of 717,000, but this secured an additional 6 seats. These results majorly alter perceptions of the 2015 result as a generational shift, revealing the fluid nature of Scottish politics and that the forward march of political nationalism in recent decades could in fact be halting.[1]

For the first time since the 1980s, political momentum in Scotland does not lie with forces articulating the need for greater autonomy to pursue divergent Scottish egalitarian ideals as a route to social justice. This is a major change of direction, perhaps of more significance than the transition from Labour to the SNP experienced between the Scottish Parliament election in 2007 and the general election of 2015. That process entailed a deepening of the logic of devolutionary argument and the ideals of civic Scottish identity.[2] The redrawn political map of 2017 indicates that cross-UK forces are having an impact within a distinct political landscape.[3]Whether Scottish Labour held its own due to the Corbyn effect or opposition to a second independence referendum, will be addressed below. However, these effects, alongside Ruth Davidson’s ability to channel latent small c conservatism through the lens of opposition to further constitutional disruption, make it evident that previously hegemonic perspectives are now those of a party which holds an embattled electoral majority. ‘Indyref2’, which was being spoken of as a fact on the ground merely weeks ago, has departed from the horizon.

Meaningful multi-party democracy has been a comparative rarity in the Scottish experience of Westminster elections. In the age of mass enfranchisement Liberals, Unionists (Conservatives), Labour and then the SNP have tended towards dominating outcomes if not votes, as is the adage of first past the post. To a greater or lesser extent these parties successfully enunciated themselves in terms of representing national political interests towards the unitary state.[4] The 2017 general election result reveals Scotland as a divided nation, with votes relatively evenly split between Labour, the Conservative and the SNP for the first time since the 1970s. However, the distribution of these votes is geographically polarised. Conservative seats are concentrated in traditional Tory heartlands of the North East, Perthshire and the south of Scotland. But the Conservative victory in the traditional Labour, coalfield, constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock reveals the plebeian as well as patrician nature of their rising support in Scotland.

The SNP now effectively faces a war on two fronts. The Labour challenge from a party with a bona fide social democratic programme under Corbyn calls for a different response across Scotland’s central belt. These are areas the SNP only came to dominate in recent years, finally attaining a key objective of proponents of the’79 Group’ whose strategy for a left facing nationalism ultimately predominated within the party over the 1980s and 1990s.[5] It is with some irony that Alex Salmond, one of its key architects, fell victim to the pincer movement of social division and traditional class and regional political alignments making themselves felt when he lost his Aberdeenshire seat, Gordon, to the Tories.

For the Labour Party, after years on the backfoot, the general election was a surprisingly positive affair. Labour gained 6 seats across the central belt, from the former coalfield constituencies in Fife and Midlothian to in the east to Glasgow North East and Coatbridge and Chryston on the west coast. This return to contention was further marked by close run losses of under a hundred votes in Glasgow South West, Glasgow East and defeats in the low hundreds in Motherwell and Wishaw and Airdrie and Shotts in North Lanarkshire, east of Glasgow. Thus, there is now considerable evidence to suggest Labour can to win in Yes voting areas of Scotland. However, the predominant trend was Labour’s vote increasingly only marginally whilst the SNP’s nosedived. For instance, in Glasgow East the SNP majority fell from over 10,000 to 76 votes but the Labour vote only rose by 220, and as stated above Labour’s vote only increased by just under 10,000 votes across Scotland.

There are already emergent signs of a key strategic battle developing over the reason for this. In effect there were two Labour strategies deployed simultaneously in Scotland. The Scottish party campaigned largely in opposition to a second referendum whilst a large contingent of left-wing candidates, including some new MPs, fought on the lines of the UK manifesto’s promise of major economic reforms. The former strategy delivered for Scotland’s only incumbent Labour MP Ian Murray who held Edinburgh South with a 15.8% vote. Yet it utterly failed Blair McDougall, the architect of the Better Together campaign in the first independence referendum who prominently stood on a platform against another and saw Labour’s vote fall by 7.8% in affluent Renfrewshire East. Before his victory had even been formally announced Paul Sweeney, the new MP for Glasgow East, credited a campaign for economic justice as having led him to victory in a television interview.[6] The weekend following the election the left-wing MSP and former Scottish Labour leadership contender Neil Findlay was quoted in the Sunday Herald arguing that a campaign in line with the UK manifesto, which delivered considerable increases in vote share and turnout, would have delivered more gains.[7] Findlay’s contention appear to have some basis in that Scottish Labour recovered from polling at 19% before the ‘Corbyn surge’ was felt across the UK, and a YouGov poll showed Scottish Labour at 41% among young voters, ahead of the SNP. [8]

Moving forward the labour movement and the left in Scotland is likely to have its strategy strongly shaped by a debate within Scottish Labour over whether a Unionist strategy or a Corbyn-inspired one, including pulling in left-wing Yes voters, is more viable. The general election revealed a major tectonic shift in Scottish politics. Forces whose prime motivation is to attain greater political autonomy to realise national values seen as divergent from those which predominate across the UK have lost momentum, although the SNP remains the dominant party. The political landscape is developing based on divisions within Scotland, especially between regional alignments. Labour has demonstrated an unexpected capacity to maintain its position within its former industrial ‘heartlands’ whilst Conservatism has proven attractive in rural Scotland. Scottish society and politics merit and now evidently require an analysis that recognise the complexities of divisions which clearly have roots in class and culture stretching beyond binary constitutional affiliations.

[1] Murray Pittock, The Road to Independence?: Scotland in the Balancesecond edition (London: Reaktion Books, 2013)

[2] David McCrone, The New Sociology of Scotland (London: Sage, 2017) p.27, 45–47.

[3]This accords with traditional experience of distinctly Scottish brands of UK traditions see Paul Ward, Unionism in the United Kingdom, 1918–1974(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

[4] Catriona M. MacDonald, Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland’s Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009) p.250.

[5] Ben Jackson, ‘The moderniser: Alex Salmond’s journey’, Renewal 20:1 (2012), (online)

[6] BBC Scotland election coverage 9/6/2017.

[7] Andrew Whitaker, ‘Corbyn ally: Scottish Labour could have more-than-doubled its seats with a more radical approach’ Herald 11/6/2017

[8] Matthew Smith, ‘Voting intention (Scotland): SNP 42%, Con 29%, Lab 19% (15–18 May)’ YouGov18/5/2017 Simon Osborne, ‘Election 2017: Labour lead SNP among young voters in Scotland’, Independent 6/6/2017

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