Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats joined forces in the final days of the Scottish independence campaign to win a decisive victory against the Scottish National Party (SNP). But you could be forgiven for feeling perplexed at how such a decisive win ended with the losing side collecting the spoils of battle. The SNP now boasts the third largest membership in the UK (replacing the Liberal Democrats) a party leader with high approval ratings and what appears to be an irreversible lead in the opinion polls north of the border. If the SNP holds on to its lead in the polls, Labour would do exceptionally well to hold on to a dozen of its 41 parliamentary seats in Scotland.
What the Scottish referendum exposed in the mainstream parties was not the legitimate democratic position of voting for the union to continue, but rather their inability to contemplate alternative political realities that focused on hope and vision. Only in the dying moments of the campaign, and rattled by one opinion poll which showed a lead for the independence movement, did leaders of the three Westminster parties appear to concede the possibility of a federal UK in all but name. The promise, referred to as ’The Vow‘ in one newspaper at the time, ran into difficulty the morning after the referendum when the Prime Minister appeared to link further devolution in Scotland to securing EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) at Westminster.
The aftermath of the referendum exposed the policy ‘incoherence‘ of EVEL as long as Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. As Nicola Sturgeon explained “[the] plan to exclude Scottish MPs from decision-making is the antithesis of the notion, promoted incessantly in the closing stages of the referendum campaign by the ‘no campaign’, that the UK is a valued ‘family of equals’” (The Observer, 8 February 2015). Bolstered by recent opinion polls and her own popularity as a leader, the Scottish First Minister has no hesitation in arguing that SNP MPs (and indeed all Scottish MPs) have a duty to vote on England-only legislation if such legislation has a knock-on effect in Scotland.
The Scottish referendum showed that democracy was alive and well north of the border, and that true political leadership prospers not by settling for the lowest common denominator or appeasing populist ideologies for extra votes, but by invigorating the electorate with hope and the belief that their votes count and do matter. This is why when the Labour leader Ed Miliband recently ruled out a coalition at Westminster with the SNP, he may well have taken a gamble with his leadership that he could not afford. Instead of recognising a rare opportunity to lead a progressive alliance to energise English voters who were left feeling disenfranchised by the current Coalition government and the wider political establishment, the Labour leader appears to have opted to alienate the now more politically aware Scottish electorate by an encore of the pro-union alliance; this time without ‘The Vow’.
As the campaigning picks up for the 2015 UK general election, the SNP will be eying every Scottish seat with a view to becoming more influential in UK politics than anyone ever thought it could. In muddying the water a few days before the Scottish referendum last September, the Westminster establishment was able to derail what felt for many in Scotland as the natural course of the nation’s history.
Should the SNP make the gains which the polls are predicting, Westminster may yet find itself having to live with the unexpected consequences of that which it so thirstily pleaded for: Scotland remaining in the UK.
Dr Medhat Khattar
Senior Lecturer in Microbiology
School of Science and Technology
Nottingham Trent University