Why a British by-election cannot bury the SNP

Joe Middleton
4 December 2009

So the party is over for the Scottish National Party according to the British media. Victory for Labour in the Glasgow North East by-election shows that the SNP are incapable of defeating Labour and worse than that opinion polls show low support for independence at only around 30%.

To an extent the SNP have been a victim of their own success. Their triumph in Glasgow East has led to unrealistic expectations of victory in every Labour seat. In addition Labour can call on the resources of their entire UK party. They may be weak in terms of actual activists in Scotland but they have the active resources of three and a quarter countries if required for a British by-election.

Even the sectarian Orange Lodge has backed Labour because they have begun to panic that the SNP Government are becoming too powerful in Scotland.

In British general election terms the fight is always between Labour and the Conservatives without any other party getting much of a look in. A defeat for Brown’s candidate in Glasgow North East would have led to Conservative crowing and the Labour party might well have sought to remove UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Scottish Gordon Brown (born James Gordon Brown) is not as desperately unpopular in Scotland as he is in England. While feelings about Tony Blair had turned to revulsion throughout Britain, Brown seems to have enjoyed different fortunes on either side of the border.

In England Brown is considered to be undemocratic and scared. In fear of a democratic election he has been branded a ‘Brown Bottler’. Certainly Brown’s decision to move away from a planned general election in 2007 was a tactical mistake. Swiftly afterwards English opinion turned against him. (They also haven’t forgiven him for failing to provide a referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty which ultimately has the same effect as the European constitution which Labour had promised a vote on.)

In Scotland however opinion is more nuanced. Constant attacks on Brown particularly from nasty right-wing rags like the Daily Mail and the Sun (which recently decided to back the Tories after long supporting the Labour Party) have led to some level of public sympathy. Also people remember the headlines before Brown taking power that there should be no Scottish PM and that England doesn’t want a Scot as Prime Minister. The feeling here amongst many is that it is Brown’s actual nationality which has turned English voices against him.

While it would be stretching it to say that the European Union is popular in Scotland, neither the British National Party or the UK Independence Party have made any headway here (both have Members of the European Parliament elected in England). Both parties support EU withdrawal and in addition the British National Party has an explicitly racist constitution and is led by a convicted racist and anti-Semite. 

In reality however Brown has been desperate to move away from his Scots roots. Perhaps wisely anticipating the English backlash he has tub thumped about Britain at every opportunity.

Whether changing his accent to sound more English or waxing lyrical about the English football team Gordon Brown has done everything possible to appeal to England. Unfortunately for him however while most Scots seem to be resigned to this posturing as an unfortunate by-product of ruling an effectively English state the English aren’t wearing it. They see Brown’s sucking up as evidence of a defect in his character: ‘who can trust this Scots fool’, they think, ‘who imagines he can pass himself of as English?’

Tony Blair also had Scots roots, but in his case he was a much more convincing Englishman. He had a pronounced English accent and had lived most of his life in England. Blair even went so far as to state that in the UK state as presently configured sovereignty over Scotland rested with him as an English MP.

This is certainly what the British state believes; however in Scotland the people are sovereign, and ultimately it is the people of Scotland that will decide on their future. Although the unionists are all desperate to stop a vote on independence not one has said that they will ignore a positive pro independence result. In fact Gordon Brown signed the Claim of Right which in 1989 stated in no uncertain terms:

 “We hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”

Blair was accepted as English because that was clearly where his loyalties lay. He pushed through devolution but only after attempting to ham string it by two pointless referendum questions, one designed to reject tax powers, one hopeful of defeating the whole prospect altogether.

In fact both questions passed but Blair had another trick up his sleeve. The proposals (unlike the originals from the constitutional convention) did not include broadcasting powers and he even worked with John Birt the then director General of the BBC to specifically scupper any chances of a separate Scottish news programme. The ties would be loosened in Britain under Blair but he intended to retain ultimate control.

Gordon Brown came into power at the fag end of the British Labour Government. Too late to change anything significant he was stuck with the Blair legacy of right-wing Government under a Labour red rosette. Of course he was the joint architect of New Labourism so he was equally as much to blame. Or was he? As Chancellor he would have been forced to follow Blair as Prime Minister.

When he got in hopes were high in some parts of the Labour movement that Brown might swing the pendulum back to the left. That at last the voters would see a real Labour government and that the big fist would squish the jumped-up Cameron (a Blairite clone if ever there was one) who lacked any real political principle.

Unfortunately for him it didn’t go that way. Cameron while remaining irrelevant in Scotland has proved to be the refreshingly bland change of face that the British establishment required.

Labour had provided an empty form of Conservatism for long enough and it was time for the real Tories to re-emerge and take the reigns, after Brown ran from his election the establishment decided they had had enough.

Brown might well be a true anti-Scot and he might well be a proper puppet of Britain but what might happen if he changed his mind? Perhaps emboldened by an election triumph he might actually try and shift Britain to the left, he might even (God forbid!) entertain some sympathy for Alex Salmond and the SNP and give over some serious power to his fellow Scots and their parliament. While highly unlikely, this was too much of a risk to be contemplated. Better to shift him out now, people are bored with Labour so let’s stamp on Brown and give the new boy David a chance.

In Scotland however the people saw a Scots Prime Minister being elbowed aside for no particularly good  reason. They had always preferred their man over Blair and wanted him to have an opportunity to make his mark. Whether he had actually been elected or not didn’t really matter that much; after all, the Tories had ditched Thatcher for Major without an election being demanded immediately.

Brown’s blundering Britishness has shown up the true position of Scotland in the union. If even a harmless anti-Scottish type like Brown is utterly detested by the English then what is the point of Britain at all? If Scots are disbarred from Prime Ministerial office then why even bother with the union? This of course confirmed the SNP’s own position.

For the Scottish National Party British elections have always presented a problem. Numerically Scottish MPs are a small minority of the British parliament. While technically an SNP victory is possible across Scotland under First Past The Post on 30-odd percent of the vote, an actual victory remained well out of reach for the SNP for the simple reason that the SNP could never control a British parliament.

Yes the SNP can influence Britain in a hung parliament, it can make Labour dance a jig as it did in the 1970’s but ultimately it is the ten times larger England which decides the make up of the British parliament.

If The SNP use their power to pull the rug from Labour (even after Labour have clearly sold out Scottish interests) they get the blame for ushering in Conservatism.

What has made a huge difference for the SNP has been the Scots parliament which they have effectively restyled as an alternative Government.

Suddenly the credibility that was lacking at British level has arrived big style. The SNP have 47 MSPs. They don’t just dream of electoral success now they can actually win Scottish elections and they have now done so twice.

With this level of credibility and a strong local candidate the SNP did the impossible in Glasgow East. They delivered a political earthquake of enormous proportions that rivalled wins in Glasgow Govan in its political audacity.

They won by out manning Labour on the ground by drafting in activists from all over Scotland and they walked over a lacklustre and demoralised Labour party still reeling from their defeat in the Scots parliament elections.

Nonetheless although it was a great victory the British papers did their best to smooth it over quickly. It has nothing to do with independence they quickly cried, why the SNP hardly mentioned independence in their own leaflets!

In fact John Mason had argued strongly for independence on TV debates throughout the campaign. Nonetheless some tarnish was put on the SNP’s success and some activists might have wondered if it was worth sticking it to the British establishment when their core message could be so easily dismissed.

At the next by-election Glenrothes it was expected that the SNP could repeat their trick again. Despite being in the heart of Brown country (and a traditionally ‘safe’ Labour seat) where the Prime Minister is revered the bookies and the papers all expected an SNP victory. Surprising everyone however Labour triumphed, and with some style, achieving far more votes than expected despite an amateurish candidate.

Alarm bells were beginning to ring with a vast increase in postal votes. Those alarms rang much more loudly when the marked up registers disappeared however even the suspicion of Labour dirty tricks failed to diminish a definite success for Labour.

In Glasgow North East the SNP were rightly wary that Labour might pull out the same type of campaign they conjured up in Glenrothes. Again the SNP had a visibly superior candidate (to Labour that is, the Tories had pulled in a candidate with similar communication skills to the SNP’s David Kerr) and the attacks by Labour seemed somewhat absurd.

Could Labour really blame the SNP for under investment in Glasgow despite the fact they had controlled the area for 74 years? In fact the SNP Government was putting more funding into Glasgow and giving more money per person to the council than any other in Scotland. Unfortunately however the SNP had cancelled a Glasgow Airport rail link. While this was due to a cut in Scotland’s budget by the British chancellor, nonetheless Labour attempted to pull one of their old divide ‘n’ rule stunts claiming the Edinburgh based parliament was ‘ripping off Glasgow’.

Despite the fact that the constituency was bottom of every table of social neglect and had the worse health record in Scotland when it cam to the actual vote Labour loyalty remained high throughout the constituency. Again a high level of postal ballets, and a few actual instances of voter fraud left a slightly sour smell about Labour’s win but it was emphatic nonetheless.

What appears to have happened is that Labour, realising that turn out would be low had successfully translated some of its stay at home voters into postal votes. This meant a large majority for Labour and a lesson in future campaigning tactics for the SNP.

Just how much impact does Glasgow North East have on Labour and the SNP however? I suspect in the larger scheme of things, not a lot.

Labour remain weak in England and it may well have been a canny realisation of that weakness that led Glasgow’s voters to back them. Why give succour to Cameron by weakening a Scots Labour PM? Why not wait till the general election to deliver a phalanx of SNP MPs to stir things up?

The SNP remain strong throughout most of Scotland. Glasgow remains difficult territory but the fact that their deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has broken through, winning Glasgow Govan outright, and that the party has four other able SNP MSPs (members of the Scottish Parliament) in Glasgow (through the proportional party list system) suggest that long term the party’s prospects in the city remain reasonably bright.

Will the SNP ever make a real breakthrough at British level? It is certainly possible and indeed likely that the SNP will increase their level of MPs (members of the British parliament) substantially at the next election. However a win at a UK election is a lot less likely than a move towards independence directly from Scotland.

Is a Yes vote possible in a future Scottish referendum however? Well, political conditions right now are pretty good for the SNP (the SNP Government remains popular in opinion polls for Scots elections) but they will become even better if David Cameron leads an English orientated Conservative Government.

The SNP offer an easy escape route to British Conservatism. The SNP Government affects every area of Scottish life and in consequence it appears a much more relevant political party than it did in years past. Whether the Scots are bold enough to ultimately cut their ties with Britain remains the question however the British unionists reluctance to actually ask that question suggests that they are not really confident that they will get a pro-union answer.    

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