To say the Scottish electorate is politically engaged is an understatement. You only need to look at the reaction to the Scottish leaders’ debates to see how vocal we are. The independence referendum set the country alight with political ideas, so Scottish voters were obviously going to make sure their voices were heard in the UK election.
On 19 September, after Scotland voted to stay in the union, it was immediately clear that Scottish voters weren’t prepared to tidy away their opinions. Membership of the SNP and the Scottish Green party soared, and grassroots campaigners such as Women for Independence and Common Weal rolled up their sleeves – this was just the beginning.
Unionists complain that nationalists didn’t give up after they lost the referendum vote, but in a democracy campaigners aren’t required to stop making their case whether they win or lose it, and nationalists didn’t. Some commentators predicted fighting in the streets. Instead Scotland just kept talking about politics. What the referendum and its aftermath has taught us is that Scotland values democracy.
As general election campaigning kicked off, and the pro-SNP polls came in, it suddenly seemed that Scottish MPs might hold the balance of power. With 59 seats, Scotland gets the government it votes for only when Scottish votes coincide with English ones – that’s democracy within the union. Yet Scottish voters poll to the left of the rest of the UK on virtually all issues. So when the polls were announced, many were delighted. We’d been promised change and told that we were an important part of the UK. Here was a chance to make a genuine impact on Westminster’s agenda.
Anti-SNP venom has quickly extended beyond party politics into racial stereotypes
England reacted differently. Only a few months after love-bombing the Scottish electorate, politicians and commentators have changed tack. The prospect of SNP MPs wielding power was condemned as “undemocratic”. The word “nationalist” became derogatory, an easy sell south of the border where English nationalism is rightwing – unlike Scotland’s social-democratic civic version.
Anti-SNP venom has quickly extended beyond party politics into racial stereotypes. Cartoons have depicted stupid, ugly, drunk Scots – not dissimilar to the anti-Irish outpourings before Ireland left the union. On radio phone-ins and TV shows, questioners have spoken of how “unfair” it would be if large SNP returns were made. The prospect of a democratically elected Alex Salmond at Westminster was described by Anna Soubry on the Andrew Marr Show as “terrifying” . BBC tag lines have screamed “SNP Threat”. The Sun’s English edition portrayed first minister Nicola Sturgeon in a tartan bikini astride a wrecking ball. Allan Massie in the Daily Mail exhumed Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood”.
Later, when Sturgeon shone in the UK leaders’ TV debate, it proved a game-changer for viewers south of the border. Many had never heard her speak before and she seemed so reasonable compared to her representation in the media. The Daily Mail responded by branding her “Britain’s most dangerous woman” while the Telegraph ran a spurious story claiming Sturgeon secretly backed a Tory victory. The truth is, this jockophobia if we call it that, is the result of something more entrenched than last year’s referendum or this year’s election. When questioned about their reasons for staying in the union, a high percentage of Scottish voters cite “feeling British”. However, when pushed further they often align that feeling with a Britain of the past – a fair-play, socially mobile, post-second world war country. None of us live there any more. Today, Britain is presided over by an inauthentic, cash-for-access, expenses-fiddling, pro-corporate Westminster, egged on by a largely rightwing media that has forsaken political debate in favour of mud-slinging.
A hundred years ago our empire made us feel British. Fifty years later our national assets did – British Rail, British Steel and a welfare system that was genuinely a safety net. Now British national identity is largely centred around sporting events and pageantry. As a result people have begun to identify themselves by the UK’s constituent parts, which thanks to neoliberal policies have become different places with different cultures.
With 86% of the population, England dominates this landscape. And that’s the crux facing politicians and press. They can choose the populist route (in the real sense of “populist” meaning the demonisation of minorities – those on benefits, Scots, “nationalists” or immigrants, for example.) Or they can choose to address our more complex reality. The argument around Scottish independence wasn’t for its own sake – yes supporters wanted a fairer, more democratic, more sustainable society. In the second Scottish leaders’ debate, the participants were drawn back to talking about independence as much as about the general election itself. It remains a hot topic in Scotland. But what got the most cheers were progressive UK policies, particularly as voiced by Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens.
After the referendum, Westminster politicians gaped uncomprehending as the SNP garnered massive support despite losing. The thing is, the power in politics right now is in standing tall and instead of quibbling over small policy differences, offering real change. Rather than engaging in negative campaigning, offering genuine hope.
Source: the Guardian