WESTMINSTER must ensure it does not repeat in Scotland its failure to handle Irish nationalism post-1918, writes Peter Jones.
An unprecedented landslide? In Scottish political history, yes, and congratulations to the SNP for achieving it, though David Cameron bears some responsibility. But in British political history, no. This has happened before. Indeed, the precedent has some horrid political lessons for the main British political parties.
The SNP landslide tore away one of the bindings holding together the union
In 1918, Ireland was still part of Britain. In the election that year, Sinn Fein, previously a fringe hard-line nationalist movement which had only scored some moderate electoral success and had seven parliamentary seats at Westminster, swept the board in Ireland. It won 73 of Ireland’s 105 parliamentary seats. Irish independence inevitably followed.
The parallels carry an eerie echo down the years. Sinn Fein’s success followed years of failure by moderate nationalists. The long-dominant Irish Parliamentary Party, whose 68 seats were reduced to six, had aimed to secure home rule for Ireland within the UK and had secured passage of legislation to that effect in 1914. This was, however, put into cold storage, nominally because of the outbreak of war, but in reality because of Unionist opposition.
Sinn Fein, from nowhere, secured 47.7 per cent of the Irish vote, rising to 65 per cent in what was to become the Irish Republic. It was an extraordinary feat, as the party was virtually outlawed, its literature liable to seizure and meetings to being broken up while its agents were frequently arrested.
This, of course, tells us that the historical context was completely different – a world war, conscription, an armed rebellion, decades of British brutality and near-imperialism in Ireland, the list of horrors incomprehensible to modern minds goes on. And I am certainly not suggesting that 1918’s bloody aftermath in Ireland is likely to be repeated in Scotland. That would be absurd.
But some lessons are worth drawing. If the political objective of the British establishment had been to keep Ireland in the union, then the policies pursued to that end were a complete and abject failure. The resistance of Unionists, and not just Northern Irish Unionists, to Ireland gaining devolved self-government was a failure. Repression of nationalist politics was a failure. Trying to Britishise Ireland was a failure.
Of course, no modern British government has tried to do anything of that nature to Scotland. In Mr Cameron’s previous five years, his government passed the Scotland Act 2012, devolving some fiscal powers, legislated to clear the legal path for an independence referendum, and instituted the Smith Commission to devolve more and rather significant tax powers. He has promised to implement its recommendations in his second term.
Whatever you may think of those powers, Mr Cameron cannot be accused of any breach of faith. The SNP fully signed up to the Smith Commission, let’s remember, and as I recall the announcement of its proposals in the National Museum, the SNP was part of the consensus behind the report.
But now all this seems to have been a bit of a failure as well. This is where Mr Cameron bears some of the responsibility for the SNP success, rather in the way that Margaret Thatcher, principally because of the poll tax, is sardonically credited with being the midwife of the Scottish parliament.
He told voters in England that they should be frightened by the prospect of SNP MPs propping up a Labour government. The implied message to Scots was obvious – vote in the SNP and Westminster will have to pay attention to Scotland. Mr Cameron may be happy that this has dealt a near-death blow to Labour in Scotland, and perhaps put Labour out of UK power for a decade, but he now faces Britain’s most difficult domestic question – how to deal with a rampant Nationalist party. A lesson from 1918 is what the price of not finding the right solution could be.
What he has done so far has provided him with one political bonus. The referendum result is still fresh in the political memory and, outside the ranks of most of the 45 per cent Yes voters, there is no appetite for a re-run. Nicola Sturgeon recognised that in saying that the election result would change nothing.
Indeed she deserves an additional note in history for being the first SNP leader in modern times to fight an election not wanting independence to be the result. Though there may be many in SNP ranks thinking that winning 50 per cent of the vote and 56 out of 59 seats is as clear a mandate for independence as could be wanted (better than Sinn Fein in 1918), the fact is that it isn’t.
This, however, is no more than a breathing space for Mr Cameron, a space to think out some clear strategy to avoid becoming the last prime minister of the United Kingdom, for I now think that there is now a much stronger possibility of UK break-up than was the case during the referendum.
That’s because the SNP landslide tore away one of the bindings holding together the union – a UK-wide party with a reasonable chance of being in power. Since there are precious few of these strappings left, and Labour can be expected to descend into destructive in-fighting rather than a constructive re-think, it falls to Mr Cameron to find a way to save the union.
Does he realise that? As he has telephoned Ms Sturgeon and is arranging an early meeting, there are signs of it. But I doubt that he realises the scale of the political task he faces. His party’s manifesto won support from just 15 per cent of the Scottish electorate, less than a third of the backing the SNP secured, and elected just one Scottish MP. So Ms Sturgeon, rather than he, can claim to have Scotland’s mandate.
Thus he faces the dilemma that Lloyd George, Churchill, Asquith and others (in the Irish context) were defeated by: should the demands of the Nationalists be met and hence implicitly their legitimacy and mandate be accepted, or should they be rebuffed in the name of UK national unity and the hope of reversing the tide?
The events of 1918 suggest that the latter course appeals more to unthinking Unionists but is doomed, while the former has much less appeal but a bit more chance of succeeding. Mr Cameron has a long, long, and dangerous balancing act in front of him.