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How the general election changed Scotland

How the general election changed Scotland

The world record for the longest a country has gone without a government belongs to Belgium, having gone 589 days without an executive in 2010-11.

The UK may not have been preparing for something of that scale, yet the received wisdom was that following the General Election it would be days, or even weeks, before a working government could be formed.

The polls suggested a hung parliament, and this narrative dominated the campaign, with the Conservatives and SNP both pushing the idea – albeit for different purposes – of Nicola Sturgeon’s party propping up a Labour minority.

“While we may have lost the election, the argument of our campaign will not go away. The issue of our unequal country will not go away.”

Belgium waited over a year to know who would govern. In the end the UK knew within 12 hours of polling stations closing. And whatever way the result is examined, it is shocking.

The SNP swept the board in Scotland, winning 56 of 59 seats and leaving Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives with just one MP each. Labour’s panda jokes no longer seemed as clever.

Meanwhile Labour also suffered across the UK, on a scale few had predicted.

Exit polls suggested that David Cameron’s party had performed well above expectations and by lunchtime on the Friday, projections were confirmed: the Conservatives had won a majority, taking 331 seats – eight over the line needed to govern alone – leaving Labour with just 232.

Even if Labour had not collapsed in Scotland, it still would have been unable to make up sufficient numbers to stop the Tories taking power.

North of the border, polls had shown high SNP support for months and it seemed certain that Labour would suffer heavy losses; the question was – just how many seats could the party hold?

As the results came in, though, the conclusion was clear. Even if it had been hard to define what would constitute a success for Labour in the post-referendum landscape, it was now apparent it faced a wipeout.

From 2am onwards the scale of the rout became apparent, with Labour seeing seat after seat go to the SNP, as some of the biggest names in the party lost their place in parliament.

Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy – with each declaration, Labour lost another of its big names.

Much has been made of Alexander losing to a 20 year old – and with Mhairi Black becoming the youngest MP since 1667, it is easy to see why – but in truth, every single SNP gain was of huge significance.

In many cases the biggest majorities saw the biggest swings and by the end of the night, the idea of a safe seat seemed laughable.

For decades, Labour has been a political giant in Scotland. The nation watched in dumb awe as it collapsed overnight.

Reacting, Nicola Sturgeon said: “The political firmament, the tectonic plates in Scottish politics have shifted. What we are seeing is a historic watershed.

“Whatever the government is that emerges at Westminster, they cannot ignore what has happened in Scotland.”

And given Labour’s dominance in Scotland, what had happened was enormous.

From the Scottish Lib Dems too there was a raft of casualties, with Danny Alexander, Michael Moore, Jo Swinson and Charles Kennedy losing out; the biggest names in a defeat that saw the party reduced to just one MP.

The next day, as the country woke up, watching the remaining seats needed to ensure a Tory majority fall into place, the resignations of the party leaders added to further shocks.

“Clearly the results have been immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I could ever have feared.”

For once, the 24-hour news cycle seemed overtaken by events, with the night seeing some of the biggest names in British politics fall from the firmament, and the day bringing the resignations.

First came Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader had held his Sheffield Hallam seat by a fine margin, but he was one of the few who did, with the UK party going from the 57 MPs it won in 2010 to just eight.

His words were frank, saying: “I always expected this election to be exceptionally difficult for the Liberal Democrats given the heavy responsibilities we’ve had to bear in government in the most challenging of circumstances. Clearly the results have been immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I could ever have feared.”

But if Clegg was going to leave office, it was with a warning.

“One thing seems to me is clear: liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.

“Years of remorseless economic and social hardship following the crash in 2008 and the grinding insecurities of globalisation have led people to reach for new certainties: the politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them is now on the rise.

“It is clear that in constituency after constituency north of the border the beguiling appeal of Scottish nationalism has swept all before it and south of the border, a fear about what that means for the United Kingdom has strengthened English conservatism too. This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.”

Next was Ed Miliband.

Calling for a debate on how the party could rebuild, Miliband said he took “absolute and total responsibility” for the defeat.

He said: “While we may have lost the election, the argument of our campaign will not go away. The issue of our unequal country will not go away.

“This is the issue of our time, the fight goes on and, whoever is our new leader, I know Labour will keep making the case for a country that works for working people once again.”

Nigel Farage, having failed to take South Thanet – leaving UKIP with just one MP – followed through on his pledge to step down if defeated, at least for a few days.

The exception was Jim Murphy.

The Scottish Labour leader lost his seat to Kirsten Oswald by just over 2,700 votes.

Taking to the stage in Glasgow, after what he called a “dreadful” night for the party, he began to dissect where he thought things had gone wrong.

“Scotland has given the SNP a mandate on a scale unprecedented for any political party – not just in Scotland but right across the UK.”

“We had, by anyone’s measure, the most radical manifesto.

“The dedication of our activists was extraordinary but we have been overwhelmed by history and by circumstance. We make no excuses. A party can never blame the electorate. But we found ourselves hit by the perfect storm of three main factors.

“First, the simple maths of a Yes vote finding a home in one party versus a No vote spread across three. It is clear that it will be some time before the divisions of the referendum fade into distinctions between traditional left and right.

“Second, we were hit by two nationalisms. A Scottish nationalism reassuring people that they could vote SNP and get Labour. And an English nationalism stoked up by David Cameron warning, vote Labour and get SNP.

“Unsurprisingly, forced into an artificial contest between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism, many Scots, including many no-voting Scots, chose the SNP.

“And let’s be clear: it wasn’t just in Scotland that the SNP cost Labour votes.

“And the third factor is of course the long-standing problems that led me to stand for leadership in the first place, we had for too long lacked a clear message, a clear offer and continuity of leadership. Five leaders in seven years. We did not have the time or the space to turn it around.”

Without holding an elected position, Murphy would have been unable to run for Labour leadership. As the incumbent he is able to stay on, despite the loss. Whether or not he should is a different matter, and the pressure began to build within hours of his speech.

Neil Findlay – one of those to challenge Murphy for the leadership less than six months ago – resigned from Murphy’s shadow cabinet, while stressing that he did not intend to run for the leadership himself.

In a statement distributed to the press, he said: “Thursday’s election was a disaster for the Scottish Labour Party. Despite huge efforts by all concerned, since 2007 we have gone from the dominant party of Scottish politics to a party with only 38 MSPs and one solitary MP.

“The problems of the Scottish Labour Party are wide-ranging and deep. Radical solutions are needed and can only be implemented following a full, frank, open and democratic debate led by our loyal and hard working, committed party members – a centralised fix just won’t do.

“I want to play a full part in that debate and in rebuilding our party from the grassroots up. I feel I can only do so if free from the constraints of being a member of the Shadow Team. I have therefore today submitted my resignation from the Shadow Cabinet.”

Unions soon went further by directly calling for Murphy’s resignation. Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish secretary, said: “Change must begin with a new leader. I do not say this out of any personal animus. Jim fought a courageous campaign, and the party’s problems clearly long predate his leadership. But staying on as leader will only prolong the party’s agony.”

He added: “I therefore call on Jim Murphy to resign without delay, and give the membership of the Scottish Labour Party the chance to determine their own way forward in rebuilding from Thursday’s ruins.”

“Thursday’s election was a disaster for the Scottish Labour Party."

Kevin Lindsay, Scottish secretary of train drivers union Aslef, also called for Murphy to resign, saying: “Jim Murphy has just presided over the worst election defeat in the history of the Scottish Labour Party. He has to go – and he has to go now.”

For Nicola Sturgeon – the woman who stormed the UK media during the campaign – the moment was one to savour.


Speaking under the shadow of the Forth Bridge, the FM said she was “bursting with pride” as she introduced the party’s 56 new MPs.

“Scotland has given the SNP a mandate on a scale unprecedented for any political party – not just in Scotland but right 

across the UK. We will use that mandate to speak up for and protect the interests of Scotland. And let us be very clear, the people of Scotland on Thursday voted for an SNP manifesto which had ending austerity as its number one priority – and that is the priority these men and women will now take to the very heart of the Westminster agenda.

“Now, after Thursday, and as I told the Prime Minister when I spoke to him yesterday, it simply cannot be and it will not be business as usual when it comes to Westminster’s dealing with Scotland. Scotland this week spoke more loudly and more clearly than ever before – and my message today to Westminster is this: Scotland’s voice will be heard in Westminster now more loudly than it has ever been before.”

No doubt the SNP will face challenges in integrating its new MPs into a system that has always felt vaguely foreign to the party.

But for Labour, the question of where to go next is much more complicated. In order to move forward the party will need to understand what happened.

Lord Ashcroft polled voters across the UK in the hope of finding out what determined decision-making, with 75 per cent of respondents saying that trust in the motives and values of their chosen party drove how they voted. In the case of SNP voters, the number rises to 91 per cent. Among Labour voters, trust in the party’s motives and values matched the UK average, while among Tories it was lower, at 71 per cent.

Meanwhile, in a section that raises questions over Miliband’s role in the disaster, 71 per cent of Conservatives said, “I thought the leader of my party would make the best Prime Minister” as their top three motivations, versus 39 per cent for Labour.

Clearly the UK party has thinking to do.

Tony Blair, unsurprisingly, used the result as a platform to a call for a return to the centre, writing that “the route to the summit lies through the centre ground”.

In an article published in The Observer the weekend after the vote, Blair said: “The Labour Party has to be for ambition as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don’t just want us celebrating their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that, we support it.”

How well the strategy of moving right would work in Scotland is unclear, with the SNP having painted Labour as being pro-austerity to great effect over the last few months. And so what happens next for Labour remains to be seen.  A Labour win would have brought more obvious areas of cooperation, particularly as Sturgeon moved her party’s stance on issues like a mansion tax or a 50p tax rate to match that of Ed Miliband’s party.

A majority Tory government is a different prospect, and though much of Scotland will seethe at the number of seats won by a party still, despite Ruth Davidson’s best efforts, considered toxic north of the border, Cameron’s success will bring opportunities for Scottish nationalists.

The most obvious area where the SNP could influence Conservative policy is on greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland, with Cameron and Sturgeon already engaged in discussions over the future of devolution.

But beyond the questions over policy, the Tory win puts the SNP in a position it has traditionally been comfortable with, as the voice of protest against a Westminster government.

And with Labour entering into a period of introspection, the time is ripe for the SNP’s 56 MPs to make waves in their new home. The SNP has been clear that its victory is not a mandate for another referendum, but that will not stop the party from furthering its cause by other means. Cynics would argue that many Tories might be all too willing to oblige.

In the heat of the campaign, Lord Forsyth warned Cameron his approach risked winning an election but losing a union.

He said: “We’ve had the dilemma for Conservatives, which is they want to be the largest party at Westminster and therefore, some see the fact that the nationalists are going to take seats in Scotland will be helpful. But that is a short-term and dangerous view which threatens the integrity of our country.”

Certainly, Cameron’s comments following the result seemed to acknowledge these fears, with the PM promising to govern for the whole UK.

Standing outside Downing Street, he promised to strengthen devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, pledging that Scotland would have “the strongest devolved parliament in the world”.

Cameron said: “We will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country, from north to south, to east to west.”

Whether that will be enough to assuage the fears of critics remains to be seen.

The irony is that, following the No vote and seen through the lens of rising English nationalism, consent to the continuation of the UK is, arguably, more secure in Scotland than it is in England.

With the Tories in power, the SNP in opposition and Labour in chaos, it could be that independence does not come from Scotland, but from Westminster.

The result of the General Election may have become apparent much earlier than many expected, but the future direction of the UK is still far from clear. 

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