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Joyce McMillan: Forget the Doomsday scenario, here's the Caledonian Paradox

SO NOTHING changed, here in Scotland; and yet, at some deeper level, everything changed. Measured against the election result of May 2005, the outcome of Thursday's UK general election in Scotland showed no shift in our parliamentary representation; we still have 41 Labour MPs, 11 Liberal Democrats, six SNP members and one Tory.

Apart from a 3.7 per cent slide in Liberal Democrat support, as voters returned to Labour for fear of a Conservative victory, everything was within a couple of percentage points of the 2005 result; and all was stability and peace.

Yet when we looked at ourselves in the mirror, on Friday morning, we saw a nation subtly redefined, by a profound shift in the relationship with England that has shaped our history. For if we stayed the same on Thursday – or reaffirmed a slightly stronger support for the Labour Party, in the face of the perceived threat to public services – then we have to face the fact that England changed, in a way that a majority of Scots find unsympathetic at best.

So where the Labour share of the vote in Scotland increased by 2.5 per cent, to around 42 per cent, in England it plummeted by more than 7 per cent. Where the Conservative share of the vote in Scotland barely changed, flatlining at about 16 per cent, in England the party claimed a commanding 40 per cent of the total vote. And although there was a tiny handful of English seats – mostly in Liverpool – where the Labour vote rose as it did in Scotland, there was no real sign of the great north-south divide that characterised Britain in the age of Margaret Thatcher. Even Sunderland and Carlisle swung towards the Tories; while a few miles away, across the Border, Scotland's sole Conservative MP David Mundell – strikingly popular in his seat – struggled to raise his share of the vote by more than a point or two.

What we have seen in this election, in other words, is not so much the Doomsday Scenario so beloved of Scottish pundits as the emergence of a new and fateful Caledonian Paradox. On one hand, the Border now marks a sharper political divide than ever before, one defined this time not by socio-economic self-interest or post-industrial trauma, but primarily by national identity and culture. Faced with that UK ballot paper, hundreds of thousands of Scots seem to have been drawn back towards the brooding figure of Gordon Brown as a leader whose values they fundamentally share, while most parts of England, and much of Wales, could hardly wait to be rid of him.

Yet on the other, while our pattern of voting increasingly marks us out as a nation apart, the party through which we choose to signal our difference is itself Unionist; on Thursday night, the SNP, as the party of independence, emerged with barely 20 per cent of the vote. So when Alex Salmond says that this election result has dealt his party "a mighty hand", he is only half right. It has shown that Scotland is a different country, all right, with a different political culture; in that sense, the electorate has made the SNP's case for it. But it has not demonstrated any growing support for independence. On the contrary, it is now clear that, if the SNP wants to demonstrate that independence represents Scotland's only possible route to the Nordic-style social democracy it wants, then it is still barely at the start of the process of persuasion; and the SNP's slightly shifty ideological performance in the campaign has done nothing to advance its cause.

So now, when we look at ourselves, we see a nation in a strange kind of political limbo.

We have voted in huge numbers for a party that will probably, a week from now, be exiled from power in both London and Edinburgh. We have demonstrated once again that the experience of the 1980s inflicted irreparable damage on the relationship between Scotland and the Conservative Party, damage that shows no signs of healing, a generation on. We have delivered yet another strong indication that the reason for that rejection of post-1970s Conservatism runs deep, and reflects a major clash of values, in that we do not like the neoliberal mantra of hostility to state provision and state power; we prefer, instead, to see state and society as partners in improving the lives of ordinary people. And we do not, at the deepest and most tribal level, like to see a Scottish prime minister being given the kind of relentless, contemptuous kicking Gordon Brown has received from the London political and media elites over the past three years; nor do most Scots want to see him replaced by a Thames Valley Conservative from a background so intensely privileged, both socially and financially, that he seems almost like a creature from another world.

In a general election campaign characterised by evasion of the main economic issues facing the country, in other words – and by a huge emphasis on the personality and style of the leaders – we have seen voters, in the absence of serious debate, finally thrown back on to tribal and cultural gut-reactions as divisive as they are powerful. It is a shift in UK politics from which the SNP can certainly benefit, if it plays its cards right.

It is not, though, the kind of development in which anyone who is interested in progressive politics can take much comfort. And it will take leadership of a quality we have not yet seen in Scotland – whether from the SNP, or from others – to convert that instinctive Labour impulse into a real programme for a better future; one that respects and sustains the best of the values once enshrined in the old Labour movement, while facing the harsh realities of the 21st century in which Scotland must now make its way, with or without the old partner who turned away, on Thursday, to pursue a path that Scotland will follow only under protest, and may finally refuse to share at all.

 
 
 

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