Politicians and pundits agree that Scotland holds the key to Britain’s political future. When Andrew Marr, probably Britain’s most respected political journalist and himself a Scot, warns that the general election on May 7 may well be the last such U.K.-wide contest, you know that something quite remarkable is stirring.
Election swings in Britain tend to be modest. It’s rare in a general election for even one Parliamentary seat in five to change hands. But next month, if the polls are to be believed, two-thirds of the Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament could change between parties — with the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) the gainer and the opposition Labour Party the main loser. Even six months ago, when the Scots voted in a referendum against independence, this would have seemed almost impossible. Now all the parties take it as given that the SNP will, for the first time, emerge as a major force in the making and breaking of a U.K.-wide government.
Scotland, with a distinct political culture and a proud sense of identity, makes up just under 10 per cent of Britain’s population. The sentiment that Scotland has been losing out — distant from London, its interests overlooked and its oil wealth (now a diminishing asset) providing a limited local dividend — has become a powerful political current. It may not be entirely true, but has fuelled a belief that Scotland needs to take charge of its own destiny.
Labour has for decades been the dominant political party in Scotland, and is likely to pay a high price for taking its support there for granted. It was Labour which established a devolved Scottish Parliament with limited powers in 1999. During the early years of devolution, Labour retained political primacy. But in 2007, the SNP’s Alex Salmond became Scotland’s first minister in a minority government. Four years later, he gained an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament — and argued that this was a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Against the odds, he managed to get the British government to agree to hold such a vote. The SNP has for years had a single focus — galvanising the people of Scotland into demanding an independent nation which would have more emphasis on social justice. And in last year’s referendum, the nationalists came much closer than anyone expected to breaking away from the rest of Britain.
The political momentum was with the pro-independence movement and that’s where it has remained. Mr. Salmond, in the wake of the referendum outcome, resigned as SNP leader. His successor in both the party leadership and at the helm of Scotland’s devolved government, 44-year-old Nicola Sturgeon, has proved herself to be every bit as impressive, and without the acerbic edge which sometimes led to Mr. Salmond being derided as a political bully-boy.
She is, as the Scots would say, ‘canny’ — she’s smart and personable. The daughter of an electrician whose first job was as a lawyer in a small Scottish town, she got to the top through energy, determination and ability. A few days ago in the televised leaders’ election debate, she shone brightly — some viewers’ polls said she did the best of all seven party leaders.
The SNP has always fared worse in elections to the Westminster Parliament than to the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh. It currently holds just six of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons. The opinion polls suggest that the surge of support for the SNP will mean that next month it wins 40, perhaps even 50, of those seats. Ms. Sturgeon will then emerge as the leader of the third biggest party in the U.K.-wide Parliament. She has made clear that her decidedly left-of-centre party would never do a deal with the Conservatives but might offer support to a Labour-led government. There’s bound to be a price for such support. It could include a promise that there will be another independence referendum within the next five years — a referendum that the SNP is confident it can win.
And if the Conservatives come out on top? They have promised to hold their own referendum, not on Scotland’s independence but on whether Britain remains within the European Union. Some commentators believe that the English electorate could well vote to leave — in Scotland, which has done well from EU spending programmes, it’s almost certain a majority will want to stay in. That tension could itself break up the U.K.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.)