Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A Different View from North of the Border

by Alex McKirgan


During the summer vacation I spent some time with the Yes campaign for the Scottish Referendum. Apart from enjoying the experience of what more experienced campaigners have called the most exciting, vibrant political campaign in Scotland's history, the most important takeaway for me was the completely different perspectives of the Referendum of people down here in England and people in Scotland. Here, there was a massive sense of bewilderment. Some common reactions were "Really, you want to leave? Surely you know it will be a disaster." "The Union has been great, let's not throw it away."

Compare this with the reaction in Scotland. National identity has undergone a huge change in Scotland in the the last 40 years. After WW2, the main institutions holding together support for the Union were: memories of the War, the big nationalised industries (Coal, Steel, Shipbuilding etc) and the Trades Union movement and even with the SNP's first by-election victory in 1967, Nationalism was a fringe movement. English people cannot begin to understand the damage to the concept of a British Union that the Thatcher government caused. A government that was (and still is) widely revered in England, wrought devastation across large swathes of Scotland. She may have thought that the monetarist policies, high interest rates, de-industrialisation and the weakening of the Trades Union movement, were a price worth paying but it demonstrated to many Scots that they have a different political and cultural outlook to their cousins down South. The Conservatives (who until the 1970s went by the name The Conservative and Unionist Party) are still paying a price to this day. One of the most quoted jokes during the campaign was that there are more Pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (2) than there are Scottish Tory MPs (1). Failure to recognise the extent to which Scots have, in the main, a different set of cultural and political values leads to the surprise and bewilderment that we have just experienced.
Thatcher: wrought devastation in Scotland

Scots wanted more control over government because they felt they would make different decisions and make different judgements. Being 8% of the total population of the UK they were not surprised that they would frequently get a government that they felt did not represent their views, but they wanted that to be different. The most compelling phrase from Alex Salmond was that with independence, Scotland would always get the government it voted for. The movement for some form of devolution became irresistible and a Scottish Parliament was re-constituted after another referendum in 1999. At that point, most people in England thought the issue was settled but they failed to notice what was happening across the border.

For generations, the Labour Party had dominated Scottish politics. In fact, one of the main reasons behind using a Proportional Representation system for the Holyrood parliament was to prevent a permanent Labour majority. Indeed, the first couple of Scottish Governments were run as coalitions. From the 1999 referendum, the SNP started building what even one senior Westminster Tory described as "the best political machine in Western Europe". But this was not just  based on superior organisation. They were able to build on a growing sense that Scotland, a nation of 5 million people with substantial mineral wealth and an educated population, could be a successful independent country. Against all the odds, the SNP won an outright majority at the last elections for the Scottish Parliament. That was the key event that led to the recent Referendum.

Salmond and "the best political machine in W. Europe"
I started this article talking about the differences in perception between people on different sides of the border. The main argument for Better Together (and a view widely shared in England) was that the risks of Independence were just too great. When pressed to come up with a positive case for staying in the Union, the most positive thing they could say was "We will make it smaller and less relevant to you" i.e. Devo Max. The more sensible Unionist commentators admitted that of course, Scotland COULD be a successful smaller country but they thought it could be more successful within the Union. As the polls got tighter, English commentators descended into a hysterical "of course, it will be a complete disaster" narrative. You have no idea how condescending and patronising this came across to most Scots. The lowest version of this view was the old stereotype that Scotland is a welfare-dependent country living off a subsidy from England. The only flaw in this argument was the fact that it is not true. Yes, the Barnett Formula leads to higher government spending per head in Scotland but this is more than offset by government revenue raised in Scotland. Scotland runs a budget surplus. Of course there are risks and dangers but many Scots were excited and energised by the possibilities offered by independence and supremely confident in their ability to look after themselves in a globalised world. While the Yes campaign and UKIP both benefit from a prevailing anti-Westminster feeling, that is where the similarities end. The Yes campaign was hugely aspirational, youth-driven and outward looking. You only have to list 2 components of the Yes campaign to see the difference...pro-EU and pro-immigration - to see the difference.

The 2 year campaign was compared to an unhappy marriage. First the wife says "I want a divorce" and for a while, the husband ignores her. Then after more discussion, the husband gets angry and says "Well, go if you want, but you'll lose all your friends and you're not getting any money". Then, when the wife is half out the door, the husband calls out "Wait, I love you! How can I make it better?" Despite the dire apocalyptic warnings, 45% of the people in Scotland voted to leave the UK and set up a new country. A large number of the No voters were people who liked the idea of an independent country but thought the risks were too great. A significant number of these voters were also convinced by "The Vow", a commitment by all three Westminster party leaders to devolve sweeping new powers to the Scottish Parliament. It is clear now that this was a commitment thrown out in panic after the famous Sunday Times/YouGov poll without thinking through the consequences. Anyone who thinks the victory of the No campaign means the status quo has been validated is repeating the same mistake that England has made for 40 years. A fundamental change in the UK has been set in train and cannot be reversed. Voters in England will demand equal treatment to that being offered to the Scots but no-one knows how this can be done. Whatever the UK was before 18th September, it's going to be something quite different in the future.

Nicola Sturgeon,
new First Minister of Scotland
How did we end up here? My answer is simple. People in the rest of the UK have been blissfully unaware of the developments north of the border and are now paying the price by having to re-invent the 300 year old union in a matter of months. Whatever happens, there will be a greater sense of a separate English and Scottish government. This must lead to a decline in whatever we call the United Kingdom. What will be left? A shared monarchy, a shared currency and shared foreign policy. Sound familiar? Not too different from the Yes platform.

The whole of Scotland was hugely motivated and engaged by the campaign and there was a 2 year discussion about what kind of country Scots want to live in. Now it is England's turn. Without the comfort blanket of "Britishness" and with an EU Referendum on the horizon, England needs to go through the same process. The Empire has gone and the Scots are moving away a bit, so what is England, really? I hope they go about it with the same positive engagement we have just seem from the Scots. For decades, England assumed that Scotland was as committed to the Union as they were. They got a very nasty shock when they realised that might not be the case. The price they paid to save the Union was a commitment to fundamentally change the constitution. How will this end up? I have no idea but I'm fascinated to watch.

3 comments:

  1. You drew, reluctantly, one parallel between the SNP and UKIP: their ability to benefit from public scepticism toward the 'Westminster Elite'. But why claim the similarities end there?
    For me, the overwhelming similarity is not their target audience, but their leaders. Farage, the indecisive, controversial, yet politically astute 'man of the people', has, in my opinion, only one competitor for the 'Charismatic Politician of the Year' Award. Like UKIP, the SNP relied greatly on the ability of their leader, Salmond to isolate himself from the image of a 'career politician', that the public have come to despise. Stood on the debating platform, his command over Darling was an echo of Farage's domination of Clegg.
    A key political advantage these parties share is their ability to connect with the 'politically disengaged'. As you mentioned, the turnout for the referendum was unprecedented. The SNP managed to connect with voters who previously didn't know, or didn't care. UKIP connect with voters in a similar way: in the recent By Elections, the polling turnout has been over 50%. This engagement, which is over 120% of the average turnout at By Elections, indicates how UKIP, like the SNP, manage to engage the disengaged, and hence inspire support from new voters across the country.
    The final convergence of these two parties worth mentioning is their strategy regarding policy. The conclusions reached may be different in this regard, as you would expect, given the contrasting mentalities of their 'target audiences', but the decision making process is the same: both parties study their potential voters, establish an issue that is underrepresented by other parties (relative to its importance to the public), and then hammer the nail into the coffin. UKIP isolated immigration and the EU, presented it as their flagship policy, and voters swarmed like bees around a honey pot. The SNPs voters have been slower on the uptake, but the party, recognising an underlying desire for Independence many years ago, gradually established a favourable opposition to the 'pro-union' Labour. Only now is the desire really spreading nationwide, but the wave of support has gathered momentum. Now, Scotland is flooded with the Yes mentality.
    In fact, the parallels between these parties are so prevalent in terms of campaigning methodology, electoral engagement, and 'refreshing politics', that it would be easier to pick out the one major difference: UKIP get hit by the Eggs of Jealousy thrown by their unruly opposition; the SNP, on the other hand, were the ones throwing their toys, or eggs in this case, out the pram.

    A really interesting article though, despite the UKIP hate ;)

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  2. Biggest difference. UKIP captures a protest vote and their support would collapse if they ever had to reconcile their rhetoric with actually governing. Look at what has happened to LibDem support. SNP are a governing party who have mobilised a nation behind a progressive, forward-looking agenda. Rather than see their support collapse when put in a position to enact their policies, they are likely to increase their number of Westminster seats next May and retain their majority at Hollyrood. Salmond and Farage may both be effective political operators, but the movements they lead are quite different. The good news is that the more progress UKIP makes, the more likely it is that the UK exits the EU, then the more likely it is we have another referendum. Against the backdrop of failure to deliver on wider devolution and UK exit from the EU, the result will be different. Ironic that the growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party is the biggest threat to the survival of the UK. Amusing. ��

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  3. The suggestion that the Liberal Democrats demise as a party during this coalition is somehow foreshadowing of UKIPs fate is absurd. Nick Cleggs party has not seen a collapse in support due to its lack of coherent policy, as you imply. The problem lies in the dynamics of the coalition: because of respective positions on the political spectrum, we know the two governing parties fail to see eye to eye on many policies. As a result, the Libdems end up as forced signatories to plans they vehemently oppose. To give you an example, look at tuition fees. Clegg, in the build up to the election, made pledges to cut fees altogether. In reality, his insufficient influence made this promise impossible to keep, and his party has paid the price at the polls. Therefore this failure to succeed in government, which you claim to be a result of the party relying on false rhetoric, and a protest vote, actually has nothing to do with ingenious polling paterns, and is a poor and faltering comparison to UKIP, and does not provide any insight into the future of the party. UKIP have stated they would only enter partnership as minority government. They would be protected from the exposure that has eroded support for the Libdems, and so in fact, rather than the protest party you speak of, the may just end up the popular party instead.
    Regrettably, I feel like your opinion of UKIPs policy is blinding you from realising their potence as a party. Afterall, Survation, who intestingly proved most accurate in predicting the SNPs defeat in the referendum, have stated that in the South of England, UKIP have 37.6% of the vote ( beating the Tories and Labour). Hardly a joke party, and hardly a protest.
    In your article you draw the scathing conclusion that the SNP are 'hugely aspirational and youth-driven', and imply, through stating previously that the similarities with UKIP have ended, that these same compliments would be wrongly extended to Farage's party. Well, to define aspirational: to go from having zero MPs to having 37.6% of support across half a nation- perhaps. In terms of youth, I'm afraid UKIP, once again, are holding the aces. Their youth wing, described by the Telegraph as 'thriving', has doubled in size in just one year. It is the fastest growing of any political youth organisation, and it's credibility far exceeds the SNP counterparts who were accused of 'bullying' on the campaign trail.

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