In the strange and obscure world of Scottish constitutional politics, something can be utterly inevitable – until it suddenly isn’t. For most of the past ten years, and certainly for the past two, a widespread consensus has existed in Scotland regarding the inevitability of independence. That consensus has been based on the almost total dominance of Scotland’s electoral landscape by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Last month, the landscape changed.
At the UK’s snap general election on 8 June, the SNP shed 21 of its 56 Westminster seats and saw its share of the vote slump by 13 points. Angus Robertson, the party’s chief strategist, and Alex Salmond, its former leader, both lost their once rock-solid constituencies in the rural north-east. Towering nationalist majorities across Glasgow and the central belt crumbled. Even the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a modest Caledonian revival, adding three new Scottish MPs, in Edinburgh, Dunbartonshire, and Caithness, to their previous, solitary total of one.
Fasten your seat belts, folks, because we are about to do it all over again.
Britain may have survived one recent constitutional crisis – last year’s vote on Scottish independence – but it is already hurtling violently towards another.
Activists rush in and out of Natalie McGarry’s campaign office on Westmuir Street in Parkhead, a short walk from the towering grey-and-green stadium of Celtic Football Club. The Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow East, an energetic 33-year-old policy officer who rose to prominence during last year’s independence referendum, is preparing her team for the first of its twice-daily canvassing sessions. “OK, let’s go,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” If on 7 May the Nationalists can win here, where the sitting Labour MP, Margaret Curran, has a majority of almost 12,000, they will sweep the country, defeating Labour in its west coast and central belt heartlands.
In Glasgow East, as in Scotland at large, ideology, identity and class have merged to shape a new political landscape. Left-leaning voters, voters who consider themselves strongly Scottish and voters from low-income or working-class backgrounds account for a large section of the SNP’s expanding post-referendum base. According to a recent survey by YouGov, 40 per cent of Scots who backed Labour at the 2010 general election now support the SNP. A similar proportion of Labour supporters voted Yes on 18 September.
“I’ve seen this happen so many times before”, one veteran left-wing activist told me in the early hours of Friday morning, as we stood in the lobby of the Emirates Arena in the east end of Glasgow. “The Labour vote descends like a mist from nowhere and disperses just as quickly.”
In the end, it was only one section of the Labour vote – the public sector “salatariat”, as the journalist Paul Mason, another of my companions at the Glasgow count, described it – that turned out for the Union. The poorest parts of Scotland – those areas in which Westminster’s failure is most conspicuous – went with the nationalists.
Jackie Anderson stands in the center of the campaign office she helps run on Maryhill Road in north Glasgow. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with a single word in bright blue print: “Yes.”
On Thursday, Scotland holds a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Pollsters say the race is too close to call. But Anderson has no doubt about the way the residents of Maryhill will vote.
For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.
As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.
No party is more adept at exploiting the gap between practice and rhetoric in Scottish society than Labour, and no Scottish politician is more authentically Labour than Gordon Brown.
After a series of relatively underwhelming, policy-focused speeches, the former prime minister has landed back in the independence debate with a thud.