After the referendum: How Scotland is shaping the British General Election

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The imminent UK election is one of the most unpredictable in history — however one thing is for sure, writes Dr Craig Johnston, the Scottish Nationalists will be decisive to the result and emerge stronger in the aftermath.

ON THURSDAY, 7 May 2015, the UK goes to the polls. David Cameron’s Conservative Party is attempting to win an outright majority after governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats for the last five years. Labour, under Ed Miliband, is hoping to return to government after just one term in opposition. The Lib Dems are hoping just to survive. And, six months after the independence referendum was defeated, Scotland is once again to the forefront of British politics.

In September 2014, Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom. The margin was a little wider than opinion polls in the final week suggested, 45% in favour and 55% against independence. The Union was safe. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced his resignation the following morning, his life’s dream in tatters. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a magnanimous speech reinforcing the qualities of the UK and Scotland’s place at its heart. Politics then resumed its normal course.

Or so the victorious Unionist narrative was meant to go. In fact, only the first half of the paragraph above is true. Yes, the referendum was defeated, but the margin – 45-55 – was indeed tight. If one “No” in 20 had been a “Yes”, the result would have been very different. It is obvious, in hindsight, that the British Government allowed the referendum to go ahead in the expectation of a significant and decisive defeat for independence. Alex Salmond did announce his resignation as First Minister, but not as a defeated man. He has since been preselected for a Westminster seat and will, in all likelihood, return to the House of Commons.

The morning after the vote, David Cameron’s speech was magnanimous for the first minute or so, before he linked the promise of greater powers to the Scottish Parliament to the “more important” issue of addressing “English votes for English laws” in Westminster. The feeling was that the “No” voters had been duped.

Since the referendum, membership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) has trebled. Despite only having members in Scotland, it is now the third biggest party in the UK, with over 100,000 members. Scottish Labour probably has less than 20,000 and the Scottish Conservatives could hold their party conference in a school classroom. The Scottish electorate, far from returning to the level of political apathy seen elsewhere in the UK, has become more engaged and perhaps more radicalised than ever before. Scotland will be at the centre of the final week of the election campaign, and of the expected subsequent events.

Opinion polls in the UK have been remarkably consistent for weeks now. They point to Labour and the Conservatives being neck and neck on between 32-34%. Sometimes the Tories are ahead, sometimes Labour, always within the margin of error. The Liberal Democrats’ support has haemorrhaged after five years in coalition with the Tories. They will be lucky to hold half of their seats at the election and it is likely that Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will lose his seat unless Tory tactical voting keeps him ahead of Labour. The governing parties between them are expected to lose up to 60 seats. On its own, this would ensure a Labour majority after 7th May.

However, polls are suggesting a result in Scotland which was unthinkable just six months ago. Poll after poll points to Labour being all but wiped out in Scotland. They currently hold 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Scotland has been a reliable block for the party since the days of Margaret Thatcher. If current polling trends continue to election day, the SNP will win 52 or more of Scotland’s 59 seats. One poll this week has the SNP winning every single one. Labour’s gains in England and Wales look likely to be negated by heavy losses in Scotland.

There are few certainties in elections, but it is a safe bet that for the second election in a row – and only the third since World War II – the UK will have a hung parliament. Labour and the Tories will win almost the same number of seats, with the Tories perhaps ahead by a dozen or so. Both will fall a least 50 seats short of the majority threshold — 326.

Most subsequent scenarios favour Labour. David Cameron has far fewer paths to retaining the keys to 10 Downing Street. The current Con-Lib Dem coalition will fall well short — perhaps 300-310 seats. Even adding three or four swivel-eyed loons from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and eight Ulster Unionists leaves Cameron short of the magic 326.

The Tory Party may move against Cameron if he fails to win a majority for the second time. His backbenches and the party grandees stood by him for the last five years as prime minister, but they will not tolerate another loss. The Tories will not have won an election outright since 1992 and the party will demand change at the top. London Mayor Boris Johnson, parachuted into a safe Tory seat, will be back in parliament and ready to be “dragged from his horse” and into a vacancy.

Labour and the SNP together will make up – or perhaps fall just short of –  a majority. Labour can also count on several smaller progressive, anti-Tory parties, including Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party), Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), former Labour MP turned independent George Galloway, and a lone Green MP. That’s a comfortable majority to survive the first hurdle — the vote of confidence (actually the vote on the Queen’s Speech). That’s without even factoring in the remaining Lib Dems to the count. The SNP are already pledged to vote against a Tory Queen’s Speech.

Both the SNP and the Labour Party have made it clear that any post-election deal will fall well short of a formal coalition. While David Cameron’s advisor Lynton Crosby, late of John Howard’s team, has begun demonising the SNP and any alliance they might make with Labour, Miliband has disingenuously reacted by rejecting even a supply and confidence arrangement similar to that Julia Gillard had with the independents in Australia. The Tory line is that SNP MPs cannot legitimately be part of the UK government because they don’t support the UK. Its leaders, Alex Salmond and the new First Minister (roughly equivalent to a State Premier) Nicola Sturgeon, have been painted as dark puppeteers using a UK government to destroy the union.

This appears to be backfiring. After her appearance and performance in two televised debates, Sturgeon is now the most popular leader throughout the UK. The most Googled question in England during the debates was 'Can I vote SNP in England?' Sturgeon has continued to reach out to English voters, offering to advance progressive politics throughout the whole UK.

Given that neither the Tories or Labour can win outright and that the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will have more seats than Labour, the parties’ proxies in the press have begun to ramp up their rhetoric. The Tory press, led by the Telegraph and the abhorrent Daily Mail (which, at its best, has only a casual relationship with truth), write daily about the “crisis” facing the UK if Labour forms government with SNP support. Theresa May, the home secretary – someone not usually known for her hyperbole and someone who will almost certainly be a credible candidate for the Tory leadership should Cameron have to fall on his sword – called a Labour-SNP pact the “biggest constitutional crisis” since the abdication of Edward VIII. The Mail also tried the character assassination route, digging up Ed Miliband’s past girlfriends and succeeding only in making him look normal. They are laying the groundwork for the Tory Party to claim another mandate whatever the parliamentary numbers look like.

Rupert Murdoch’s papers are having a field day demonising Ed Miliband. The Sun (English version) is strongly backing the Tories, while the Sun (Scottish edition) urges a vote for the SNP.

Murdoch is as lacking in ideology as always and uses his mastheads to further his own perceived interests above all else. He has a personal animosity towards the Labour leader. Miliband has chosen not to take the Hawke-Keating-Blair route of embracing the mogul. Instead he has demanded the breakup of the News Corporation, following on from the phone hacking trials and investigations of recent years. Murdoch has travelled to London for the closing week of the campaign to watch his mastheads, and the result, closely.

Miliband is unfazed, telling Russel Brand that Murdoch

“... much less powerful than he used to be."

The clarion call of the English press is that Labour supported by the SNP will destroy Britain as we know it. But consider this...

To stave off his own right wing and to try to stem the flow of votes from the Tories to UKIP, David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in 2017. It is possible to envisage a number of ways that this might well lead to a UK “Brexit” from the EU. Undoubtedly, a UK vote to leave would lead to a second Scottish independence referendum, as it is far more likely that Scotland would vote to stay in the EU. Far from the rise and rise of the SNP being a danger to the Union, it’s entirely possible that a more progressive Labour Party pulled more to the left by a genuinely progressive SNP might be the panacea the UK really needs.

Whichever way it falls, the SNP will emerge stronger again, providing a lesson for progressive parties around the world: have an ideology and believe in it. The people will follow.

You can follow Dr Craig Johnston on Twitter @iWineGuy.

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