The Frightful Sphere
By Peter Arnott
Pascal was the first serious religious thinker to attempt to cope with the new “scientific” View of the Universe that Galileo and Newton had just come up with. Suddenly the place where he had always lived turned out to be a very different kind of neighbourhood to the one he had thought had been created with humanity in mind and God’s Purpose at its heart. Instead he found himself adrift in “a Frightful Sphere of which the Centre is Everywhere and of which the Circumference is Nowhere.“
So where do we find ourselves this weekend?
It’s not where I or any of the polling organisations thought we’d be. In fact the only people I know who called this pretty much exactly in advance were my fellow playwright David Greig and the Times columnist Matthew Parris.
I think the rest of us were expecting a weekend of permutations and possibilities, plots and surprises. From the immediately dramatic point of view, the voters of the UK have delivered us something of a let down. Instead, it feels like the electoral map has caught up with reality, and that the nature of the first past the post electoral system (which rewards half the votes cast with sudden total dominion) has now told us what it feels like we’ve known all along.
As Dorothy once put it after the Tornado had dumped her house on a wicked witch. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
People have already visualised the new Britain as Maggie Simpson – Yellow on top and Blue down below. Her being wholly inarticulate and mysterious may also signify something. Her choice of silence as a strategic response to the mayhem of the world around her also has a good deal to recommend it. However, if pressed for a headline as to “what all this means” historically, I’d maybe hazard this. :
There Is No Unionist Route to Power in Britain Anymore.
Ed Miliband’s Labour Party could not only not reach Scotland anymore – it couldn’t reach outside London and the exhausted and abandoned heartlands of South Wales and the North of England either. Tony “I told you so” Blair has already described Thursday’s election as a traditional Tory win over a traditional Labour Party. As usual with that gentleman, there is both some crass accuracy and myopic instrumentalism about what he’s saying. He has been proved correct in a narrow sense however in that New Labour believed that it was no longer possible for Old Labour to win in the post industrial UK, that they had to redefine themselves as the Friends of the City and hope that nobody outside the South East would notice.
Well, obviously Scotland noticed. That’s why the electorate here have made the ruthless and simple decision that Labour cannot offer any defense against the Tories anymore, and that they may as well give the SNP a shot. (At least that’s how it feels from my Glasgow-centric point of view. The centre is now EVERYwhere, remember?) What is new is that Radical London found its man in Ed Miliband. What is not new is that provincial working class England and Wales is almost wholly politically abandoned.
Ed Miliband’s New Version of Old Labour represented that wonderful, radical, diverse, maddening city, and how BADLY an intelligent, humane, ruthless North London Jewish Radical Intellectual turned out to go down in the rest of England. The big surprise this week was not that the SNP swept the Liberal and Labour board in Scotland. It was much more about how the Tories took all but the Labour heartlands in England, and how in those heartlands which wouldn’t vote Tory in the modern era if you threatened to set fire to them, any more than Glasgow or Dundee would, UKIP came a fairly impressive second.
Friends of mine in London are in shock at the moment, and had the result been a bit closer, they’d be very cross indeed with the SNP right now…but the clarity of the result on both sides of the border takes us into very new territory indeed. And that territory is Balkan.
London is one centre. It has one version of the Labour Party to represent it. It is now wholly distinct from the ex-industrial North which needs another version of the Labour party to fight for it. Wales puzzles the hell out of me, but for the moment let’s say it needs yet another Labour party to represent it (in Westminster anyway). Scotland, which I think is the ONLY one-of-many-centres with a head start on the new rules of the universe…has now got the SNP as a replacement for the Labour Party – which I don’t think is sustainable in the long term, except as a representative OF Scotland AT Westminster – and a left that needs to reinvent itself from the ground up, in which, I think and hope, the STUC and civic society have now got a crucial and exciting role to play.
The Tories have got England. Almost all of it. The Union has got NOBODY. Except for the Ulster Unionists and the DUP in Northern Ireland. It turns out that the moral and intellectual vacuity of the Better Together Campaign last year was the harbinger of an empty equivalent vacuum at the heart of the Imperial Project. The Crown is Hollow.
I repeat: There is no Unionist route to power in Britain anymore. The Tories can win in England and England is big enough to outnumber the rest. Labour can’t ever win as a British Party again. The only future for the once upon a time British left is federal.
There will be time later for more detailed prognosis. For now, in my view, what happened on Thursday was that the Westminster Electoral Machine caught up with the political change implied by Scottish devolution in 1999. It took 18 years for the cultural event of the 1979 referendum to find a democratic mandate. It has taken 18 years for the events of 1997, both Blairism and the second Devo referendum, to come home to roost politically. The future begins now.
The SNP now have the challenge not only of herding 56 mostly new, mostly untested and mostly unpredictable MPs without any terribly clear role most of the time in the Imperial Parliament, they also need to define the Independence they stand for now not against a moribund and clearly knackered Status Quo but against a reinvigorated majority English Nationalist Tory Government and a British Media Pack wholly in thrall to its interests. They will also now, I hope, find themselves with a post-British opposition in Scotland. The radical left and the Greens are already geared up for Holyrood in 2016. I hope that the many capable people on the centre left here too, who belong for now to the Jim Murphy photo op and sporting club, will find a new channel for their abilities and energies and good will. The EU referendum and the Holyrood Elections will be upon us sooner than it is quite comfortable to contemplate and the challenge is both for the SNP and the wider civic society that they do and don’t represent to get ready for both of these events and the excitements and opportunities as well as perils they afford.
As for the individual stars of our little sideshow up here, I can understand with the busy couple of years ahead why Jim Murphy and the ScotLab hierarchy want to stress continuity. But their members must surely to God want something better than the nihilistic oblivion that the Better Together nabobs have on offer. All Ed Miliband lost was an election, for God’s sake. Jim Murphy lost a country and seemed to entirely clueless as to which century he was occupying. Labour either re-invent themselves as a Scottish Party or the STUC get on the blower to the water walking Nicola Sturgeon. Labour’s future path here path is clarified by the paradox that the other cultural winner in Scotland of that electoral campaign just finished, other than Ms Sturgeon, was Ruth Davidson. The Tories have now adjusted to the end of Britain and have reinvented themselves as a Scottish Party. Labour have had since devolution to do the same. Their belief that they could cling to the pre-devolution version of reality has now surely come definitively and finally unstuck. They now have the same number of MPs here as do the Tories and the Liberals after all…(even typing that sentence feels weird!) …and even among the Three Wise Monkeys of Scottish Labour the penny has surely finally dropped.
The other paradox is that the Federalism that the Liberals (all eight of them) used to go on about (and still do occasionally in the persons of David Torrance and (once in while) Willie Rennie…is an idea whose time has surely co0pme if there is anyone left standing to articulate it.
Still, I can’t help feeling, like Pascal, a bit deflated. It’s not so much that the universe has changed as that its nature has been clarified. There are still matters of power and morality to fight over, just like there were last week. It’s just that, like the polling organisations who got it all so wholly wrong, we’re going to need a new map of the place.