Be Careful What You Wish For

Recall the reaction of Brenda from Bristol on 18th April when the British General Election was announced: ‘You’re joking! Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake. Honestly, I can’t stand this…’. Brenda had experienced: the 2015 General Election, 2016 Brexit referendum, the 2017 English council elections, and was about to undergo the 2017 General Election. Imagine the reaction of a mythical Helen from Huntly, who had undergone: the 2014 Independence referendum, the 2015 BGE, the 2016 Scottish parliament election, the Brexit vote also in 2016, the council elections in 2017, and then the British General Election (BGE) in 2017. That’s six, to Brenda’s four; all in the space of three years. Perhaps we can understand the scunner factor, especially as Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention on 13th March to have a second ScIndyRef in the next few years.

One month later, Theresa May announced the British General Election. Sturgeon appeared to have done all the right, and obvious, things since the Brexit vote: maintaining contact with May, trying to close off any suggestion that she was jumping the referendum gun (‘now is not the time’), only to be confronted by force majeure.  Having made her bed, she had to lie in it, giving the Scottish Conservatives in particular the issue they craved: ‘saving the Union’. So they fought the local council elections in May 2017 on the constitutional question, not on local service provision, the ‘day job’ of local councillors.

If we had paid particular attention to the local election results a month before, we might have read the runes. If we exclude the vote for ‘Independent’ councillors (10%), and focused on the first preference vote shares of the four main parties, compared this with vote share in BGE 2017, we would have found the following:

Remarkably close, but in the event, not much remarked upon.

The 2017 General Election will possibly be remembered for two ‘mistakes’: May’s search for a mandate to negotiate Brexit based on a landslide victory; and Sturgeon’s manoeuvre to lay a second IndyRef on the table once the outcome of Brexit was sufficiently clear. It is, of course, easy to be wise after the event, and to treat as ‘obvious’ what is anything but, given hindsight being the wonderful thing it is meant to be.

So what does BGE 2017 mean for Scottish politics? The return of multi-party politics – which were there despite the crudities of first-past-the-post. The old saw about the versatility of ‘one club’ politics were there to behold. Second, the revival of the Tories in Scotland, virtually doubling their share of the vote in two years. Third, Labour’s hanging-on-in-there, up almost three percentage points on 2015.

With results come challenges: put simply, what do parties do for an encore? The SNP has to govern without the prospect of ScIndyRef2, and a Scottish Parliament Election in 2020 to boot, which presents challenges enough. The Tories have to face the possibility of their referendum fox being shot, which means they have to get on with their day jobs, at both local and national levels. Labour, whose vote in Scotland was 13 points below the UK party share, has to rediscover its mojo, to work out what it is actually for, and where it stands on the Scottish question. Lib-Dems remain firmly in their niche. Over all of this hangs the vulnerability of the current UK Conservative government, faced with negotiating Brexit. The message? Be careful what you wish for next time around.

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post by David McCrone
University of Edinburgh
12th June 2017

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