Last week, former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major called it ‘shameful’ that Labour had not definitively ruled out a coalition, or even a voting agreement, with the SNP. Major, who had argued against devolution in the 1990’s by claiming it would give a platform to nationalists, claims that Labour should not entertain an agreement with a party ‘whose principal aim is to break up the United Kingdom’.
And Major has cause to worry about the SNP. The Scotland Act has given them a significant electoral base which will now likely translate into significant power at Westminster. Polling suggests that the SNP are likely to win 40+ seats (a conservative prediction; Lord Ashcroft’s poll suggests the possibility of as much as 56 seats) at the general election thus making them potential kingmakers in the (likely) event of a hung parliament. These figures put the SNP ahead of UKIP, the DUP and the Lib Dems, and possibly all three combined. They will be a major party.
The surge in support for the SNP shows that Scotland is now prioritising its own interests and that the Scottish electorate now sees itself a distinct voting group within the UK. Although the referendum was defeated, Scotland wants, and was promised, more power over its own affairs and wants uniquely Scottish interests advocated at Westminster. The SNP are the party that will do that, even if it evokes anger from the rest of the UK.
What Major and many conservatives have failed to understand is that Scotland now identifies as a nation within the UK and not a province or extension of the British state. Additionally, one-nation Britishness is no longer a viable political ideology across the Union. Constituent members of the UK (including England) now want sole control over affairs that solely concern those countries. This is the new reality of the British political landscape, which is increasingly to moving towards a decentralised federal state. The central political structure naturally wants to resist this but it is inevitable. British politics needs to adapt to and embrace this new reality.
The SNP’s ascent also highlights the decline in affective identification with Britain. Undoubtedly, many still identify primarily as British throughout the Union, but this number has been in steady decline for the last 15 years. In 2011 62% of Scots identified as ‘Scottish only’ whereas only 8% identified as ‘British only’ (18% identified as ‘British and Scottish’). With such a strong national identity, it is easy to see why Scotland will vote for its own interests and for parties who are solely concerned with Scottish affairs.
Ironically, the decline in British identity has been partly attributed to governments John Major served in (his own and Margaret Thatcher’s). The sense of alienation that communities felt politically from these governments is well documented but there was also a disconnect in identity. These conservative governments relied on the English electorate (which dwarfs all the other UK countries) to win elections. Although Scotland and Wales consistently voted Labour they were never represented in government. Thus the Conservative party became an English party and, due to their rhetoric of Britishness, the identity itself became Anglicised. Scotland (and Wales, to a lesser extent) turned away from British identity.
Thus, Scotland developed its own identity and called for a national parliament. The devolution Major campaigned against was made inevitable by the actions of his party in the 80’s and 90’s. If ignoring Scotland then led disaffection from the centralised British state, what will ignoring them now achieve? Yes, the referendum was defeated (but with a much smaller margin than expected) and Scotland wishes to remain in the UK, partly because it was promised more power devolved to Edinburgh to ensure Scotland felt represented in the Union. So how will arbitrarily denying their voice in Westminster help this? It will not. It actually risks further alienation and will make true all the nationalist claims of misrepresentation in, and alienation from, the central state.
It could even call into question the relevance of Westminster to Scotland. If Scotland’s vote is dismissed out of hand, why should Scotland stay in the Union at all? Is Major hoping Scotland will eventually start voting for a pan-British party again if it’s voice is ignored for long enough? It will not. Far from choking nationalism, Major’s call on Labour to rule out a possible coalition with a party that broadly has the same social policy as they do, actually benefits it. Nationalism feeds off alienation. Unless the SNP are accepted into British politics, without preconditions, as the legitimate voice of the Scottish electorate, resentment will grow north of the border and the clamour for another referendum will not be far behind.