UK General Election 2017

The United Kingdom’s breaking point

A tale of Scottish independence and social democracy

June 7th 2017 | Indiana | Russell Hall

Photograph by Mark Runnacles

When British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to dissolve parliament and hold snap elections, headlines everywhere predicted the fall of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. While Labour is set to win a greater share of the popular vote than it did under Ed Miliband in 2015, the implosion of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the exodus of its supporters to the Conservatives has made it likely that the Tories will emerge with a commanding majority.

Scottish progressivism

The greatest victor of a Conservative victory, however, would be Scottish independence. A cause once reserved to those on the fringe, the movement has recently merged into mainstream thought. A Conservative victory could lead to Scottish independence and the breaking of the United Kingdom, especially with the prospects of a Brexit which was opposed by 62% of the nation.

The great myth many have about Scottish nationalists is the idea that it is made up of a group of naïve ‘Braveheart-loving radicals’ who cannot get over the fact that Scotland voted to join England over three hundred years ago. To understand the rise of Scottish nationalism, one must also understand the fall of Scottish Labour.

Diagram by YouGov

The Labour Party was once a force in Scottish politics. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Labour’s commitment to social democracy and economic fairness made it the party of choice among left-leaning Scottish voters. This changed when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1994.

A self-proclaimed moderate, Blair abandoned Labour’s commitment to social democracy and embraced the neo-liberal economic policies of Margaret Thatcher. Blair was as good as his word. After Labour’s landslide victory in the 1996 General Election, Blair completed the privatization of British Rail, cut welfare aid for the disabled, and embraced deregulation of the financial system.

Quest for independence 

Labour’s shift to the right alienated Scottish voters. Sensing opportunity, the Scottish National Party (SNP) embraced the social democratic policies that Labour had abandoned.

Most importantly, the SNP linked social democracy to Scottish independence. If Scotland wanted to become a social democratic paradise, it had to separate itself from the rest of Britain. Its efforts paid off. In 2007, the party pulled off a historic upset, winning a plurality of seats in the Scottish Parliament. Four years later, the SNP won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament.

Photograph via The Herald Scotland

This defeat was short lived. In the May 2015 general election, the SNP solidified its control over Scotland, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons. Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP, ending its long-standing fortress of control over Scotland. A second independence referendum seemed inevitable. The only question left was that of time.

Dizzy with success, the SNP, in agreement with then Conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron, held a referendum on Scottish Independence in September 2014. Despite a last minute surge in support for the yes campaign, the measure was defeated — with 45 percent voting yes and 55 percent voting no.

The Corbynite revolution

Then, something unexpected happened. In September 2015, Labour Party voters elected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. A self-described democratic socialist, Corbyn promised to end austerity cuts to public services, renationalize the railways and public utilities, increase taxation on the wealthy, liberalize immigration laws, oppose military intervention, support unilateral nuclear disarmament, and take serious steps to address climate change. In short, Corbyn sought to return Labour to its social democratic roots.

Photograph by Peter Nicholls (Reuters)

Unfortunately, most Labour Party MPs did not share this view. Despite being elected party leader by landslide margin, most Labour MPs refused to acknowledge him as their leader. From the moment Corbyn was elected, his fellow Labour MPs plotted to oust him.  The most blatant example came in June 2016 when Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn by 172 to 40 followed by a leadership challenge by Owen Smith. Corbyn would go on to win the re-election with 61.85% of the vote.

A Corbyn government may be the greatest threat to Scottish independence. As much as the SNP claims to love Corbyn, in reality, they are frightened by him; if Corbyn wins, it will show Scottish voters that social democratic change is possible from within the United Kingdom. In the words of British journalist Jonathan Cook, a Corbyn government would be a “return to the kind of compassion-based politics that once made sense to large swathes of the public — before neo-liberalism worked so hard to persuade us that we live in a jungle in which only the fittest should survive.”

General Election 2017

A Labour government under Corbyn appears to be unlikely. Disorganized and divided until recently, Labour may yet again be crushed by the Conservatives who purport to represent a “strong and stable” government for the upcoming and rather unappealing task of Brexit negotiations.

If that is the case, Theresa May would continue to be Prime Minister, and Scottish resentment with the London government would grow. Worst of all, Corbyn would be sacked and replaced by a more conservative colleague. Angered by Labour’s retreat to the right, Scottish voters would come to the conclusion that the only way forward is through independence, especially in light of Brexit.

However, in recent polls, Labour has been steadily closing the 24% gap that was initially separating it from the Tories just over a month ago. Some of the most optimistic results now show the possibility of a vote share with CON 41% to LAB 40%, which would likely result in a Labour-led coalition of the left.

Diagram by The Guardian

Needless to say, this would be a dramatic turn of events for both Labour and Scottish interests. Ultimately, it seems that the election’s results will depend entirely on youth voter turnout. The higher the turnout, the more Labour will have to gain from its millennial and middle-class support across the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, even if the Conservatives win, the Scottish independence scenario may face resistance. May herself has vowed to prevent a second referendum on independence, arguing that she would “never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union”. Such language not only fails to win the hearts and minds of Scottish voters, but it also serves to remind Scottish voters that they do not control their own destiny, something the SNP will be more than likely exploit.

In the end, the real loser of a Conservative victory would not just be Corbyn and social democracy, but also the very idea of a United Kingdom. Unless British voters embrace Corbyn, I fear that Scottish independence will be inevitable somewhere down the line.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

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