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By Jason Michael
By five o’clock this morning the disappointment of the Scottish independence movement online was palpable. We did not have a good night, but we did not exactly have a bad night either. Starting from a base of 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats – a share of 95 per cent – losses and disappointment were inevitable. We won those seats in 2015 largely thanks to the disorganisation of the unionist electorate. The single most significant effect of the 2012-14 independence campaign has been the political polarisation of Scotland, driving voters into two opposing opinion groups.
In 2015 unionist voters were still very much attached to their parties as a means of resisting the rise of the independence movement. Last night it was obvious that that dynamic has changed. Unionists are now tactically voting, migrating from one party to another in each constituency depending on the statistics particular to each locality. This consolidation, more than any other factor, conspired to deprive the Scottish National Party of 21 seats across the country. Naturally, there are calls for some soul searching in the movement, and perhaps a little analysis of Scotland’s election is the best and most productive place to begin.
Given that the constitutional debate in Scotland has, in the main, transcended party allegiance, rather than discussing the particular breakdown of votes across the individual parties this assessment will focus on the two opinion groups; the unionist (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat) and pro-independence positions (National Party and the Greens). Looking at the numbers from this perspective two things become immediately obvious; the unionist vote has grown and consolidated, and the independence movement has become a little complacent.
Overall turnout fell by about 4.7 per cent from 2015, with 260,770 fewer people turning out to vote. The rise in support for the unionist parties and the fall in support for the SNP and the Greens indicate that it was pro-independence support that failed to vote. Any swing to the unionist camp – no more than 11 per cent – is marginal, the result of undecideds and greater effort by the unionists to mobilise voters on the day. Broadly speaking, however, there has been no real or substantial change in support for the unionist side in this election. The difference in the figures comes down to a failure in the independence movement to keep voters engaged and active.
Overt BBC Partisanship in the Coverage
BBC bias on the side of the Conservatives and/or the London establishment shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us, but the pitch of the hostility towards the SNP on the BBC count show last night was terrifying. It is quite clear that something has changed. We can only imagine that in the briefing rooms before the broadcast went live presenters David Dimbleby and Laura Kuenssberg were instructed on the language and tone to be used with regard to the National Party in Scotland.
When we hear a BBC anchor say “we have gained…,” in reference to a Conservative win in a National Party held constituency, we can see that sides are being taken – and blatantly so. At every stage of the election broadcast the rhetoric was that of the battlefield; “regained,” “losing ground,” “retreat.” Always it was us and them, as though the SNP was an enemy invader and not a legal political party in a free and democratic society. This was disturbing, and we can be pretty sure that this marks a watershed in British media reporting in Scotland.
What too was deeply unsettling was the conspicuous lack of reporting of SNP wins. The Scottish National Party began the night as the largest party in Scotland and the third largest party in the UK – quite a feat for a “regional” party that only runs in Scottish constituencies. It ended the night still Scotland’s largest party and still the third largest in the UK, but precious little of this was covered by the BBC. Without other sources of information – the live interactive election map for example – the impression given by the London media was that the SNP had been utterly obliterated.
Considering the song and dance that was made of Scotland in this general election on the show, Dimbleby and Co covered only those seats, with the single exception of Mhairi Black’s, where the National Party was expected to lose. Almost nothing was said of the other 34 seats won by the “nationalists.” At one point David Dimbleby was even overheard muttering “Bloody hell” when the SNP held an expected loss. This is all the more upsetting when we think that Scotland’s SNP voters pay the licence fee that keeps this counter-democratic institution in business.
Theresa May is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the real loser of this general election. With a slim government majority she called a snap election – one she had promised thrice not to call – in the hope of executing a power grab ahead of the Article 50 negotiations beginning next week. The polls suggested that she could increase her strength by as many as 100 seats. It was a serious miscalculation. At the end of the count she had failed to reach even a majority and is now forced into the position of looking for a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
It is unlikely that May herself will survive much longer as Tory Party leader. She promised big and failed to deliver. Her fellow Tories, airing their grievances already last night, will not easily welcome her back as leader. It is fair to say that her days are numbered, guaranteeing yet another round of Conservative Party in-fighting and state instability. If, as is expected, May tenders her resignation in the coming days the fight will be on between Amber Rudd and Boris Johnson for the keys to Number 10. In all of this, Brexit itself has become even more uncertain.
By inviting the DUP into the mix the British government has relinquished any claim to being an honest broker in the fragile politics of Northern Ireland, the DUP having a long history of association with sectarian violence and corruption. The DUP is also a hard Brexit party with frosty relations with the Irish Republic – possibly the UK’s strongest EU ally in the coming talks. Tory concessions to these Ulster loyalists will pose a real danger to the success of Brexit altogether.
While the BBC presented this general election as a real blow for the SNP in Scotland – going as far as saying outright that this “kills [Scottish] independence” – the reality is that it changes little in Scotland. The consolidation of unionist support in the Scottish constituencies only really clarifies the divide in the country over the constitution. Scottish independence is far from dead. In fact this election sealed the final part of the SNP’s triple lock for another referendum on the question; the SNP is the largest Scottish party at Westminster, it is the government party in Holyrood, and it has successfully secured the consent of the Edinburgh parliament to seek a Section 30 order from the British government. It would still be undemocratic for the UK government to refuse another Scottish referendum.
The real horror show in this general election is south of the border where the Tories find themselves at the helm of the weakest British government in memory. As is always the case in politics, it is impossible to say with certainty what will happen – but certainty is the one commodity Britain now lacks in spade loads. Brexit may well be the first casualty. The EU negotiating position is set and the Brussels team is ready to get to work. In the UK it is no longer clear if there even is a negotiating team, a clear strategy, or even a government that will last the length of the talks.
At this point in time it looks as though Theresa May will either resign, her Tory minority government and its ill-advised arrangement with the DUP will more than likely crumble under the pressure both from Europe and Ireland – sending us back to yet another general election, and the prospect of any Brexit deal beneficial to Britain just became slimmer. Things couldn’t possibly be any worse for the United Kingdom. In Scotland the real shame is that so many Scots have helped to create this unbelievably rotten mess by voting Tory in the hope of saving the Union. In the independence movement we have every reason to be cautiously optimistic – Britain’s weakness and all that.
Corbyn’s High-Five of the Night