2016 presents Scotland’s left with unprecedented challenges
Over the past three centuries, she claimed, it had paved the way for the final triumph of the quintessentially British qualities of “freedom under the law”, “a constitutional monarchy” and “the sovereignty of the crown in parliament”.
She spoke in the wake of a comfortable Tory victory in the 1987 General Election that had delivered a hundred-plus majority for Mrs Thatcher’s third successive administration.
Labour had lost for the third time in a row but had seen off the threat of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and re-established its position as the alternative Government-in-waiting. It had also become the undisputed national party of Scotland capturing 50 of the country’s 72 parliamentary seats and condemning the SNP to the outer fringes of national politics.
All was in ship-shape order aboard HMS Britannia and the British ship of state appeared set fair to sail serenely on and on for centuries more.
Yet, less than 30 years later, the same ship of state finds itself in the eye of political storms that look likely to drive it on to the rocks and to its final ruin. The first majority Tory Government in a quarter of a century has scraped into power with the support of less than 25 per cent of the electorate. It trailed the SNP by 55 seats in Scotland. Labour won more than twice as many seats in Wales.
There are no Tory MPs in Northern Ireland. The Tories have become an English party out of touch and out of favour with the family of nations that once constituted the United Kingdom. They are also irreconcilably split over British membership of the European Union.
Whatever the result of the forthcoming referendum on Europe, it is inconceivable that either of their opposing factions will accept defeat graciously and re-unite behind the other side’s position.
Not since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the nineteenth century have the divisions inside British conservatism been so deep. Then it kept the Tories out of power for a generation. The current split could easily lead to the break-up of the party that once formed the backbone of the British state.
Labour, that other bastion of Britishness, is in equally troubled waters. The humiliation of being reduced to just one seat in Scotland while failing to make any inroads into the predominantly Southern Tory heartlands has marooned the one time people’s party in the political wilderness.
The Corbyn revolution sensationally seized command of the party in the country while failing to capture control of a parliamentary party that remains resolutely opposed to most of what that revolution stands for.
It now faces years of policy battles and selection contests that inevitably will damage the party’s electoral standing with the voters they need to win back power in 2020. Meanwhile, it faces further humiliation in this year’s Holyrood election.
Although to date the SNP has been the main beneficiary of the collapse of British rule across Scotland, it too faces daunting challenges.
On the cusp of a third successive Holyrood administration, they find themselves charged with implementing massive spending cuts that will decimate public sector jobs and services across Scotland.
The party of the Council Tax freeze is now under pressure to free councils to generate additional revenue that will at least redress some of the effects of Tory austerity.
The party of Government that has never raised a penny of tax while in office, is now being urged to detail how it will use Holyrood’s new tax powers to redistribute wealth from the many to the few.
From here on in, the SNP will be judged not by what they say but by what they do. Blaming the cuts they make on the Tories will no longer be enough.
I cannot remember a time when political loyalties were as volatile as they now are. Voters are on the move across political parties and in pursuit of a new kind of political settlement that breaks with the old Westminster order.
Having shaken the British establishment to the core in last year’s referendum, they came close to overturning it in the following general election.
They now sense their own power to achieve change on their own terms. They now understand that political action is their only real defence against the austerity, inequality and injustice of 21st century capitalism.
The democratic genie unloosed in the referendum cannot and will not be put back in to the bottle. This year’s Holyrood election presents the wider Scottish left with the challenge of mounting a socialist alternative to the centrist caution of the SNP. It also presents that same left with an unprecedented opportunity.
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