Cause for Rejoicing?

I do not normally use this blog to respond immediately to recent events, but rather to look at other issues which I have been thinking about for some time. However, I feel I have to say a few things about the election results.

I do not feel elated by the unprecedented landslide in Scotland, because I had been expecting it for quite a while. All the polls had been showing the SNP well ahead of Labour, and this was consistent with the surge in SNP membership since the referendum. Yet there was always the nagging thought that perhaps it was just too good to be true, and therefore I felt a certain amount of relief, mixed with a slight regret that it was not a clean sweep, when I saw the results.

My main feeling was a mixture of disappointment and anger, because I was definitely not expecting the Tories to win an overall majority. I consider that some of the policies pursued by the Tories over the past five years can reasonably be described as evil, and now those policies will be continued and perhaps extended, without whatever slight restaining effect the LibDems might have had. Perhaps the Tory win brings Scottish independence closer, but the price for that will be high.

I will shed no tears over the disintegration of the LibDems. Once they were a party I would certainly have voted for if the only alternatives had been the Tories or Blairite Labour, but then (like many others) I did not realise until after the last election just how far to the right they had moved under the leadership of crypto-Tory Clegg and his Orange Book cronies. What will become of them now, I neither know nor care. Perhaps they will manage to reform under new leadership and become something more like the old Liberal party, or else they may just fade away into irrelevance. Possibly the most appropriate outcome would be for the remnants of the LibDems to merge with the Tories.

I think few people will now consider Miliband to have been a good leader for the Labour party. Perhaps he got a raw deal, being attacked by the right-wing press and having to cope with Blairite members of his own party. I think that he might have made a half-decent Prime Minister, given the chance, except that,  when it counted most, he was too weak. When Cameron attacked Labour’s right to enter any kind of alliance with the SNP, he capitulated. If he had fought back against Cameron (and doubtless certain elements within his own party, such as Jim Murphy), and defended both Labour’s right to choose its own allies and the SNP’s right to be part of such an alliance, he might have been more convincing as a potential Prime Minister. The suggestion that, in a hung Parliament, Miliband might have chosen to let Cameron stay on as Prime Minister rather than accept support from the SNP must have cost Labour votes in Scotland. Even in England it may have signalled to some voters on the left that it was not worth voting for Labour.

Now Labour has to find a new leader. My suspicion is that whoever is chosen will argue that Labour lost because they were perceived by voters in England as being too left wing, and Labour will take another lurch to the right. From a Scottish and SNP point of view, the Labour party is very nearly as right wing as the Tories, but some people in England still appear to think that Labour are dangerous, left-wing radicals. However, being very similar to the Tories is probably not going to be a winning strategy for the next election either. If people think that Tory policies are good, then are they not more likely to vote for the real Tories rather than a Labour imitation?

One can argue that Labour lost the election because they were weak in opposition. They never really challenged the arguments used by the Tories to justify their policies. For example, they accepted the idea that it is essential to reduce the deficit by drastic austerity, and merely quibbled about the rate at which it should be done. There is a strong argument that drastic cuts in public spending damage the economy, and have slowed economic recovery while causing a great deal of hardship. Yet Ed Balls said there was nothing in the most recent budget which he would have changed. (For a good discussion of this by someone who clearly knows more about economics than I do, see http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/ed-balls-austerity-lite-labour.html and other articles on the same site.)

A strong opposition party would have been prepared to put forward its own distinctive policies, and would have strived to persuade the electorate that its policies were better than those of the government. Labour consistently failed to do this over the last five years, and through that failure they have done a grave disservice to the English electorate by denying them any distinctive and credible alternative to the current neo-liberal consensus. I doubt whether they will perform their duty as the official opposition any better between now and the next election. On the contrary, I expect they will decide that Miliband’s tentative efforts to move slightly towards the left were in the wrong direction, rather than too little and too late.

For the SNP, a hung parliament in which they supported and tried to influence (perhaps with limited success) a Labour minority government could have provided them with some oppportunities but also many dilemmas; the relationship between the SNP and Labour would have been a difficult one, with many possible pitfalls. However, not supporting a Labour government, if one had been possible, would not have been a viable policy. A Tory majority provides a more straightforward situation; unless Cameron offers significantly greater powers for the Scottish Parliament than the surviving Smith Commission proposals, there will be little or nothing in the Tory agenda that the SNP can agree with, and a great deal which it will oppose as strongly as possible. It will be important for the SNP’s contingent at Westminster to be conscientious in voting against Tory measures whenever it is appropriate, even when there is no hope of actually winning the vote. The SNP are now the third largest party at Westminster, and will have the right to regularly ask questions at Prime Minister’s Questions; they must try to exploit this as effectively as possible.

What all this means for Scottish independence is hard to predict, although my guess is that it makes independence within the next few years somewhat more likely than it would have been with a Labour government. So much depends on how Cameron behaves towards Scotland and the SNP. Will he be more conciliatory, or will he continue to talk of the SNP as though they do not deserve to participate in the governance of the Union? Will he deliver more than the Smith Commission proposals, or less? How far will he go with ‘English Votes for English Laws’? Will he be willing to examine the options for genuine constitutional reform, such as a federal system for the UK?

The other big question for the whole of the UK is whether there will be a referendum on EU membership, with the possibility that Scotland might vote to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to leave. Could we even see Scotland becoming independent following an agreement between Westminster and Brussels that Scotland should be treated as the sole continuator state for the purpose of EU membership? (Will those wanting a UK exit be accused of wanting to ‘destroy’ and ‘break up’ the EU by removing 12.7% of its population?)

Now the countdown starts to the Scottish election next year. It should be an interesting year for Scottish politics.

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