Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer and was Parliamentary Candidate for Aberdeen North during the 2015 General Election.
The General Election has delivered the trickiest outcome imaginable for Scotland. What happens next will define whether or not it can successfully re-shape its union settlement or opt for separation. The numbers are against a speedy resolution, unfortunately.
In last year’s referendum on independence, 1.6 million Scots voted Yes, but lost 45-55. In the general election, 1.4 million backed the SNP, which swept the board. Stripping out the ineligible 16-18 year olds, practically every ‘yesser’ (but few new punters) showed up for the SNP.
What of the two million No voters? Half a million stayed at home whilst the others remained split, tactical voting schemes failing miserably. So Scotland now has enough nationalists for Westminster and Holyrood dominance – but not enough to win a referendum. Disappointment seemingly awaits half the country.
For all the pre-referendum political engagement, effective debate has stalled as views become increasingly polarised. How did nationalists react to the oil price crash? By seamlessly transitioning from the prospect of a a Norwegian-style offshore fund to £180 billion extra borrowing. With Jim Murphy absent from First Minister’s Questions (no more Westminster diary clashes now, of course), Kezia Dugdale springs to her feet each week, and queries another devolved shortcoming. Nicola Sturgeon scythes her down effortlessly each time. Firstly, she says that Labour are talking Scotland down (again). Then, the killer blow: Labour back austerity, and thus are identical to the Tories.
Then there is the election’s sinister side to consider. The Aberdeen Conservative and Labour offices suffered ‘Q’ (quisling) graffiti attacks whilst Jim Murphy, once an effective street communicator, was brutally marked out of the game.
To some extent, the fervour will subside. Teenagers giddy at the new-ness and (apparent) fairness of separation often re-assess their view when faced with real-life employment and housing considerations. Deserted by Labour, the hard-left are on board (for now). These are tough customers, however, and real-world compromises could create schism; Sturgeon promised not deal with the Conservatives, didn’t she? Controversial policies, such as the single police force and the under-18s named person scheme, could rebound at any time.
Then there’s the sheer weight of contradictions. Free university tuition most benefits the middle classes, but comes at the expense of primary school cuts most affecting the poorest. And how to rationalise bristling under London rule with unquestioning acceptance of Brussels? Most significantly, of course, is second referendum issue: failure to call one soon might finish Sturgeon; calling one and losing it might finish the whole movement.
However, Unionists can’t sit back dreaming of a nationalist implosion. Joint candidates might have worked selectively (Salmond would probably have been edged in Gordon) but this ship has sailed already. Back in 2010, the Lib Dems scored a near-identical Scottish vote to the Conservatives, but bagged 11 seats thanks to strong local campaigns behind well-established figures. All that lies in ruins now.
Labour, meanwhile, are deeply scarred by their ‘Red Tories’ tag and face a mammoth trust-building task. After years of complacency, the referendum snapped Labour voters out of their trance. Now ‘back in the room’, their fury appears boundless, but is it wholly unjustified? Scotland eliminated the Conservatives in 1997 only to find Blair indifferent to their de-industrialised plight. Initial soundings from post-Miliband soul-searching suggests that Labour now consider itself too left-wing for middle England. All this after a routing in Scotland for being the precise opposite. Taking their new ‘aspirational’ message (and defence of the union) north won’t be easy.
So major opportunities exist for the Scottish Conservatives. Ruth Davidson’s election presence was a combination of heavyweight debate performances and eye-catching media events, winning over new supporters and the respect of opponents. An unashamedly pro-union stance went down particularly well. Pundits appear divided over our result, though: does vote growth beat a percentage dip? I (with all due bias noted) see the positive side. We gained new voters and, whilst some core voters tactically backed Labour, they shouldn’t make that mistake again. For Holyrood 2016, the SNP are hot favourites in the 73 constituency seats, but we should aim to run Labour close for many of the 56 regionals.
Are we getting it all right, though? Stepping out of the oil industry, I’ve perhaps been spoilt by established procedures and extensive resources. A work colleague assumed we weren’t much interested, based on the monochrome pamphlets hitting his doorstep; this was in a target seat. The party that hired Saatchi & Saatchi 25 years ago surely knows that some style is essential to promote the substance. (The SNP, with its ubiquitous marketing and Sturgeon-copter is a very slick affair, by the way).
We can fill a room for a big name dinner but, whilst the funds raised are very welcome, what I really needed was more boots on the ground. Many of our voters need re-assurance: on the doorstep, some almost believe they’re harbouring a dark secret as the only Tories in Scotland. There are areas un-canvassed for years where the core vote has held, but others have drifted away: I feel we’re only scratching the surface in certain places. With more organisation and resources, none of this is unresolvable. We have the basics in place: a strong leader, good candidates and enthusiastic volunteers.
From the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, things have moved rapidly. We haven’t seen the Scotland Act 2012 implemented yet, let alone Smith, but events are continually overtaking us. With the SNP flitting between demanding further powers (to “end austerity”) and refusing full-fiscal autonomy, is the first hundred days the time to call their bluff? As a first step towards now-inevitable UK federalism, maybe re-jig Barnett to make Scotland more cash-neutral with the UK and devolve further welfare powers. Warn of the consequences – but let the SNP get on with it.
Nicola Sturgeon claimed the tectonic plates of UK politics had shifted on May 7th. She’s right. Political earthquakes cause instant damage but the recovery can take a very long time. Some never fully get over it.