Scottish National Party victories real seismic change in UK election

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond and current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond and current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21)

There is no shortage of political intrigue for Britain’s political chattering classes to fixate on following Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives win of a majority in Parliament on Thursday.

Why were the opinion polls so wrong? Whose idea was in to have opposition Labour’s commitments carved on a giant stone monolith? Will David Miliband, beaten by younger brother Ed for the Labour leadership, return from across the sea in America? What will London Mayor Boris Johnson, long a political rival of Cameron and now back in Parliament, do next?

The truth, though, is that who won Downing Street may not be close to the most significant outcome of last night’s vote.

The real seismic change was the sweeping victory by the Scottish Nationalists who have now all but eradicated the mainstream London-based parties north of the border.

Only last September, the SNP were seen by many as a spent political force after their failure to win their independence referendum. Now, however, it is clear that was only the start of the story.

Another vote on that subject now seems more likely, even if it was not an SNP election promise, and even if a majority of Scots are still seen wanting to continue in the union.

Who governs in London is still important. David Cameron’s victory — particularly in an election previously judged too close to call — will enhance his personal authority. The Conservatives will continue to trim public spending more aggressively than Labour would have.

There will now be a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership in 2017.

But the Conservatives must now rule without any representation in Scotland. Already, the SNP are talking about how “illegitimate” that makes London rule.

A Labour victory, however, would have delivered an opposite but equal problem. Now wiped out in Scotland — once one of its strongholds — they would have been likely dependent on SNP support to rule. The level of influence that would have given the SNP in Westminster, many believe, would have infuriated English voters.

Britain’s traditional two-party dominance has been fraying for decades with the rise of the third-party Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP.

The Liberal Democrat bubble, of course, has now seemingly collapsed. The price of the 2010 coalition deal was compromise — particularly on university tuition fees — and their voters have abandoned them as a result.

The SNP have avoided such a trap. They may have lost last year’s referendum but in other respects it played into their hands. All three London-based parties banded together to fight them in what many Scots considered an excessively patronizing and fear-based campaign.

The pro-union campaign may have won the referendum battle but for the time being at least, they lost the war.

The Conservatives were already all but extinct north of the border. Now Labour and the Liberal Democrats have joined them, taking with them an entire generation of Scottish politicians who had focused their political energies on Westminster rather than Edinburgh.

The SNP has been able to ride the broader antiestablishment backlash that followed the financial crisis. Labour, meanwhile, still finds itself heavily blamed for both the 2008 crash and perceived overspending in the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Partly as a result, Scotland and England now seem on different political cycles. Scotland has moved to the left, England much less so, perhaps even to the right.

Within England, Labour may recover. A similar unexpected defeat in 1992 was, after all, followed by the Tony Blair Labour landslide five years later.

Throughout this campaign, there have been complaints from all sides that neither party leader had true “rockstar” potential. The next election could be a different matter.

On the conservative side, Boris seems the one to watch. The Labour leadership campaign is only just beginning. But it too could yield interesting results.

Current favorite is Andy Burnham, a career political professional more in the Cameron/Miliband mould. Then there is Chuka Umunna, a rising star often compared to Barack Obama, as well as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Then there is Bradford MP Dan Jarvis, a former officer in the notoriously tough Parachute Regiment. A face-off between him and Johnson would be a very different matter to Cameron and Miliband.

Cameron may still prove the real victor. Having pledged not to seek a third term in office, he could find himself the first Prime Minister to leave office on his own terms in decades, avoiding the normal rate of electoral defeat or internal party coup.

For now, however, it’s what is happening in Scotland that really matters. it’s not clear the United Kingdom can survive it.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters

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