In a record poll, close to half of Scottish voters supported the break-up of Britain—an outcome that would not have happened in any other constituent part of the UK. Mainstream British politics remains anchored in Westminster. The Yes vote has already signalled that politics in Scotland is on a different trajectory from the politics of the rest of the Britain and in particular from the politics of England.
There is, across the island, widespread disillusionment with the big Westminster political parties. This alienation, however, has taken very different forms on either side of the border. In Scotland, the unionist parties face a massive grassroots challenge from the left as tens of thousands of activists sign up for membership of the main Yes parties. The referendum may be over, but resistance to the austerity politics of the Westminster parties is growing in strength.
The thousands who joined the recent STUC march on George Square included both Yes and No voters. What united them was opposition to the austerity programme espoused by the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour alike. Meanwhile, in England opposition to the Westminster parties has come from the right and has morphed into the rise and rise of UKIP.
Once written off by the Tory Prime Minister as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, UKIP have romped to a by-election victory in one formerly safe Tory seat and came within an ace of winning what had been a safe Labour seat. At the time of writing they are the main challengers in another by-election in Tory-held Rochester and Strood. They had already become the first party other than Labour or the Tories to win a national election in last May’s European poll.
The UKIP challenge from the right is being fuelled by anti-immigrant fears and hostility to the European Union and the principle of the free movement of peoples. The Tory and Labour leaderships alike now find themselves being dragged by UKIP onto political territory they would rather avoid. Cameron has already conceded an in/out referendum on EU memberships and has been increasingly ensnared in plans to cap immigration from Eastern Europe that are illegal under EU law. Miliband now finds himself forced to appease UKIP voters by telling them that “it is not prejudiced to worry about immigration.
More worryingly from a unionist perspective has been the implosion of Labour north of the border. Following the referendum, the Labour Party in Scotland is in total disarray. While the SNP, Scottish Greens and the SSP attracted thousands of new members in the aftermath of the referendum, Labour’s Scottish membership has continued to wane.
Owen Jones, the left-wing columnist for The Guardian, recently described Scottish Labour as having become “a brand scarcely less toxic than the widely reviled Tories” in Scotland. The Party’s leadership in Scotland is all over the place. Former Labour First Ministers are in the press arguing that Scottish Labour has lost its purpose and vision and that its plans for more devolution are being frustrated by its own Scottish MPs in London.
Gordon Brown meanwhile continues to make policy statements on the hoof that embarrass the current leadership. His reference in a Commons debate to the “lethal cocktail” of Scottish control of income tax and English votes for English laws would not have been welcomed by Johan Lamont who has in the past indicated her own preference for devolving all income tax to the Scottish Parliament.
The formation of a new grassroots group calling itself “Labour for Scotland” has made it even more difficult to define where Labour in Scotland stands on further devolution. Claiming past and present MSPs and senior trade unionists as members, the new group of activists are “open-minded” about full Scottish control of income tax rates and bands as well as wanting to see greater Scottish control of welfare and employment issues.
However, the party’s actual representatives in the all-party talks on more devolution have the weakest position of all of the five parties involved—a complicated mechanism for giving Holyrood control over 15p of the basic 20p rate and flexibility to raise but not cut the top rate. This disarray is being reflected in the opinion polls. The SNP are now 10 points ahead of Scottish Labour in relation to voting intentions for next year’s UK general election.
In voting intentions for the 2016 general election, the SNP are 16 points ahead of Labour and on course to form another majority Scottish Government. Labour’s long held domination of Scottish politics has been broken. In the longer term, this will inevitably destabilise a union that depended on Labour to deliver Scottish votes for Westminster government.