Why ‘keep the Tories out’ won’t work in Scotland this election
The Guardian, by Ruth Wishart
Old tribal rivalries have come to the fore in England, but north of the border, Brexit and independence are what people really care about.
In the BBC’s Scottish leaders debate last week a frustrated Nicola Sturgeon turned on Tory leader Ruth Davidson when the latter accused her of obsessing about independence. “She’s the one going on about independence all the time,” suggested the first minister. “I can’t get a word in edgeways.”
It is not the least of the curiosities of the UK general election in Scotland that all the opposition parties advise the electorate to vote for them to stop another independence referendum. It is “Indyref2”, not Brexit, that dominates the campaign north of Berwick.
The Scottish Tories, now the official opposition in Holyrood, have concluded their trump card is to portray themselves as the only solid defenders of the union. Labour, weakened by a disastrous showing in 2015 when they lost 41 of 42 seats, is following suit.
The SNP has made much of the fact that many pledges in Labour’s manifesto are already facts of Scottish life. Prescription charges have been abolished, as have tuition fees. There is free personal care for the elderly – albeit of uneven quality – and no hospital parking charges except for three premises with particular historical contracts. The NHS pay review was honoured, the “bedroom tax” mitigated by central funding and there has been a wholesale push for renewable energy.
The SNP will launch its manifesto this week in Perth – perhaps an acknowledgement that Conservative gains in the local elections were most visible in Perthshire and north-east Scotland. A traditional Tory stronghold, this region is where the Conservatives would dearly like to take a major scalp – former SNP leaders Alex Salmond and John Swinney, and Westminster leader Angus Robertson all hold seats there.
The SNP manifesto will include a £118bn anti-austerity, pro-growth plan for the UK economy, Sturgeon said at the weekend. It’s also likely to include a 50p top rate of tax, but targeted cuts to business taxes aimed at encouraging investment. But her campaign has proved vulnerable to attack in areas like stubborn education attainment gaps. Having achieved 50% of the vote in 2015 and 56 of the 59 seats on offer, there is nowhere to go but down.
The SNP has underplayed the independence issue – despite announcing its intention, prior to the snap election, to hold a second referendum. The party insists that a vote in the Scottish parliament, backed by the Greens, gives it the necessary mandate. Yet the unexpected general election poses problems. Sturgeon proposed a new poll between October 2018 and spring 2019, by which time the Brexit deal would be clearer, but there would still be a window to pursue a discrete Scottish single market arrangement. That may have to be rethought – not least if voter fatigue sets in or supporters appear resistant to serial calls to arms.
Regardless of all that, the view from the south is often baffling from north of the border. The constant mantra of Labour-supporting commentators in England is that if we would just make common cause, we could get rid of these pesky Tories’ punitive policies. What this ignores is that Scotland voted by almost two to one to stay in Europe. That matters. And independence, civic independence, is no longer a matter of dry, constitutional debate.
Many Scots have journeyed to the belief that as a small, European nation with an aspirational agenda more closely aligned to Scandinavia than a Brexit-infested England, Scotland can help hold the line against the current rightwing direction of travel in other parts of the UK.
An independent Scotland would not be some kind of tartan utopia. Oil prices, currency issues, uncertain trading agreements make the economic case for independence difficult. But what our friends in the south need to grasp is that Scottish voters do not exist purely to make pacts with English parties desperately trying to stem the blue tide, and restore belief in a fragmented Labour party. We share your pain. But we need to find a way not to share your likely fate. Given the choice between continuing to be a social democratic, egalitarian European nation, or living under an increasingly racist, rightwing administration in Westminster, what would you do?