Inside Story

A kingdom for a vote

Britain’s election is a blind date with destiny, says David Hayes

David Hayes 22 April 2015 3284 words

The shape of things to come: Labour leader Ed Miliband looks on as Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood (left), Green Party leader Natalie Bennett (obscured) and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon embrace after the BBC Challengers’ Election Debate on 16 April. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Pool

What colour is democracy? Adam Michnik, a veteran of Poland’s 1968 student protests and now editor-in-chief of its leading newspaper, once provided a signature answer. “Democracy is grey; a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them; a marketplace of passions, hatreds and hopes; eternal imperfection.”

Britain’s election campaign, just past halfway to its climax on 7 May, is a case in point. It’s a strange event. The contest is disjointed; leaders are nervous and voters wary; the result is indeterminable to an almost maddening degree. (Conservative and Labour, the leading parties, are deadlocked at around 33–35 per cent.) The day-after permutations are dizzying. All is prosaic: the retail offers, the confected events, the trite mantras (the Tories’ include “competence not chaos” and “the good life,” Labour’s “a better plan for a better future” and “a country that works for working people”).

Michnik’s ambiguous thought – very much the fruit of post-communist experience – captures both the unromantic heart of a brutal contest for position and power, and its self-limiting salvation. It also hints at the frustration of an electorate craving a rainbow sign, perhaps susceptible to appeals bedecked in stronger colours. “Democracy is not infallible, because in its debates all are equal,” he wrote. “This is why it lends itself to manipulation, and may be helpless against corruption. This is why, frequently, it chooses banality over excellence, shrewdness over nobility, empty promise over true competence.”

For all the efforts of media and parties to rouse them, the voters are still to engage. An early vox pop in two northern English constituencies I visited, Berwick-upon-Tweed (a semi-rural Liberal Democrat seat on the Scottish border where the incumbent is retiring and the Conservatives hopeful) and Rotherham (a safe Labour area targeted by the nativist United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP) found interest sporadic and local concerns to the fore. Intriguingly, several people brought up the Scottish dimension, usually with humour. A senior lady in Berwick, noting the higher public spending in Scotland, told me, “Maybe we should join them when they break off!” while the parting shot of a Rotherham gent was, “We don’t want to be ruled by the Scots!” then “Don’t take it personally!”

Whatever the signal-to-noise ratio, such remarks do touch on a pivotal theme of the campaign, which turned from desultory to animated in its (just concluded) third week: namely, the influence of the election result in Scotland on Britain’s future governance. For if most current estimates of the national outcome begin with rigorous datasets and end in pure guesswork, only in Scotland are they informed by an almost awed sense that a far-reaching shift in historic patterns of political allegiance is under way.

The meteoric growth of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, or SNP, is at the heart of this process. On the morrow of Scotland’s referendum in September 2014, as the 45–55 per cent vote against independence sank in, the party had 25,000 members; over the next seven months it grew to 109,000. (By comparison, the Labour and Conservative parties across the United Kingdom, whose population is twelve times larger than Scotland’s 5.3 million, boast 190,000 and 150,000.) That defeat in the referendum should trigger such an instant reinvigoration among “yes” voters – without even the decent interval of “a long, dark night of the soul” – is remarkable enough; equally so, that it should be accompanied by a series of opinion polls indicating that an SNP tide could reduce Scotland’s forty-one Labour MPs to single figures, and increase its own haul of six to make it the country’s dominant party at Westminster. At the last national election, in 2010, not one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats changed hands.

The SNP has held the reins in Scotland’s parliament in Edinburgh since 2007; it won a landslide in 2011, and longs for a repeat in 2016. The referendum was only a temporary setback in its long march. But this very strategic party also sees a strong showing in the British election – which is almost certain to produce another hung parliament – as vital to expanding its power base at home while maximising its political influence in London. That could mean either propping up a Labour government led by Ed Miliband or baiting another mainly Conservative one led by David Cameron, in each case burnishing its domestic credentials as Scotland’s exclusive champion.

An auxiliary role in “delivering new, better and more progressive politics at Westminster for everyone” is the declared aim of the SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who inherited both those offices from Alex Salmond when he stepped down after the referendum loss. To the forensic debating skills and steely conviction she shares with her mentor, she adds a more personable and egalitarian aura of the kind Scots find congenial. Yet for all her familiarity – the forty-four-year-old Nicola has been a member of the Scottish parliament since 1999, and was deputy SNP leader from 2004 – her elevation became a quasi-rockstar moment featuring a sell-out stadium tour. The modern SNP, transformed from a party into a movement by the referendum, is riding a cultural as well as a political wave.

Though there is nothing cultic about the level-headed Sturgeon, this newly rising Scotland has accreted habits of mind unnervingly free of doubt or nuance, and on the margins zealous to the point of self-intoxication. (There are echoes here of two past convulsions, the National Covenant of 1638 and the Disruption of 1843, significantly both religious in cast.) This rising Scotland is heedless of the collapse in oil prices, the mainstay of Scotland’s economy, or evidence of the grave deficit the putatively independent country would inherit. It scorns the older, Calvinist country immortalised in Alastair Reid’s poem “Scotland”: there, a woman in St Andrews responds to his greeting on a glorious day with a dire, “We’ll pay for it! We’ll pay for it!” (though many Scots have a way to go to expunge that thought crime).

For these very reasons, rising Scotland is concentrating the minds of its domestic opponents, some of whom plan “tactical votes” to thwart the SNP surge (including in Gordon, near Aberdeen in the northeast, where the irrepressible Salmond is seeking a way back to Westminster). Such attempts are very hard to pull off in a competitive first-past-the-post system. But they, and a desperate rearguard Labour campaign led by its new leader Jim Murphy, might yet impede the SNP’s breakthrough. This is politics raw and riveting. After an epic referendum, Scotland – once the industrial powerhouse of much of the British economy – is now delivering fire to the UK-wide battle.

“Down south,” as the Scots say, the election has offered English voters a chance to warm their hands at that fire. The appliance was a painfully negotiated, oddly configured but in the end effective series of TV debates – two of them multi-party, in which Nicola Sturgeon seized a prominent role with gusto. Many English viewers swooned at the sight of her thumping David Cameron and Ed Miliband – not least those on the left hungry for the kind of lucid, adamantine anti-Tory rhetoric that brightens the soul, and which the doleful Miliband had long seemed unable to deliver. In turn, that reinforced Scots’ proprietorial pride in their high-flying but down-to-earth daughter.

These two debates widened horizons in other ways. The presence of three women party leaders representing non-metropolitan areas and causes was a reminder of the United Kingdom’s political diversity and asymmetry. Many found that pleasurably jolting. (The others were the Sydney-born Natalie Bennett of the Greens and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru/Party of Wales, whose “republican socialist” credentials were forged in her place of birth, twenty miles north of Julia Gillard’s a decade earlier.)

The spectacle, and especially a post-match huddle observed by a bemused Miliband, was extravagantly cheered; the “Three Graces” image (above), writes the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, heralds “a new shape of things to come… Britain, a diverse and complex constellation of countries, is headed, in its nuanced way, leftward.” The Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says the debate “felt like a new dawn,” and confesses to “a homoerotic crush” on Sturgeon. Amid many such sugar-rush reactions, the Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh draws a contrary lesson, that the triumvirate’s detail-light leftish consensus “confirmed some damaging and unhelpful female stereotypes.”

The TV encounters also highlighted the unprecedented reach of polling data, including more thorough use of an on-screen “worm” – long a feature of Australian election debates – offering British viewers simultaneous transmission of audience responses and instant measures of performance in the aftermath. In the fever of an election, such populist devices are manna for insurgents, unknown and unpopular alike, and a danger to commanders, mindful of what appearing on equal terms with their opponents under pitiless studio lights might do to their authority. The raucous theatricals of prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons, with next week’s revival ever to follow, are cosy by comparison. No wonder that David Cameron, for whom the word “polished” might have been invented, had pulled every lever to avoid taking part.

Ed Miliband, too, followed the playbook: turning up the volume on the issue (“anytime, any place, anywhere!”), even pledging – with an unfailing dirigiste instinct – to legislate for such debates in future were he to win the election. In the event, after an extended tangle with the broadcasters, Cameron got away with just one show-up alongside the six other leaders, and in a notably passive display was content to see the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg, his coalition partner, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage taking much of the heat.

If the debates proved to be a muddled compromise that somehow worked – Britain in miniature, it could be said – it’s not clear what impact they will have. The histrionic “Cleggmania” that swept much of the liberal left in 2010 is little guide: the Lib Dems gained a few votes, lost some seats, entered government, and soon saw their (and especially Clegg’s) reputation trashed. But for opposition figures, frontline visibility on a level playing field is a precious opportunity, and this time Ed Miliband – every line, quip and even glance rehearsed to death – is using it to the full. After all, he can say with conviction, the size of the two main parties means that only he and David Cameron are plausible candidates for 10 Downing Street. The choice, Labour vs Tory, is much as it ever was. The core of Britain’s mercurial politics remains the eternal embrace of its historic giants.

For Labour and Tories alike, it’s a serviceable short-term answer to irritating rivals on left and right: the SNP and the anti-immigration, anti-European UKIP. Making it sound plausible is an increasing struggle, however. In the eight elections from 1945 to 1970, both parties won at least 40 per cent of the vote; in 1955 their combined vote share was 96 per cent, by 2010 it was down to 65 per cent. The outright winner in the six elections from 1979 to 2001 received over 40 per cent, but in the last two the leading party’s tally was 35 per cent (Labour in 2005) and 36 per cent (Conservatives in 2010). Without major renovation, this may now be close to their optimum vote. A continuation of such trends would make hung parliaments routine – and thus coalitions, or looser “confidence and supply” arrangements that allow minority governments to survive.

Moreover, as the parties’ ability to deliver shrinks, so their targets narrow. Both have come to dominate solid regional clusters of seats where the proverbial donkey with a red or blue rosette could bray to victory. For Labour, that means inner London, urban northern England, south Wales, and central Scotland; for the Conservatives, outer London and southern and non-metropolitan England. Each party, even with the worst performance imaginable, is guaranteed around 250 “safe” seats in the 650-seat parliament. That leaves them to pour resources into the “marginals,” around eighty of those being where the election, in effect, will be won and lost. Some Tory incumbents sent on the road by Lynton Crosby’s “40/40 strategy” – aiming to hold forty marginals and win forty target seats – worry about leaving their home patch exposed.

This is the shaky ground on which Cameron and Miliband are fighting: maintain the pretence that outright hegemony is possible, maximise the party vote and – behind the scenes – compute the possibilities of a post-election deal to catapult into office. The latter would require the party to hook up with a rival (possibly more than one) with which it had been at odds days before. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, bitter adversaries at the local level (and sometimes, now, in government), crossed that bridge in 2010 and are again likely partners, though a cull of the Lib Dems’ fifty-six seats and ructions over leadership and direction in this historically centre-left party may complicate the issue.

Across the board, the political arithmetic this time will be more demanding. A hung parliament empowers minnows, giving hope of influence to UKIP (currently with two MPs, both Tory defectors), Plaid Cymru (three), and the Greens (one). None, however, for all the ballyhoo about a transformed politics, is certain to advance: far from it. The real contenders are those with a substantial hand: the Lib Dems, the SNP, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

The Tories need to hold or build on their haul of 302 seats. But they could still require support, at a stiff price, from those flinty unionists across the Irish Sea. Even that might not be enough. Labour’s possibilities, from a baseline of 256 seats, overlap. The party is quite willing to woo the Lib Dems (whose promiscuous vainglory is embodied in the bathetic Clegg’s pledge to “add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”), but brute calculus decrees that its fallback partner – despite their fierce rivalry north of the border – will be the SNP.

That prospect, as the campaign nears its final fortnight, is supercharging party managers and the press. The Tories, seeking to drum a beat of bulldog patriotism into voters’ ears, eagerly talk up a notional Labour–SNP deal as the death knell of Britain and its national security (the SNP’s opposition to the Trident weapons system figures strongly here). They depict Nicola Sturgeon as a sinister puppeteer, a theme echoed in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph (both well into “most dangerous woman in Britain” mode). Labour responds by affirming its support for the “nuclear deterrent” and denying it would consider a Westminster tie-up with its nemesis in Scotland.

Tory heavyweights, including former prime minister John Major and London mayor Boris Johnson, are being deployed to raise the alarm about the SNP’s capacity for “political blackmail.” That has political traction among some English voters, but also opens the party to the potent charge – including from within – of fanning Britain’s internal divisions still further.

The SNP basks. Its latest poster shows a smiling Nicola beside a slogan that rehashes her opponents’ pre-referendum promise: “My vow is to make Scotland stronger at Westminster.” But launching its manifesto on 20 April, she also insisted that the SNP would use its post-election influence in the interests of people across the United Kingdom and offered “a hand of friendship.” As evidence, the document pledges to back more infrastructure spending in “the north of England.” That lady in Berwick – the border town was part of Scotland until 1482 – was clearly on to something.

Scotland’s latest disruption – the 1843 one was a schism in the national church over its independence from the state – is thus forcing its way to the election’s centre-stage, with unpredictable consequences. The situation is not without risks for the SNP and its broader support base. Westminster politicking, and any assumption of responsibility there, will create space for its enemies and the potential for blowback. Pitching its message to Labour alone narrows its room for manoeuvre. (The thriller writer Robert Harris, writing in the Sunday Times, audaciously argues the logic of a Conservative–SNP agreement, “fantastical” though it seems). Alex Salmond’s love of the limelight may backfire were he to become an MP (though so close are the political bonds at the top of the party that it could conceivably turn this to advantage).

The wise journalist Neal Ascherson invokes the experience of Ireland’s “home rule” Parliamentary Party before 1914 to offer a gentle reminder of two mistakes and one question lying in wait for the SNP. Don’t get too entangled with your allies, and don’t lose touch with your roots; and “how do you play the part of arbiter at Westminster without gradually becoming part of that Westminster system?”

“If you stray wider than Irish or Scottish interests, folks back home will begin to wonder why they sent you to London,” Ascherson writes in the Guardian. Moreover, “time is not on the side of a ‘king-making’ minority. A nationalist party in a metropolitan parliament has to deliver, and in the end the delivery has to be self-government.”

As ever, the voters will be the arbiters of these tensions. Most are still not giving much away. The big parties’ campaigns – the Conservatives’ feeble and confused, Labour’s energised and focused – subvert the recent terms of political trade, and thus give them more to chew on. With Cameron spraying confetti promises to go with the Tories’ “long-term economic plan” and Miliband promising budget discipline to go with Labour’s chocolate coins, there is much talk of “political cross-dressing.” A warning chorus of experts from, among others, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, provides quietly terrifying audits of the parties’ plans, insofar as these can be gleaned. The Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner has it right: the election “is being fought on the basis of economic delusion.”

And not just economic. Climate change barely registers, and the same is true of foreign and security policy. In the latter case, the pact of silence reflects not consensus but more a shared paralysis about the world and Britain’s place in it. A “sleepwalkers’ election,” says the historian Peter Hennessy; “frighteningly parochial,” says the Sunday Times’s Camilla Cavendish. Here too, the invoices will flood in over the next parliament.

At home and abroad, then – if “home” still works for an increasingly disarticulated, multinational polity – big tests are coming to shake whatever constellation of forces staggers over the line. This election, even more than most, is a blind date with destiny. What will the people wear, and in which colour? Interesting times. •