Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

INVERNESS, Scotland — Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The campaign was lively, colorful and, it seemed, decisive: Scots voted by a 10-point margin to stay a part of Britain. But just seven months later, another nationalist earthquake looks set to hit Scotland, shaking the foundations of British politics and even the union itself.

On a pedestrian street in the heart of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands, a small shop shows the extent to which the independence movement is still alive in many hearts and minds — and, soon, ballot boxes. The “Yes shop,” as it’s known, is still selling badges, key rings, and even dog neckerchiefs bearing the blue-and-white “Yes” to independence logo. Basque and Catalan flags (fellow long-sufferers) hang in solidarity with the St. Andrew’s Cross on the wall. The foldout tables that run along one side of the store are stacked with posters and election leaflets for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). On a recent weekday at lunchtime, the store was packed with volunteers and activists.

“People sometimes come in with their children,” said Norman Will, the force behind the shop. “In cold weather people bring in soup and stovies [a Scottish dish made with meat and potatoes]. We have collections for the local food bank and political discussions.”

The SNP may have lost last September’s referendum but it’s emerged energized as Britain gears up for a big, national election. Indeed, the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is just about the only popular politician in the country. Despite holding power in the devolved Scottish Parliament for eight years, the nationalists have profited from a disenchantment with established parties that persists across Europe. And now the SNP is poised to translate that frustration into political power.

The U.K. general election is scheduled for May 7. The SNP is poised to become kingmakers. In the last general election, five years ago, the nationalists won just one-fifth of the Scottish vote and only six of Scotland’s 59 seats. Now, opinion polls give the SNP almost half the Scottish vote and put the party on course to win up to 50 seats.

Such an unprecedented result would have ramifications far beyond the corridors of Westminster. The SNP surge would virtually wipe out Scottish Labour, which has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1955. The rise of Scottish nationalism greatly increases the likelihood of a hung Parliament, too, but even more significantly it has put the question of Scottish independence — and the future of the union — front and center once more.

Since the referendum, SNP membership has quadrupled to over 100,000, making the nationalists Britain’s third-largest party, despite the fact that Scotland has only around one-twelfth of the U.K.’s total population. Among the SNP’s new supporters is Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh. The 32-year-old supermarket worker has become a regular visitor to the Inverness “Yes” shop. The referendum “was amazing,” he told me. On May 7 he will vote for the SNP, in part because he wants another referendum on independence, but he also believes that the party is best placed to “stand up” for Scotland at Westminster.

Inverness, a small, picturesque city popular with tourists setting out to explore the Highlands isn’t historically a stronghold for Scottish nationalists. The Highlands voted against independence in September, and the SNP received less than one-fifth of the votes cast here in 2010. But polls put SNP candidate Drew Hendry well ahead of the incumbent, Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats. Alexander, who has been the second highest-ranking official at the Treasury for the past five years, is one of the most recognizable faces in Scottish politics. His profile, however, might not save his seat.

Such unlikely electoral challenges are being repeated across Scotland. The Labour Party, in opposition in London for the last five years, have long dominated Scottish politics. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But the nationalist tsunami now threatens every Labour constituency in Scotland, potentially robbing Labour leader Ed Miliband of seats he would need to form a majority government after May 7.

The town of Paisley, seven miles southwest of Glasgow, is illustrative of the scale of the challenge facing Labour. A once prosperous industrial town whose Victorian grandeur has faded since the textile mills started closing in the 1960s, Paisley has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. The party has won every general election contest here since the end of World War II, often without much of a fight.

Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, a well-respected former Scottish secretary under Tony Blair and the current shadow foreign secretary. Last time out, Alexander won just short of 60 percent of the vote. Now he is trailing Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student with no political experience.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” Black told me. “What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different.”

Labour’s popularity in Scotland has plummeted after joining forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against the independence referendum. Around 180,000 Labour supporters voted “yes” last September and many of them are now expected to switch their allegiances to the SNP in the general election. Labour is now on the defensive: The party has withdrawn resources from some seats in order to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. “I’m set to Defcon fucked,” a sitting Labour MP from Scotland recently said.
While Labour comfortably won every Westminster election, the party’s standing in the Scottish Parliament has fallen steadily over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011. At the same time, the SNP’s share in the Scottish Parliament continued to rise. Now Scottish voters seem set to repeat their devolved preferences in a Westminster election for the first time, which could produce a nationalist landslide under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system.

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. “Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.”

Under Sturgeon, who took over as the party’s leader last November, the SNP has tacked leftwards, directly appealing to disgruntled Labour voters who increasingly see little difference between the party of their grandfathers and the Conservatives. At a recent event in Edinburgh launching the SNP manifesto, Sturgeon promised to “end austerity,” by increasing government spending by 0.5 percent a year. The SNP’s manifesto backs a 50 percent top tax rate, an extra tax on homes worth over £2 million, new levies on bankers’ bonuses, an increase in the minimum wage, and formal recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The SNP has ruled out joining a formal coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party continues to support the Trident nuclear submarine program, which is housed near Glasgow. But Sturgeon has called for a looser “progressive alliance” with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of office. Meanwhile, Labour, wary of losing English voters, has insisted that there will be “no deal” with the SNP. Such obdurateness might play well in London but it is doing Labour no favors in the Scottish heartlands. Critics have accused both Labour and, particularly, Conservatives of alienating Scottish voters by demonizing the SNP.

The post-election arithmetic in Britain looks increasingly complicated. Every poll suggests there will be no clear winner, which makes a Labour deal with the SNP more likely. The Conservatives — sensing an opportunity to make gains from Labour in up-for-grabs English constituencies where Scottish nationalism is looked upon with disdain — have decried any deal with the SNP. Home Secretary Theresa May even said an arrangement with the nationalists would spark the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Even if the SNP was invited into a coalition with Labour, the Scottish party might have good reason not to join. The SNP’s primary focus remains on Scotland, in particular the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The party is unlikely to want ministerial seats in London, which would make the task of differentiating themselves from Labour more difficult next year. At the same time, the SNP are wary of facilitating the formation of another Conservative-led government by failing to support Labour. “The SNP can’t sign a blank check to Labour, but they can’t be seen to bring a Labour government down so they have to play a very careful hand,” said Hassan.

The SNP’s record-high poll ratings have fueled speculation that Sturgeon would like to hold a second vote on independence. In order for that to happen, the party would need another majority in Edinburgh next year. But that’s still a long way off. The SNP will not go to the polls again until they know they can win, said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling.

“The SNP won’t win enough votes [in the general election] if they look like the independence party and nothing more,” said Cairney. “And they have dealt with that problem well. Long-term referendum chances hinge on them remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the U.K.”

Nonetheless, pro-independence sentiment remains energized ahead of the election. In the “Yes” shop in Inverness, Emma Roddick, a 17-year-old student, said she has “lost count” of the number of hours she has spent making pro-independence badges and pins. She is too young to vote but has no doubts about Scotland’s political destiny.

“The union is always going to lose its purpose,” she told me. “The only argument is not are we going to be independent but when are we going to be independent..” For its supporters, a resounding SNP showing on May 7 will be another important milestone on the road to the break-up of Britain.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Election Posters Banned Across Scotland

Competing “yes” banners and “no thanks” posters were among the most colourful features of the referendum campaign, but as May’s general election hoves into view there will be less political posters than ever on Scotland’s streets.

Experts fear that the lack of posters could depress turnout.

Just a handful of Scottish councils permit candidates and parties to display election material on lampposts and other “street furniture”.

Of Scotland’s 32 council areas just four – Shetland, the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Argyll and Bute – now allow political posters on council property.

The number of councils passing legislation banning political material on their property has increased dramatically since the last general election in 2010.
lamppost posters
Last year, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire all moved to outlaw election posters. South Lanarkshire will follow suit in a matter of weeks.

The main reason cited for the bans is the expense of removing election material from council property after the country goes to the polls.

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

There is a strong link between the visibility of political campaigns and higher turnouts, says Clark.

The decision to ban political posters is “a peculiarly self-denying ordnance from councils,” Clark says.

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

“Most Scottish councils are run by a mix of parties and coalitions. You can’t say it is one party against another,” says Clark. “It is a broader council issue. It just seems to be that this will cost us money.”

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

“Northern Ireland in the run-up to May you’ll find is postered from one end of the street to another,” says Clark.

“Scotland somehow has become an outlier here. It is strange given the democratic experience of the referendum that this is something that is being allowed to happen.”

Juliet Swann, campaigns and research officer at Electoral Reform Society Scotland, says that election posters add colour to political campaigns but that the best way to ensure that the enthusiasm of the referendum is not lost is to make sure people feel that their vote counts.

“Perhaps celebrating elections more as a carnival of democracy, complete with colourful election posters would bring some public enthusiasm back into politics. But the only way to be sure of re-engaging the people in politics is to make them feel like their vote counts for something,” she said.

Alistair Clark called on Scottish councils to overturn the ban on election material on their property.

“The danger is that people just won’t go out and vote. It is pointless complaining about turnout unless people are given every encouragement to vote. And among that encouragement are posters being permitted to be placed in places where people might see them.”

Britain’s Green Party surge

Once a marginal political player, the UK Green Party has growing popularity amid dissatisfaction with the majors.

The Green Party is expecting to make gains at the United Kingdom general election in May [Getty Images]

As 2005 turned into 2006 in London, journalist Natalie Bennett did what many of us do at New Year’s. She cast a critical eye on her life – and the world around her. She didn’t like what she saw.

“I looked at the state of the world and said, ‘this doesn’t look very good, I should do something'”.

Bennett’s response was far from typical, however. With more time on her hands after finishing working nights, the 39-year-old Australian made a New Year’s resolution to join the Green Party of England and Wales.

Less than a decade later, Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Greens in Britain. Her party is party riding high in opinion polls. Membership has more than doubled in the past year.    

“I never would have predicted it would end up with this,” says Bennett with a laugh as she recalls her 2006 New Year’s pledge.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been the big insurgent political story of British politics this year. UKIP’s stridently anti-European Union message and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have attracted countless column inches and record levels of support.

But, quietly, the Greens have been making inroads at the opposite end of the British political spectrum.

Growing green

Having polled barely 1 percent in the 2010 general election, the Greens have consistently been registering 5-6 percent ever since this summer’s European elections. One recent poll put the party on course to win 8 percent when Britain goes to the polls next May. Party membership stands at more than 30,000 and growing by the week. 

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Natalie Bennett on the right [Getty Images]

Bennett says the party is fast becoming an accepted part of the British political landscape. 

“About a month or so I got a phone call [from a British morning television show] at 11:30 in the evening asking if I could do a pre-record in the next hour for their morning programme. I thought ‘this is a step forward in recognition for the Green party.'”

While UKIP is doing particularly well among older working-class Britons, the Greens draw support from younger, university-educated middle-class voters attracted by the party’s commitment to social justice and the environment.

“Our message is there is a need for real change. Our current neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite approach, greed is good, don’t worry about inequality and assume that the planet’s resources are infinite. That’s now clearly dead, and failed. We need a new kind of approach,” says Bennett, who took over as party leader from the Greens’ sole MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.

The Greens are profiting from the further decline in the Liberal Democrat vote since the party went into coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives in 2010, and are also attracting some Labour voters, says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university and a researcher on UK political polling.

“The Greens are the only game in town for disenchanted voters on the left. They are profiting from those who are looking for something a bit more radical and don’t believe the Labour party can deliver it,” says Curtice.

The Green party in the UK was founded in the 1970s but has long been a marginal concern. In 1990 the party split into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland. 

Northern support

So far the Greens have enjoyed their greatest success in Scotland. In 2003, the Greens won six seats in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, and while that number has dwindled, the party has been transformed following its support for a “yes” vote in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

In the early hours of September 19, as it became apparent that Scots had voted to stay in the UK, the Scottish Greens’ computer systems collapsed under the weight of new members trying to register. The party’s membership more than quadrupled in a matter of weeks. Meetings that were once held in back rooms of bars now take place in conference halls.

“We have the green surge [in England], they got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland],” says Bennett.

Last week, the Green leader met with her Scottish and Welsh nationalist counterparts to discuss the possibility of joining forces in a future coalition government after the 2015 general election. The Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru have all said they will oppose the austerity policies of the three largest UK parties.

“The SNP says – and all their actions indicate – that they are an anti-austerity party, they are roughly opposed to Trident [Britain’s nuclear deterrent], and they want to get rid of the Tories. We roughly agree on all of those things,” says Bennett of Scotland’s largest party.

But while the SNP is on course to make significant gains next May, the Greens face a major challenge if they are to build on their solitary member of parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post system overwhelmingly favours the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative. 

Major party decline

That duopoly is crumbling, however. In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives combined won nearly 97 percent of the overall UK vote and all but nine MPs. In 2015, less than two-thirds of British voters are expected to vote either Labour or Conservative.

This shift away from the major parties and a wider sense of disillusionment with mainstream politics could help the Greens, says Bennett.

“In 2010, the basic feeling was ‘oh, we’ve had a financial crash but capitalism has financial crashes, things will go back to how they were at the start of 2007 and things will continue on much as they were before’. Whereas now, practically nobody thinks that where we are is economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”

The Greens have identified 12 potentially winnable seats from York and Cornwall to Sheffield and Liverpool, says Bennett. The party’s best chances are in Brighton Pavilion, which they hold, Bristol West and Norwich South.

Professor Curtice, however, says while the Greens are on course to win a record share of the vote, they are unlikely to take enough seats to become kingmakers in a potential coalition government.

But Bennett says September’s Scottish referendum could provide a template for a new, more engaged form of politics that could radically change the electoral map of Britain.

“If we had a general election in May where we had a turnout of 85 percent of eligible voters turning up to vote – we had a whole environment of strangers at bus stops talking politics to each other as they were in Scotland -then there is a real potential to blow politics utterly wide open.

“We might wake up the next morning in an entirely different political world.” 

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.