Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution
The election night Green Room at BBC’s Pacific Quay HQ in Glasgow didn’t look so much like a room as a small cinema with the seats removed. Three large screens, each surrounded by a litter of armchairs, showed the election night programme presented by Glen Campbell and the BBC’s mountainous political editor Brian Taylor. The guests – politicians, academics and journalists – mostly ignored the screens and used their smartphones to keep track of developments. They stood around in partisan bunches munching tapas but mostly avoiding the complimentary wine as they waited to be plucked from the crowd by production assistants dressed in black and taken to the studio to chat.
I had been here most of the night back on the 18th of September 2014 as the results of the Scottish independence referendum were coming in. I remember the misery on the faces of SNP politicians and Yes campaign luminaries like Pat Kane, the musician postmodernist, and Tommy Sheridan, the leader of Hope over Fear. General Election night 2015 was a very different affair. SNP MSPs and political advisers were walking around with huge grins even before the first result was declared. Sheridan was wearing a yellow SNP badge – he’s not a member of the party – and taking beaming selfies with attendees. The Liberal Democrat former Deputy First Minister Lord Wallace had his brave face on. Labour politicians came and went like ghosts.
At first, no one believed the BBC’s election night exit poll which forecast that the SNP would win all but one of Scotland’s 59 seats. SNP contacts were warning me not to take this seriously. Nicola Sturgeon urged her supporters on Twitter:
‘don’t believe the exit poll, we’re not going to do that’. The SNP were worried that a mere landslide of 35 or 40 seats might look like a set-back if it didn’t match the truly outlandish forecasts of Professor John Curtice’s number crunchers. They needn’t have worried.
From the moment the first result was declared at 2.15am for Kilmarnock and Louden showing an SNP victory on a 25.3% swing from Labour, the temperature of the Green Room rose rapidly. The BBC’s variegated guests realised they were about to witness real history. The excitement was palpable. After so long insisting that, nah, the SNP could never, ever, win that many seats, suddenly, they were.
What to say about it? Journalists grasped for appropriate clichés: Labour’s last stand? A hammer blow to the Union? A constitutional Rubicon? Defcon Fucked for Labour? Was ‘tsunami’ disrespectful of the victims of the 2004 Asian tidal wave? ‘At least Douglas is safe,’ said a Labour party researcher. There were early reports that the former Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander had scraped home. He hadn’t and he fell within minutes. Neither had the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Jim Murphy in East Renfrewshire. Then the safest Labour seat in Scotland, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, fell to the SNP. Until his retiral last year, this had been held by the former Labour Prime Minster Gordon Brown with a majority of 23,000.
The former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish worked the room telling everyone how he’d been expecting this; that Labour’s problems go back at least a decade; and that only an autonomous, ‘federal’ Scottish Labour Party could survive this massacre. The former leader of the Scottish National Party, Gordon Wilson, reminded me that under the old SNP constitution, a simple majority of seats in a UK general election would have been regarded as a mandate for independence. This would’ve been a super mandate. ‘The people who abandoned that policy may be wondering now if it was entirely wise to do so,’ he said with a mischievous grin. He has never quite come to terms with the SNP’s gradualist approach to national liberation.
As the night wore on it became clear that the SNP had indeed won the most remarkable landslide in Scottish electoral history: 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. Only nine months previously the Nationalists had lost the independence referendum by a significant margin of 55% to 45%; now the losers were winning it all. Alex Salmond announced that there hadn’t been a general election swing on this scale – 30% – since 1835. But since only about 40,000 people in Scotland had the vote back then it was hardly a relevant comparison.
Certainly, nothing like this has ever happened in modern times. Swings of 34% and 35% are unprecedented in general elections. The swing to the SNP in Willie Bain’s Glasgow North East, a seat the opinion pollsters had suggested Labour might hold, reached 39.3% and broke the BBC’s swingometer. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the night was that the swing appeared to be nationwide and irrespective of party incumbency. The SNP won every seat in Tayside, all six seats in the North East of Scotland, all but one seat in Edinburgh and Fife, and wiped out the LibDems in the Highlands. The SNP had never won a Glasgow seat at a general election before, now every one of them had fallen to the SNP in the ‘tsunami’, as everyone started calling it. The former SNP minister, Mike Russell, tweeted that this wasn’t a ‘tsunami’, it was an ‘extinction level event’.
It certainly looked like the end of days for the Scottish Labour Party. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, was defeated by a twenty-year-old student, Mhairi Black, in Paisley, making her the youngest MP since 1667.
She said she intended to finish her Politics degree even though she was going to Westminster. Jim Murphy, the former UK Labour Cabinet Minister and current Scottish Labour leader, lost East Renfrewshire to another SNP neophyte, Kirsten Oswald. This was the seat he had taken from the Tories back in 1997 and turned into one of Labour’s safest seats. That term suddenly seemed quaintly archaic.
Mr Murphy made a suitably humble speech but insisted that he would remain leader and that the fight-back would begin the next day. Under normal circumstances this would have sounded absurd since he was no longer an MP or an MSP, but at the time it looked as if there was simply no one left to take over. Other Labour casualties were less gracious. The former MP for Linlithgow, Michael Connarty, announced that the voters of Scotland had been ‘duped’ by a ‘personality cult’ supported by the ‘forces of darkness’. The discarded Glasgow South West MP Ian Davidson called for Jim Murphy’s resignation. He had famously said towards the end of the 2014 referendum campaign that the only thing left for Better Together was to ‘bayonet the wounded’. Now he was sticking the knife into his leader’s back.
As dawn broke it was clear that the Labour Party in Scotland had suffered its worst election defeat in at least a century, losing 40 of its 41 seats and raising questions about its continued existence as a serious player in Scottish politics. The only Labour MP left standing was Ian Murray in Edinburgh South, and he was something of an outsider because he departed from Labour policy by opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear defence system. Students of the Left started raising the question of whether the Scottish Labour Party could come back from this defeat, or whether it might suffer what is called ‘Pasokification’ after the fate of the Greek socialist party Pasok or PSOE.2 It dominated politics in the 1980s but has been crushed by
the radical populist Syriza and won only 5% in the last Greek general election.
Thoughts also turned to who might lead the Scottish National Party contingent in Westminster since of course its leader, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was not standing. The former First Minister Alex Salmond was returned as expected as MP for Gordon, the seat long held by the Liberal Democrat veteran Malcolm Bruce. But Salmond struck a curiously jarring note when he announced that ‘the Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country’.3 This is not the kind of sentiment that you would hear from his successor, Nicola Sturgeon. Might Alex Salmond become a parliamentary rival leading this group of parliamentary rookies? Most of the victorious SNP MPs avoided crude triumphalism – probably because most of them could hardly believe that they had won. The SNP may have led the opinion polls from day one in this campaign, but few of the candidates ever believed that they could win all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats.
Labour weren’t the only casualties of the night. The Scottish Liberal Democrats lost all but one of their MPs and were wiped off the mainland of Scotland. This included UK political stars like the Treasury Secretary, Danny Alexander in Inverness and the former LibDem leader, Charles Kennedy in Ross, Skye, and Lochaber (who was to die a month later of an alcohol-related haemorrhage at the age of fifty-five). He had been the youngest MP in Westminster once: in 1983 when he was twenty-three years old. The Liberal Democrats had poured money and resources into trying to save the East Dunbartonshire seat of another former ‘young one’ Jo Swinson, the former UK equalities minister, but to no avail.
Many Liberal Democrat seats were lost by heart-breakingly large margins. Liberals had dominated the north of Scotland and been influential in Borders politics for over a century. Now their one solitary MP, Alistair Carmichael, held Orkney and Shetland with a majority of only 800 odd votes. And even his future was soon in doubt. The former Scottish Secretary faced legal action over lies he allegedly told about the leaking of the so-called ‘Nikileaks’ Scottish Office memo during the General Election campaign, claiming that Nicola Sturgeon was a secret supporter of David Cameron. The cost of their UK leader Nick Clegg’s adventure in government with the Tories had been higher than in the Liberal Democrats’ worst nightmares.
The Conservatives were saved from a 1997 style wipe out when David Mundell scraped home in Dumfries with a majority of 798 over the SNP. Alex Salmond may still jeer that there are more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs, but Mr Mundell was now able to say that the panda/MP ratio also applied to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It began to dawn on everyone that this election result was shaping up to be a constitutional crisis. The unionist parties in Scotland had been virtually obliterated. We’d all been warned by the opinion pollsters that this would happen, but now that it had, no one quite knew what to make of it.
The BBC’s political map of Scotland was now entirely Nationalist Yellow except for a splodge of blue in the far south, a pin-prick of red in Edinburgh, and orange in the islands of the far north. Overall the SNP ended the night with 50% of the votes and 95% of the seats, a result which ignited a new debate about the need for electoral reform. The First Past the Post electoral system certainly worked to magnify the scale of the SNP victory. However, that did not in any way diminish the significance of the result. The SNP stacked up the largest proportion of seats – 95% – the biggest pile of votes – 1,454,436 – and the largest electoral swing – 30% – ever won by any single party in Scottish history, or indeed modern UK history.
The largest contingent of MPs the SNP had ever previously returned to Westminster was 11 in October 1974. They’d lost most of them in 1979 when they withdrew support to the collapsing Labour administration of James Callagan. I got my first job with the BBC in 1979 as a researcher for the abortive devolution referendum of that year, and I had seen first hand the shattering effect of the loss of those seats on the Nationalist movement. Back then it would have seemed inconceivable that the SNP could ever win such a landslide. Indeed, Gordon Wilson was right: if they had won an election on this scale in the late 70s, negotiations on independence would probably have begun the very next day.
THE SCOTTISH MENACE
The SNP did not however win the balance of power in the UK parliament as many had expected. The ‘nightmare on Downing St’, as the Conservative press called it, was averted. David Cameron won an unexpected victory in the UK as a whole even as the SNP had swept the board in Scotland. It was only a majority of 12 seats, but given the almost universal expectation that the Tories would have to share power, this seemed almost a landslide of misplaced expectation. It was certainly a workable majority. But surely the real nightmare on Downing St was this: the most right-wing Conservative government since the 1980s had been elected in Westminster, while Scotland had voted massively for a party of the Nationalist Left. A more constitutionally volatile combination could scarcely be imagined.
The two outcomes were not unrelated, of course, though Labour claims that the SNP had ‘let the Tories back in’ were without foundation. Labour lost in England as well as in Scotland. But the Conservatives had relied on a highly dubious propaganda campaign to achieve their victory. Scottish National Party MPs were presented as an alien force seeking to ‘hold England to ransom’. The Conservatives paid for billboards in English marginal constituencies depicting Alex Salmond in a burglar’s black turtleneck picking the wallet out of the back pocket of an English voter. ‘Don’t Let The SNP Grab Your Cash,’ it said, in what must have been one of the most irresponsible pieces of election propaganda since the Zinoviev letter.
David Cameron had even said that it would be ‘illegitimate’ for the Labour leader Ed Miliband to take power if he relied on the votes of Scottish National Party MPs.4 The former Prime Minister, John Major, was wheeled out to warn of the ‘clear and present danger’ of SNP involvement in the governance of the UK.5 As hysteria mounted in the dying weeks of the campaign, the Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May, topped that by claiming that ‘a Labour Government propped up by the SNP could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the Abdication’.6 Quite why she decided to drag the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 so that he could marry his American lover into the debate was never entirely clear. The statement led to howls of derision from nationalist supporters on social media and a joke hashtag #greatestcrisissincetheabdication was soon trending at number one on the UK Twitter charts. Boris Johnson added his pennyworth claiming that it would be ‘Ajockalypse Now’ if Labour tried to lead a government with the support of SNP MPs. The Tory-supporting Daily Mail called Nicola Sturgeon ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’. The UK tabloid The Sun depicted her (in a tartan bikini) as a ‘wrecking ball’ out to destroy England.
There is a general consensus among opinion pollster and political correspondents that the SNP scare worked. Many believe that the last minute surge to the Conservatives on the final two days of the campaign, which gave Cameron victory, was almost entirely down to the fear of a Labour SNP alliance, even though the prospect of a formal coalition had been ruled out by both Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon.7 Labour’s own assessment, according to a report in The Guardian, is that it cost them at least 2.5% of the vote.8 According to the polling organisation ORB, 25% of voters in a sample of over 2000 said the prospect of the SNP being involved in government in Westminster made them less likely to vote for Ed Miliband.9 But the repeated warnings in the Conservative press about the imminence of ‘a shabby deal’ did the trick. As Martin Shaw put it in Open Democracy:
The Tory warnings had unmistakable echoes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious warning that ‘the Arabs are coming’ which won him a similar surprise victory, but was all the more astonishing since the Scots – unlike Arabs for Israeli Jews – have never been an enemy of the English in modern times.10
It was of course quite reasonable for the Conservatives to raise questions about the wisdom of Labour and SNP policies, and even to warn that a coalition might damage the economy. But to suggest that a Labour government would not be democratically legitimate if it relied on SNP votes in the Commons was beyond normal party political rhetoric. It was contrary to parliamentary democracy as well as objectionable to Scottish voters. Senior Conservative sources even briefed the Times newspaper that David Cameron might ‘sit tight’ in Number Ten after the General Election if he won the election but lacked a majority in parliament.11 Yet there was simply no way, short of coup, that Mr Cameron could have remained in office if the Tory legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech had been rejected by a majority of MPs in the House of Commons.
As the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord O’Donnell, made clear along with other constitutional authorities like Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the largest party does not automatically get to be the government in our system.12 It is the leader who commands a majority in the House of Commons who gets the keys to Number Ten. And the nationality of the votes doesn’t matter.
By demonising Nicola Sturgeon, claiming that Scots were picking English pockets, and suggesting Scotland’s elected representatives did not have the right to vote against a Conservative Queen’s Speech, David Cameron was not only targeting Labour, he was inadvertently driving a stake through the heart of the Union. If Scottish MPs are not accorded equal status then the Union is no more. This was, as even the former Tory Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth said, ‘a short term and dangerous’ game to play for a political party which claimed to want to keep the United Kingdom united.13 Conservatives in Scotland were horrified at the rhetoric being used. A former Scottish Conservative press spokesman Andy Maciver wrote (only a few days before polling day) that Cameron’s approach was ‘poisonous for the Union and poisonous for the Scottish Conservative Party’.14 In an article in Conservative Home he went on: ‘There is foaming mouth anger amongst those [Scottish Conservatives] to whom I have spoken… if the SNP could create the Tory campaign, according to my erstwhile colleagues, they would have created the one we have seen for the last week.’
In other words, David Cameron was doing the SNP’s job for them. The Prime Minister’s rhetorical excess not only delivered victory in the south; it almost certainly contributed to the scale of the SNP’s landslide in Scotland. The Tories aroused further constitutional controversy during the campaign by proposing to exclude Scottish MPs from key Commons votes, including a new ‘English rate of income tax’. Some conspiracy theories believe, indeed, that the Conservatives actively sought a big SNP vote to diminish Labour strength in Westminster. There was talk about how George Osborne had been ‘bigging up’ Nicola Sturgeon in the spin room after the BBC TV leaders’ debate.15 Some Conservative backbenchers have certainly toyed with the idea of allowing Scotland to depart the Union and leave them in command of the rest of the UK.
But this ‘dump Scotland’ theory is hardly credible. David Cameron does not wish to go down in history as the Prime Minister who presided over the break up of Britain. A chaotic disintegration of the United Kingdom could have damaging consequences for the UK’s credit rating and its relations with the European Union at a crucial moment when David Cameron is trying to renegotiate Britain’s membership. Then there is the question of Trident submarines located on the Clyde near Glasgow. No UK Conservative Prime Minister would wish to lose the ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent, or indeed Scotland’s continuing oil wealth, which contributes significantly to the balance of payments. No, this was a case of the Conservatives allowing irresponsible campaigning themes to run away with them. It was cock up rather than conspiracy. But the result could well be the same: the dissolution of the Union that David Cameron claims he ‘loves’.
Ed Miliband did not help Labour’s cause in Scotland, nor indeed the cause of the Union, by appearing to endorse the SNP scare. On the BBC’s Leaders’ Question Time on 29th April he said: ‘If the price of having a Labour government is a coalition or a deal with the SNP then it is not going to happen… I’m not going to give in to SNP demands around Trident, around the deficit or anything like that.’ The Labour leader thus tacitly endorsed the UK press claim that Nicola Sturgeon was a dangerous left-winger who would leave Scotland defenceless and increase spending. The Labour Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, had made clear he intended to eliminate the UK deficit within 5 years and said that this would mean real cuts in non-protected areas of public spending.16
Back in Scotland, confusingly, Jim Murphy was claiming that the SNP were closet Conservatives who were planning deep spending cuts in Scotland. The Scottish Labour leader condemned Nicola Sturgeon’s policy of full fiscal autonomy as ‘full fiscal austerity’ and ‘austerity max’, and said that the SNP planned to cut more than the Tories.17 He based this charge on the report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which said that, if Scotland were to raise all its revenue from taxation in Scotland, there would be a £7.6bn deficit in the first year running to £9.7bn by 2020.18 If the SNP was prepared to contemplate this immense black hole in the Scottish finances, Murphy argued, it would lead to unimaginable cuts in public services in Scotland and/or massive tax increases. This was fiercely contested by the SNP. They rejected the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ calculations and said that, anyway, ‘Full Fiscal Responsibility’ was irrelevant because the big parties would vote against it in Westminster. What was at issue, said Nicola Sturgeon, was the commitment made by Labour to abolish the deficit within one UK parliament.
Labour were of course fully entitled to challenge the SNP’s policy on FFA – which was after all in their manifesto – but the problem was the coherence of the Labour message. It made little sense for them to claim that ‘a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives’ when the Tories and their supportive newspapers were portraying the SNP as a party of the far left. Even Ed Miliband was saying the SNP’s spending plans were
UK newspapers were full of claims that Nicola Sturgeon would wreck the UK by launching an irresponsible £180bn spending boom – a reference to the First Minister’s speech to University College London in February in which she proposed to increase spending on investment by 0.5% of GDP each year.20 She was being cast as the ‘Red Queen’, taking ‘a wrecking ball’ to the UK economy. Yet, the main thrust of the Labour campaign in Scotland was that the SNP were ‘the Tories’ little helpers’ and that ‘every vote for the SNP is a vote for David Cameron’. This created a dissonance which the SNP exploited by insisting that Labour didn’t know what it stood for.
Why did Labour go down this road? Well, Scottish Labour politicians have long believed that the SNP’s progressive postures are phoney. They have convinced themselves that the SNP are not really social democrats at all but political con-artists. As Stephen Daisley, the STV digital political editor, put it: ‘[The SNP] have secured the support of much of the Scottish Left without once venturing beyond the low-tax, pro-business, neoliberal centre ground.’ Labour hated the idea that the SNP were flying a false flag, and were determined prove that they were truly Tartan Tories.
Actually, the worst thing about the Full Fiscal Autonomy ‘bombshell’ as Labour depicted it – following the Tories’ tax bombshell of the 1990s – was that the campaign was almost entirely negative. Project Fear may have been enough to win the referendum, but a General Election is a different matter. The negativity occluded Labour’s positive pledges: the funding for eighteen year olds, increased minimum wage, anti-poverty fund etc. All it did was remind Scottish voters of Jim Murphy’s collaboration with Conservatives in Better Together. It was a disastrous campaign. If the Tories did the SNP’s job for them, then Labour provided much of the spadework.
1. Andrew Marr’s diary: Why this is such a tooth-grinding- ly awful election, Andrew Marr, The Spectator, 11/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1I9uabx
2. Should Labour fear ‘Pasokification’? Tim Bale, Policy Net- work, 10/03/2015, http://bit.ly/1dbis2V
3. UK Election Lets ‘Scottish Lion’ Roar, Jason Douglas, Wall Street Journal, 08/05/2015, http://on.wsj.com/1N0CHww
4. David Cameron: Miliband would not be legitimate as PM if Labour came second, Rowena Mason and Frances Perrau- din, The Guardian, 05/05/2105, http://bit.ly/1ALaGYO
5. John Major warns of ‘clear and present SNP danger’ – in an incoherent whisper, John Crace, The Guardian, 21/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1KJX1Vq
6. The Daily Mail, 25/4/15
7. Labour Lost because of Scotland. It’s that simple.[Almost], Ed Stradling, Blog, 12/05/2015 http://bit.ly/1THP461; Labour haven’t just failed to win – it’s worse than that, Paul Mason, Channel 4 Blog, 08/05/2015, http://bit.ly/1AJvNW6
8. The undoing of Ed Miliband – and how Labour lost the election, Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 11/06/2015, http:// bit.ly/1KangD7
9. General Election 2015: Prospect of Labour-SNP coalition makes one in four voters less likely to support Ed Miliband, says survey, Andrew Grice and James Cusick, The Independent, 29/04/2015, http://ind.pn/1JNeJ6h
10. How the SNP-Tory dynamics shifted the 2015 election, Martin Shaw, Open Democracy, 05/06/2015, http://bit. ly/1BGN2gS
11. Tories edge ahead and plan to sit tight in No 10, Tim Shipman, Marie Woolf and James Lyons, The Sunday Times, 03/05/2015, http://thetim.es/1KIUI1Z
12. Lord O’Donnell: leader of largest party does not automat- ically become PM, Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 06/05/2015, http://bit.ly/1GVGF9T
13. Why the Scottish nationalists cannot call the shots, Phillip Stephens, The Financial Times, 21/04.2015, http://on.ft. com/1QM3H9w
14. Cameron’s campaign is “poisonous” for Scots Tories, says party’s former press chief, Magnus Gardham, The Herald, 29/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1FSbDxG
15. As the Tories struggle to defeat Miliband, they are hop- ing others will do the job for them, George Eaton, The New Statesmen, 08/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1HRVM1H
16. Ed Balls: Labour will eliminate budget deficit by 2020, Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 13/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1AL- bWeq
17. Jim Murphy hits out at SNP’s ‘austerity max’, (un-attrib- uted), The Scotsman, 13/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1JhtD8k
18. Full fiscal autonomy delayed? The SNP’s plans for further devolution to Scotland, David Phillips, Institute For Fiscal Studies, 21/04/2015, http://bit.ly/1K1Ccla
19. Ed Balls to reject SNP’s £180bn spending demand, David Maddox, The Scotsman, 26/02/2015, http://bit.ly/1eN6CNX
This an extract from “Tsunami – Scotland’s democratic revolution” a Cargo/Faber ebook. People can read it on Kindle, Kobo, Apple, tablet, phone etc.. Go here to download http://www.cargopublishing.com/books/tsunami-scotlands-democratic-revolution-e-book-only/