Stephen McCarthy writes: Scotland is a society which has become intensely politicised over the last three years. Following the referendum on independence in September 2014, Westminster elections came in May 2015. A year later elections to Holyrood were held, almost immediately followed by the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Next month we are to have another Westminster election. It is little wonder then that the council elections held in May this year were not focused on local issues but were rather a rerun of the great issues facing Scotland.
It is not just the fact that there are a lot of elections bunched up together; it is also that the process was kicked off, in the independence referendum, with an unprecedented level of political engagement, which has not noticeably abated since. Add to that that one of the main issues in the independence referendum, Scotland’s status in the EU, has been threatened by the very people who claimed to be safeguarding it.
The effects have been seismic. The SNP has been the big winner. They came close in the independence referendum with 45%. They wiped out all opposition in the last Westminster election, returning fifty-six MPs out of fifty-nine, a gain of fifty seats. They returned to government in Scotland in the Holyrood election and came within an ace of an overall majority in a voting system designed to make that impossible. They carried Scotland handsomely in the Brexit referendum, 62% voting to remain. Now again in the council elections their vote has gone up 7%, although their seats have gone down marginally. In council elections Scotland has STV PR.
The dominance of the SNP is enormous. But it cannot be forever. In this devolved system the SNP are in government in a strong local parliament. And in the long term incumbency always gets you. Every day they govern they make an enemy, but not necessarily a friend. The great strength of democracy isn’t that we get to choose the governments we want but that we get to dump the governments we hate.
While the SNP has soared, the Labour Party has collapsed. Their decline is the reciprocal of the SNP’s rise, as seen in the figures above. In the council elections the swing against them was 11%, they lost 133 seats and now control no councils in Scotland. The Tories, by contrast, gained 12% and 164 seats. The Greens gained 2% and five seats and the Lib Dems stood still. On the big issue, the Greens are in favour of independence.
The Labour Party’s collapse derives almost wholly from their own confusion on the independence issue. They are tied to an English Labour Party that they are not in sympathy with. With half a heart they, on at least their voters’ part, want independence. Their collapse in Westminster has opened up an opportunity to free themselves of the guilt argument that was put to them by the London party: “We need Scottish MPs to keep the Tories out.” Well that argument is gone with the MPs.
Labour have adopted a policy that could be the basis of a revival. They are now in favour of a fully federal UK in which all effective power would be with the devolved parliaments and only joint issues would be handled in Westminster. In April Gordon Brown made an impassioned speech calling for this and attempting to popularise the concept. And it has the capacity to match the SNP’s independence option: both policies get the English off the Scots’ backs. But other than Gordon Brown’s one speech it seems that the party have adopted the policy and done nothing else with it. It’s clear they don’t have any belief in it.
The SNP hasn’t snapped up everything however: squabbling over Labour’s political corpse with them are the Tories. The decline of the Tory vote in Scotland after the Thatcher experiments is well known. They were wiped out for a generation. There is however a more interesting decline which occurred earlier, in the mid 1970s. Traditionally the Tories in Scotland were the Protestant party. They never stood Catholic candidates. A lot of their business backers would not employ a Catholic, or if they did only in manual work. Most Scottish Catholics are of Irish origin, overwhelmingly from Ulster. The Tories reflected a fairly widespread traditional politico-religious unionism that mirrored Northern Ireland’s, but in a lower key and with the moderating influence of a non-sectarian Labour Party.
However the spectacle of the mayhem and bigotry of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s provoked a change. The Tories quietly dropped their Protestant badges. They selected Catholics, and the mild references to the Protestant heritage disappeared. Employment discrimination withered away. It took a while for this penny to drop with the electorate but when it did those Tory working class voters who had responded to the old allegiances drifted off to Labour.
So the Tories took two systemic blows between 1970 and 1990 which nearly wiped them out. But this is their comeback moment. The independence issue and the incoherence of Labour on the issue have opened space for the Tories as the unionist party. And they are making the most of it. The party that most entangles each and every issue with the issue of independence is not the SNP but the Tories.
Normally council elections are not good predictors of national political trends, it’s not that people, or some people, don’t vote nationally in council elections; it’s that lots of others vote on local or personality issues. The results are hard to disentangle. But this is Scotland in a fever of politics and this is a set of council elections nested inside a general election for the UK’s government, nested inside the continuing debate about Brexit, where Scotland is united against the English government. There can be no better indicator of the outcome of the June general election than the Council returns. The Tories might very well pick up as many as four or five Westminster seats, but the dominance of the SNP will continue, as will the disaster for the Labour Party.
Photograph: the chamber of the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh.