Imagine a general election in which the Conservative party has been wiped out by Labour in Surrey and across its other home counties heartlands. The Scottish National party has just pulled off a similarly seismic feat, destroying Labour in this general election in once ultra-safe seats where the party used to weigh the vote, where Scottish Labour MPs used to think they had seats for life.
The careers of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Smith and Donald Dewar were built on the assumption that Scotland was solid Labour and would be in perpetuity. Now, out of 59 seats, Labour has just one. The party’s Scottish leader Jim Murphy, a former UK cabinet minister, was heavily defeated, as was Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary who doubled as Labour’s election supremo. Scotland is now an SNP country and Scottish Labour is in ruins.
But if the Tories think this outcome north of the border is amusing, they would be well advised to think again. The SNP surge leaves a prime minister celebrating a victory (outside Scotland) with a big headache. How might he respond when the SNP says that the writ of the Tories does not run in Scotland, or when the nationalists claim that this election result necessitates a second referendum on Scottish independence? That is not what the SNP is saying now, but give it a few months and it will be.
It is highly likely that the Tory leader will now offer a federal settlement for the UK, via a constitutional convention, meaning much more financial autonomy for Scotland, English votes for English laws and perhaps even a recast House of Lords representing the constituent parts of the UK on non-devolved matters. However, Mr Cameron will have to calibrate that offer carefully and not make it sound like a threat to the Scots. The SNP will also need to think carefully about how it will respond to such an offer. The risk for Nicola Sturgeon, such a star in the election, is that she might alienate some of her supporters if she accepts an offer on “devo max” from a Tory party that the SNP hates. Fiscal autonomy within the Union is problematic too, and the SNP leadership wants to delay. The fall in the oil price would leave a large hole in the finances of a Scotland forced to raise most of its own taxes.
But it is Labour that is left facing an existential crisis. What does the party become now it has been stripped so humiliatingly of Scotland? It looks now like an English and Welsh party, and a very unsuccessful English party at that. Do not underestimate the psychological impact of these developments on a party that for so long thought of Scotland as its heartland.
The writer is the former editor of The Scotsman
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