Inside Story

Britain’s vote in the dark

An odd election campaign ends with nationalists becoming unionists and radicals conservatives, writes David Hayes

David Hayes 6 May 2015 2510 words

Fomenting hostility? Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, with his wife Samantha Cameron, waving to supporters at Hayesfield Girls School in Bath on Monday. Dan Kitwood/Pool/AFP Photo

“There is a storm coming that shall try your foundation.” In the last days of Britain’s evasive election campaign, the reproving words of the fugitive preacher James Renwick as he prepared to face an Edinburgh scaffold in 1688 sound an eerily contemporary note. It’s the kind of apocalyptic sentiment that feels tinny from overuse when it comes from political or religious extremes. But this is one of those rare times in the United Kingdom when the level of events calls it into service.

Scotland is both locus and catalyst of a political–constitutional hurricane. Since the defeat of the pro-independence side in the September referendum, the Scottish National Party, or SNP, has been riding a steamroller across the political landscape. Its membership has quadrupled to 110,000; it is recording up to 50 per cent support in opinion polls; its new leader Nicola Sturgeon enjoys stratospheric popularity. Now, as part of the UK-wide vote on 7 May, it promises – or threatens – to transform the country’s balance of representation in the House of Commons. The party held six of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the 2010–15 parliament, against Labour’s forty-one, the Liberal Democrats’ eleven and the Conservatives’ one. It seems on course to reverse the number vis-à-vis Labour, in what would be a historic victory over a bitter enemy.

These electrifying developments, hard enough for those north of the Tweed to explain, left the Scots’ southern neighbours more bemused than alarmed. The approaching election brought a refocus. Labour worried that losses in urban central Scotland, a decades-long comfort zone, would thwart its election chances; the Tories drew hope from the same. But in the closing weeks of the campaign, as static polls foretold a hung national parliament with the SNP as potential kingmakers, those calculations acquired a visceral edge. How could it be acceptable, a clamorous Tory flock asked, that a party dedicated to splitting the union chooses Britain’s government, influences its policies, perhaps even – ultimate horror – sits inside it?

A shapeless election, hitherto composed of numbing phrases, phantom giveaways and contrived events, had found its theme. Many English voters needed no orchestration, offering to party canvassers their exasperation with the overreaching Scots. That changed the campaign chemistry. For the first time, the Tories smelt an opportunity, and Labour – whose leader Ed Miliband was judged to have fought a confident campaign – tasted fear. Yet still the polls barely moved.

As much as by numbers, Scotland’s move to the centre of the UK election had been driven by a little-remarked policy change. The SNP’s cohort at Westminster – usually a handful, but as high as eleven in 1974–79 – had long abstained from voting on “English-only” matters. This aligned practice with nationalist principle, allowing a claim to high-minded respect for English integrity. It had an additional benefit after the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, in Edinburgh, came into existence in 1999: namely, abating the anomaly that Scotland now enjoyed a form of double representation denied to England. (This, known as the “West Lothian question,” was posed in 1978 by the strongly anti-devolutionist Scots Labour MP from that constituency.)

But after Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as SNP leader in November, she announced that the party was relaxing its stance: its London MPs could now intervene on issues such as health spending, even though Scotland had its own health service accountable to Holyrood, and thus exercise their full, pan-UK rights. The rationale, ostensibly technical, was that the money spent in England had “consequential” effects on the formula that calculated what Scotland would receive from the central government. Scotland thus had a material interest. The assets, and even the political language, of unionism were pressed into the SNP’s service (what should happen “across the UK” is now prominent in Sturgeon’s rhetoric).

It was a pebble that started an avalanche. Soon, Sturgeon was talking of a “progressive alliance” of “anti-austerity” forces after the election. The trade-off for smashing Labour in Scotland would be a readiness to back an Ed Miliband–led government and thus “lock [Conservative prime minister] David Cameron out of Downing Street.” The refuelled SNP – or “Scotland” as it likes to say, an elision of party, government and nation indulged by its many cultural and media fellow-travellers, as well as the English left’s legion of the lost – suddenly had ambitious designs on UK governance as well.

Conservative fury escalated. A Labour–SNP deal would be, in David Cameron’s words, a “chilling prospect”: bad in policy terms, implicitly anti-English, and – if sealed over a Tory plurality in votes and seats – lacking “legitimacy” (the keyword for this case). By turn, Cameron’s party was accused of fomenting hostility between Scotland and England, and thus endangering the union, for base political advantage. If Labour can secure the number in parliament to survive a confidence vote and pass legislation, end of story. Constitutional precedent alone counts (the operative phrase being, “this is how our system works”). Not only were the nationalists becoming unionists, the radicals were becoming conservatives.

In the last days before the vote, the Scottish argument was folded into this wider political–constitutional one. Fervid war-gaming of post-election scenarios filled the press. A campaign whose beginning no one can remember now promises an aftermath of extended haggling.

Exhausted strategists are now, on the eve, ransacking the cupboard as they stagger towards the line. Labour, always ahead in the celebrity stakes, deployed its usual roster of comedians (Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan) and presenters (the TV cook Delia Smith, “middle England” personified), but also won endorsement from the narcisstivist Russell Brand, to whom Ed Miliband had paid court the week before. Since Brand had described voting as “pointless,” and proclaimed – in his book Revolution – that he had never and would never vote, that counts as a gain. (Brand’s video on 4 May instructing his millions of followers to vote Labour also enjoined those in the constituency defended by the Green Party candidate, Caroline Lucas, to send her back to parliament. In the book, he had described “the Tony Benns and Caroline Lucases” as “well-intentioned dinghies bobbing along in an ocean of treachery.”)

The frazzled late atmosphere might explain Miliband’s unveiling of a limestone megalith carved with six Labour pledges to the electorate, which he plans to install in the Downing Street rose garden after becoming prime minister. Many, on hearing the news, checked the calendar to confirm this wasn’t April Fool’s Day. The ridicule was wide but shallow; paradoxically, Ed is armoured by the mockery that attaches to him. Even now, few have tried really to crack the Miliband code. One who has, the Independent’s John Rentoul, describes the monument as “the most absurd, embarrassing, counter-productive, demeaning, inane, childish, silly, insulting, awkward, laughable, ridiculous gimmick I have ever seen.” A journalist who cares about language, he sees another thing lost in the glee: the unsurpassable deadness of the text.

The incident, in its misjudgement, reminded many of the election-losing holler of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock at a raucous eve-of-poll rally in Sheffield in 1992. (The loquacious Kinnock, once plagiarised by Joe Biden, was here a model for Howard Dean.) A search for such parallels is another feature of this demob-happy campaign phase. Kinnock, expected to defeat John Major and thwart a fourth consecutive Tory win, instead was soundly beaten, thus presaging the rise of “New Labour.” Will 2015 be a sort-of repeat, in which a late surge of “shy Tories” reveal their perversion at the last moment? Or will, as Milibandites hope, it resemble 1979, the election that brought to power Margaret Thatcher, a proto-radical opposition leader less popular than the steady-as-she-goes prime minister, James Callaghan?

Some go further back: to 1964, and the would-be moderniser Harold Wilson’s narrow ousting of a tired Tory establishment, followed by a sweeping victory two years later; or 1974, the year of two elections, when Labour emerged from Edward Heath’s one-term chaos to enter government as a minority then to consolidate with a slender majority. The 1970s are also a warning, however: travails over Scotland and the war waged by the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, helped deplete Labour’s parliamentary capital, and a tumultuous decade ended with Thatcherism beginning its ascendancy and Labour its implosion. What followed in 1983 would be the nightmare precedent: a shambolic campaign of fiery gatherings led by the Hampstead socialist Michael Foot, enthusing the choir into delusions of certain victory that were punctured by shattering defeat.

An even earlier period of three elections – 1906, and two in 1910 – might foreshadow a “progressive alliance” to come. The Liberal government of Herbert Asquith won Labour backing for its social reforms, and support from the Irish Parliamentary Party over its promise to deliver “home rule” to Ireland, then survived in a hung parliament with their consent. The Conservatives, with two fewer seats than the Liberals in January 1910 and equal in December, were “locked out of Downing Street.”

If that is encouraging to Nicola and Ed, what followed is not. The three-decade effort to establish home rule led to the passing of the third such bill in 1914, which was blocked by a House of Lords veto and then aborted by the outbreak of war. The Easter rising of 1916 in Dublin transformed everything: Ireland’s trajectory became full independence rather than limited self-government within the empire, a goal achieved in ensuing years (for four-fifths of the island) through violence as well as politics.

That was then, but historians studying the two periods closely – especially its European dimensions – tend not to close the book too soon. Ireland is now debating its “decade of centenaries” and preparing for the pivotal commemoration of April 1916 just after the country’s next election. The only party represented in Ireland’s Dáil, in Northern Ireland’s assembly and in the House of Commons is Sinn Féin, formerly the political wing of the now decommissioned IRA. It is ambitious to be in government in Dublin after that election and cement its claim to continuity with the national heroes of 1916. (The party is currently polling close to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the historic governing parties.)

Sinn Féin is also working hard to increase its total of Westminster MPs from the five it had in the last parliament. It does not take its seats there – the “solemn affirmation” is the formal obstacle – but the party has prospered by discarding far heavier baggage. A sideways feint onto the Commons’ green benches, entirely “legitimate” thanks to its mound of votes, is far from implausible. That would try the foundations of the Westminster parliament – already crumbling physically – even further.

If that spectacle is some way off, a “progressive alliance” may be near, with its notional components – Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems – likely to pass the threshold of 323 MPs required for a parliamentary majority. Assembling it, however, will be hard, especially given the depth of Labour–SNP animosity. That’s another reason to expect it to be far looser, and less stable, than the formal Conservative–Lib Dem coalition of 2010–15.

Against that, the Tories are desperate to have enough numbers to stay in (and, they hope, dominate) the post-election game. That means maximising their own seats and then looking to the Lib Dems – vexatious adversaries in the “ground war” – for a reborn pact. This time, the probable eight-to-ten MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, will prove vital; as may, though less certainly, any of the anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP.

It might work. For all that they often seem to be swimming against history’s tides, the Conservatives’ instincts for power and survival remain mighty. The former senior minister Michael Heseltine is fond of saying that from the nineteenth century, it has been the most successful political party in the Western world. For two years now, I have been haunted by a report published at a time when the Tories were 10 per cent and more behind Labour in many polls. In it, Simon Carswell, the Irish Times’s excellent US correspondent, quotes a piece of advice given to him on how to cover Washington: “try to explain American politics in a way that your readers will not be completely shocked if a Republican wins.” Now seems a good time to recycle it.

For all the ardent conjecture about the coming days, the United Kingdom faces grave problems over the next five years. The world will soon crowd in on a government of any composition – Russia, Syria–Iraq, the European Union (where the Tories promise an in–out referendum), trade and economics, climate disruption, and unforeseen crises. Moreover, the future of the state itself remains an open question. (Here, the Independent’s highly qualified support for the coalition’s renewal on 5 May offers surely the bleakest endorsement in the history of the British press: that this would “give our kingdom a better chance of continued existence.”)

In this tunnel of unknowing, the judgement of the Dumfriesshire weaver’s son James Renwick, just twenty-six at the time of his death, resonates. “There is a storm coming that shall try your foundation.” It’s true that Renwick was no cuddly reformer, but a fundamentalist (as would now be said) whose unbending loyalty to an austere version of Presbyterianism made him the enemy of a state that demanded submission to its own doctrinal verities. It was a British argument about faith, power, sovereignty and legitimacy, conducted on Scottish terms. And it finished with Renwick’s enigmatic affirmation: “Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery come.”

Today’s language and tools are different, but the climax of this election highlights how much the past still has a grip on Britain’s mostly oblivious political actors. That’s the real, complicated past, as in the 1680s and 1910s, not the rival soft-focus versions embraced by the country’s conservative, radical and nationalist tribes, and endlessly packaged by its media. Cutting through the veil of ignorance in real time is hard. Perhaps then, on the almost sacred calm of polling day, voters will take pity and deal their leaders an easier hand. But there’s an unforgiving mood about. The United Kingdom’s trial continues. •