Douglas Alexander was the first big name to be summoned forth, in Paisley & Renfrewshire South. He looked worried. In fact he looked more than worried. Like an individual on his way to the gallows, he puffed out his cheeks as he headed for the platform. He was beaten by over five thousand votes. Not only that but his opponent was a twenty year old politics student who had just finished her final exams. Mhairi Black is now the UK’s youngest MP. Normally I have reservations about people going straight into Westminster from university. But this is a young woman from a working class background who had grafted in a chip shop to help pay her way through her studies. I hope she will inject some youth idealism and enthusiasm into the House of Commons and also leave the Westminster elite horrified at how such an individual has ended up in their company.
A few miles away, Jim Murphy was getting ready for his moment of truth. Still strategically sipping from a can of Irn Bru (patriotic product placement?), he must have had a fair idea of the outcome given the way things were going. On the surface, he remained jolly and full of bravado to the last. Inside, he must have been shitting himself. Murphy reminds me of Zelig, the Woody Allen film about the human chameleon who can be whatever he thinks people want him to be at any given time. Unfortunately for him the people of East Renfrewshire saw through the veneer and voted in favour of Kirsten Oswald. Again, not even that close. Beaten by almost four thousand votes, on a swing of over thirteen thousand from Labour to SNP. By this time it was becoming clear that Labour had been annihilated in Glasgow as well. It turned out that the last Labour MP left in Scotland is in Edinburgh. Who would have thought it?
It wasn’t only Labour who were suffering. Later in the morning, Charles Kennedy shuffled about on the stage in Dingwall. The body language said it all, as he awaited his fate. Even his trousers didn’t look like the right fit. It was almost as if they were flying at half-mast in mourning for the Lib Dems. In his farewell speech, he made a comment about this being the night of the sgian-dhus. Presumably it was some sort of reference to the Night of the Long Knives; the purge that took place in Nazi Germany in 1934. What was he on about? Back in 1983 one of the most fresh faced MP’s in the Commons, he had become just another political dinosaur.
Danny Alexander is not exactly Lib Dem old guard. He’s an opportunist who couldn’t wait to take a government post and then starts grassing off his Tory coalition mates the moment it comes to an end. Why did he not at least have the dignity to resign if he was finding it so difficult to work with the Conservatives? He reminded me of a rat that had narrowly escaped drowning in the River Ness as he took a drubbing in the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey seat. The Highlanders rejected this member of the UK cabinet by close to ELEVEN thousand votes. This was one of the last Scottish seats to declare. By then, we were no longer surprised by this sort of margin, not even with such a high profile figure as Danny Alexander.
There was a time, not so long ago, when such an astonishing result for the SNP – 56 seats out of 59 - would’ve been considered a mandate for independence. But that was not in the SNP manifesto for this election and not what Scottish voters were being asked to vote for. To claim so now would be moving the goalposts at the last minute. (Just like the leaders of ‘The Vow’ during the Referendum.) But the SNP leadership has played its cards sensibly on this: it would not be fair on some who voted SNP and people do this for a myriad of reasons. I know from my own constituency that a vote for them does not necessarily equate with a desire for independence. Moray is one of the most solid SNP seats in the country. It has been in SNP hands at Westminster since 1987. But the area voted about 42-58 against, last September. Presumably there are a fair number who are unsure or opposed to independence, but vote SNP because they think it will provide a strong voice for Scotland in London.
It’s safe to say the vast majority of the 45% who voted Yes got solidly behind the SNP last Thursday. But that doesn’t mean they will vote for the party every time. That’s my own thinking. If I feel the SNP is not doing well enough, I would have no difficulty in voting for someone else at next year’s Scottish elections. There are one or two other pro-independence parties I can identify with and, because of the Scottish electoral system, it won’t be a wasted vote.
There’s a lot of talk about Scotland becoming a ‘one party state’. Firstly, it’s not a state of course. And although the SNP has a majority in the Edinburgh parliament (just like the Tories at Westminster), other parties are pretty well represented there and could increase representation in Holyrood if people feel let down by the SNP meantime. In Westminster, the SNP will be a (significant) minority. So I think the ‘one party state’ comments are over the top.
I get the impression that many in England feel they don’t have an alternative or at least not one that is going to make a difference. I think that is less the case in Scotland, where grass roots movements and political engagement have carried forward from the referendum. The southern press were always banging on about how the SNP would secretly prefer a Tory win (so that they can force another referendum). There may be some who think that way but I haven’t come across many, either in person or on social media.
I felt more deflated than anything else by Friday morning. It was a UK general election after all. Not a second referendum. If the SNP been getting together to discuss how they were going to work with other parties, as was expected, I would have been pretty chuffed. But after a few short hours of sleep I awoke to find David Cameron was putting together another government. And even worse, one made up entirely of Tories. Whichever part of the UK you live in, we are all facing another five years of Cameron and his cronies calling the shots. The Scottish Government, the SNP in Westminster and the rest of the opposition is limited in what it can do.
This wasn’t in the script. Labour ended up with almost 100 seats less than the Tories across the UK. So Labour lost the election in England as well as Scotland. And even if Labour had won every seat in Scotland (which was never going to happen), the Tories would still have had their overall majority. Only Wales returned a higher number of Labour than Tory MP’s. But even there, Cameron’s party somehow did better than expected. The fact is that England & Wales doesn’t need much Scottish help to win elections for Labour. History shows that only once since the Second World War have Scottish MP’s turned what would have been a Conservative Government into a Labour one. And that was in 1964. In order to win general elections, Labour must win in England and they were woefully short.
The party as a whole doesn’t seem to have a clue which way to go. Left? Right? Left in the north and right in the south? Scottish Labour have been careering towards this latest car crash for some time. Anyone who has followed our politics over the last few years knows that the SNP’s thrashing of Labour didn’t happen overnight. The SNP has been in government here since 2007, achieving a landslide win four years later. The main difference last week was that it happened for the first time in a UK general election. I heard some Scottish Labour figures on TV accuse the SNP of stealing their policies. Just as the SNP is reminded that they are not ‘Scotland’, and rightly so in my opinion, policies are not the sole property of any party. A few Labour people on TV the other night who had a bit more sense and managed to avoid sounding so bitter. To be fair to Douglas Alexander, he was quite gracious in defeat and said that the Scottish people had rejected the Conservatives but just hadn’t chosen Labour as their vehicle. Another Scottish Labour person, I’m afraid I didn’t catch her name, said that the SNP’s victory was not down to nationalism. Let’s hope others wake up to this, for their sake.
They often resort to banging the drum about nationalism in media reports when they can’t explain what is going on. Nationalism is a term that can be interpreted very widely and has many negative connotations and consequences. I’m obviously not going to start writing a book on it here. National identity is a factor and there is some playing on emotions. Alex Salmond’s "Scottish lion roaring across the country" did nothing for me personally. But national pride or patriotism has always been around in Scotland. (Even Jim Murphy has been showing it off recently.) It doesn’t explain why half the population is now voting SNP.
I don’t have the most up to date figure to hand, but there are now well over 100,000 members of the SNP. This makes it the UK’s third largest party, both in terms of membership and Westminster MP’s. Despite justified criticism of the workings of the UK electoral system in the last week, SNP membership well outweighs the combined total of the Lib Dems and UKIP. And remember Scotland is only a small part of the UK. Over three quarters of these SNP card-carriers have joined since the Referendum last September. I can number some of my friends among them. I know people from continental Europe, with no Scottish blood, and I know a few who would identify themselves as English. There is never a one-size-fits-all explanation, but I believe reasons for their decision include wanting to contribute to make a country you feel is your home a better place and being sick to death of austerity, injustice and the need for food banks.
Yet, you can still hear claims that the party is driven by anti-English sentiment or is similar to UKIP. Take a look at the recent TV debates for example, and you should be able to see which sources the anti-immigrant sentiment and zenophobia is coming from. Not to mention the mainstream media. I guess that’s a whole other story, but of the major parties at Westminster the SNP is the one that spends the least time talking about immigration as a problem.
In general , you could say I’m content with the direction the SNP has taken under Nicola Sturgeon. Though it is still early days. I think she has a more pragmatic air than Alex Salmond and is less inclined to make sensational comments. But a party is also driven by the wishes of its members. In this case an influx of newbies that make up over 75% of the party. No doubt most of them will be people who voted Yes last year and are on the left of the political spectrum. However, it must be a very broad base and I don’t think that applies to all of them by any means.
Finally, I suspect the next referendum will be one on Europe. In his victory speech, I heard Cameron talk about going ahead with the proposals of the Smith Commission. Does he seriously think those piecemeal reforms will be enough to appease the Scottish electorate? It was like the day after the Referendum again as I listened to him triumphantly announcing at Tory HQ that the Conservative vote had "held up in Scotland". That may not be an outright lie as such, but there are still more pandas in Scotland than Tory MP’s. Labour and Lib Dem supporters may no longer see the funny side of the joke.
Steven Porter is the author of Countries of the World, which examines Scottish identity through football.