I count myself fortunate to have witnessed some truly historic general elections in Scotland. Nineteen seventy nine, the first in which I could vote, delivered our one and only female prime minister, whose impact changed not just British but world politics. The next political earthquake was 1997 when Edinburgh’s own Tony Blair swept to power and all Conservative MPs were wiped out in Scotland. As the harbinger of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd – designed in particular to placate if not destroy nationalism – he too was to have his own impact on our political destiny.
Now I have seen something I never thought possible, the near obliteration of Labour in Scotland at the hands of the SNP. Actually, the result could have been even more astounding.
Were it not for tactical voting by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh South, Labour would have lost Ian Murray’s seat too, resulting in a total wipe-out. Also, were it not for tactical voting in the Dumfries seat of David Mundell and the Orkney & Shetland seat of Alistair Carmichael, the SNP would have won every seat in Scotland.
It has been said by some that Labour paid a price for siding with the Tories in last year’s referendum – but this does not make logical sense. The majority of Labour supporters that voted No last September would have no reason to punish the Labour Party by switching to the SNP. Nor has there been an increase in sympathy for independence: polling shows support for independence has fallen from 45 per cent to 41 per cent in the past eight months, so there have to be other reasons for Labour’s humiliation.
One of those must be that Ed Miliband came over as an out-of-touch, metropolitan intellectual – he was never a Labour leader who engendered warmth, loyalty or respect among his party followers in Scotland. Actually, David Cameron was more popular than Miliband, and Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon even more so.
Building upon this, Sturgeon’s performances in the TV debates gave Scots pride in the idea of voting SNP to hold Labour to account.
But leadership is not enough; there has to be some substance behind politicians, and here again Labour was found wanting, for it has been playing a double game with the public and has been found out.
In England, the Labour Party came to terms with the changes that Thatcher achieved and adjusted to become more electable – New Labour was born. Instead of repealing many Conservative reforms, Blair’s government added to them, introducing academy schools to improve literacy and numeracy and using more private contractors to deliver specialist NHS procedures more efficiently. None of these happened in Scotland and, crucially, Thatcher’s trade union reforms were left in place.
In Scotland, New Labour was little more than a lapel sticker that fell to the floor as soon as the Scottish Parliament was born. To strike a patriotic tone in response to the Nationalists, Labour leaders kept saying Scotland was different and sought to abolish the reforms introduced by Thatcher’s lieutenants such as Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth.
In Scotland, NHS Trusts were abolished and the private hospital in Clydebank nationalised. School boards managed by parents in 83 per cent of our schools were abolished and self-governing status removed. Council house sales were severely curtailed, making their complete abolition by the SNP an inevitability. Little did Labour realise this revenge politics repudiated New Labour in Scotland as much as it did Thatcherism.
Scotland was governed by Old Labour and told it could have a larger welfare state with more services for free – without explaining that the cost was being financed by the English taxpayer for 14 out of the last 15 years. When the reckoning for living beyond our means came, and there was a need for a degree of austerity, Labour in England had to accept economic policies more in tune with the real world. Borrowing had to be repaid and the increase in public spending pared back (it will still rise; it is not being cut). But the Scottish public has been told we are different, thus Miliband’s Labour could be accused of being bedfellows of the “evil” Tories.
To Scottish voters, that suggested Labour had left its values behind, that the party had deserted them. Voting SNP with its shiny, new, high-heeled leader became effortless, for the SNP was now more Labour than Labour itself – whilst the independence threat had been removed. After all, were there another independence referendum, Scots can still vote No again.
And so it is Labour, by saying different things in Scotland and England, that has sown the seeds of its own destruction. Changing the Labour leader will probably not solve this. I doubt Chuka Umunna or Yvette Cooper will cut the mustard in Scotland. The leftist SNP is the natural heir to Old Labour and until there is an economic reckoning for Scotland – without England as the lender of last resort – its policies will remain unrealistically attractive to the electorate.
Whether it is full fiscal autonomy or independence that exposes the Old Labour fallacies of the SNP, it will take an economic cataclysm for reality to return to Scottish politics.