Scottish Nationalism Could Transform British Politics

I ran into a Scottish friend recently, a diehard Socialist and Nationalist, who was not in the least discouraged by the recent negative vote on independence. “It was like the old days” he told me, with excitement in his voice “People standing on street corners talking about politics, complete strangers debating each other in the pub about the future of Scotland, the whole country came alive!”. Thinking about the default cynicism and political disengagement in most of the developed world, I had to admit that it sounded vivifying.

My friend went on: “We will still get independence and get it soon. The Labour faithful just watched the people they voted for stand on platforms next to Tories and argue against independence. They will all vote SNP in 2015. Labour’s done in Scotland; it’s ours from here on out.”

Although I didn’t say so, I thought this last claim was a bit of braggadocio or maybe an effort to salve the wounds of defeat. Shows what I know. According to The Guardian, the latest poll shows that if a general election were held today, the Scottish National Party would take away 90% of Labour’s Scottish seats! The election isn’t for 6 months, but if this holds up, it will be an earthquake in British politics for at least three reasons.

First, the SNP has a reasonable chance of becoming a kingmaker in the UK general election of 2015. Particularly in the event of a Scottish Labour wipeout, it’s not unlikely that neither of the major parties will have enough seats in Westminster to secure a majority. Unlike in prior cycles, the Liberal Democrats, who have been bleeding support for years, may not be able to make up the difference, leaving the SNP with the opportunity to enter a coalition government. It’s obvious what price they would ask for this, though it’s unclear if either major party would be willing to pay it or would instead choose to muddle through as a minority government.

Second, if the SNP control Scotland, the West Lothian question becomes more important. Even if they are not included in the UK government, being able to vote as a bloc on English policies could give the SNP a free hand to extract concessions simply by making mischief wherever possible (e.g., when the ruling party can’t get all its ducks in a row on some English-specific issue). If the Scottish MPs were Labour, this problem could be minimized by the party leadership, but SNP members of the UK parliament would not owe anything to either major party leader.

Third, the Labour Party would face significant pressures to change, and not limited to agreeing to allow only English MPs to vote on English laws. The current constituency boundaries and party support levels allow Labour the possibility of having a majority government even if almost 2/3 of the country votes for someone else. With Scotland in SNP hands, that advantage would be gone and the party would face the question of figuring out how to be more broadly appealing than it is now. Would it approach another party and try to merge? Move left, move right? I don’t know and I doubt anyone else does either, but it will be the most important decision the party has had to make in many years.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.