Britain: Tories on the offensive, but face potential Scottish crisis

May 17, 2015
"A vote in Britain as a whole to leave the EU could also prompt a crisis if most Scots vote to stay." Supporters of "Yes" vote i

Britain's May 7 elections revealed the deep divides emerging in British society and offered the promise of a constitutional crisis and social struggles to come.

Most commentators had expected the result to be a hung parliament; polls had consistently shown the Conservative (Tory) and Labour parties to be neck and neck.

In Scotland, the polls pointed to a wipe-out of the previously dominant Labour Party, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) poised to make sweeping gains on a platform of opposing austerity and Trident nuclear weapons.

The Tories hammered the message that a minority Labour government would be beholden to the SNP, leading to chaos. Labour, meanwhile, swore it would never enter government with the SNP.

In the end, the result was a shock. The Tories increased their seats from 306 to 331 out of a total of 650. Having been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats since 2010, the Tories can now form a majority government without the need for a coalition.

Their right-wing rivals, the anti-immigrant and anti-European Little Englanders of the UK Independence Party, secured nearly 4 million votes. But under the undemocratic first-past-the-post system they gained just one seat. UKIP stole votes from Labour as well as the Tories, as millions of voters protested against the established political parties seen as corrupt and detached from ordinary workers' concerns.

The result in Scotland was a marked contrast. The SNP won a crushing victory, winning all but three of Scotland's 59 seats leaving Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats with just one seat each. To emphasise the dramatic shift this represents, in 2010, the SNP won just six seats. Labour lost 40 seats to the pro-independence party.

Turnout in Scotland was 71.1%, the highest in Britain. The result shows the legacy of last year’s independence referendum.

Although the “No” vote won the referendum, with 55% of the vote, the campaign energised Scottish politics — drawing many working class people into politics for the first time and exposing Labour, which strongly campaigned for “No”, as a voice for the Westminster establishment.

The referendum led to mass recruitment by the SNP, which now boasts more than 100,000 members. But it also sparked a deep political debate in Scottish society that went way beyond the SNP.

Left-wing English comedian Mark Steel said the way to win an election with a left-wing program in the face of a hostile media is to have a social movement behind you. In Scotland, that social movement was born during the referendum campaign and includes groups such as Radical Independence, Women for Independence, Common Weal and National Collective.

It also includes smaller pro-independence parties, such as the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party — both of which also grew post-referendum. But above all, it reflects the heightened political consciousness of millions of Scots who do not consider themselves a member of any group.

For Labour in Scotland, the election was an unprecedented disaster. The party that has dominated Scottish politics for generations was all but wiped out. It failed to win back those Labour voters who voted “Yes”, and lost a few more into the bargain.

Scottish Labour’s Blairite leader Jim Murphy, however, has refused to resign. Under his unpopular leadership and faced with a potential Blairite coup in the British Labour Party, the party looks for a long spell of political impotence in Scotland.

Giving the Scottish Labour party full autonomy would help, but this does not look likely under Murphy.

The victorious Tories have wasted little time in putting forward their right-wing program, which promises to be a nightmare for working-class people. They have vowed to cut welfare budgets by a further £12 billion, which would hammer the poorest and most vulnerable.

They also wish to further tighten the already stringent anti-union laws to make effective strike action almost impossible. They want to scrap the human rights act and even reintroduce foxhunting, keeping their aristocratic chums happy.

They have also pledged to hold a referendum on a British exit from the European Union.

Working-class people in their unions and communities across Britain face a big battle against this Tory onslaught. Already thousands have taken to the streets to protest against austerity.

The Tory majority — secured with just 36.1% of the 66.1% of voters who turned out — have only a tiny majority, leaving the government vulnerable to pressure from right-wing back benchers. It faces being riven with splits, as occurred under the Tory government of John Major in the 1990s.

There is an associated constitutional crisis brewing in relation to Scotland. The SNP victory has rekindled the prospect of another referendum on Scottish independence.

Elections to the Scottish parliament are scheduled for next year. The SNP is set for another victory and could put another independence referendum in its manifesto.

This is despite the fact the Tories have already said they would veto another referendum. A vote in Britain as a whole to leave the EU could also prompt a crisis if most Scots vote to stay.

The social and constitutional crises are linked. The Scots who voted Yes and voted SNP did so in rejection of austerity and establishment politics.

In Scotland, Radical Independence has issued a declaration calling for resistance to the Tory attacks, linked to democratic demands for Scottish independence. “The Union is at breaking point,” it said. “We are developing a strategy for independence from Westminster, neo-liberalism and Tory brutality.”

Forces to the left of Labour across Britain made only a limited impact on the elections, with the Green Party of England and Wales securing more than 1 million votes, but only one seat under the electoral system.

In Scotland, votes for left-wing parties were swallowed up by the SNP. The more proportional electoral system for Scottish parliament offers the left a more fertile ground.

However, this will mean building an effective united campaign that draws on the strength of the social movement built during the referendum.

[Alister Black is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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