Following the 2014 independence referendum, Scottish Conservative and Labour politicians know all too well the dangers of constitutional debates around cultural identity, but their party chiefs south of the border don’t seem to have been listening, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
“We’ll pay for this” – the oath supposedly uttered by every God-fearing Scot as protection from the good fortune of a bright, cloudless morning. And knowing the Scottish weather, if anyone actually said it, they were often right.
A hint of the prophetic runs through all the favourite Scottish stereotypes, from Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters foreseeing the coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, to Billy Connolly’s gallus wisdom, through the fatalism of the Reverend IM Jolly, to the unshakeable conviction of any Scottish football fan propping up the bar. Cassandra’s mantle rests easily on the shoulders of Scots, who in my 13 years of experience, rarely hesitate to tell you what’s coming – especially if it’s no good.
I make that slightly risky observation to follow it up with a bit of remedial flattery: the UK Conservative and Labour parties must wish they had listened to Scotland.
As they contemplate the wreckage of disastrous European elections that delivered both Tories and Labour their worst ever results, Scotland has every right to say: Hell mend you. You were warned.
It wasn’t just the general caution offered by the 2014 independence campaign, which foreshadowed the fragmentation of political allegiances, growing nationalist sentiment, distrust of traditional elites and the media, and the breakdown of some of the niceties of political debate – all of which were repeated and amplified by the 2016 EU referendum. There were specific warnings, too.
Alastair Darling, exhausted in the hours after saving the Union, still had the presence of mind to tell David Cameron not to announce English Votes for English Laws that morning, and turn defeat into victory for the SNP.
David Mundell warned Cameron and George Osborne that their reboot of the ‘Project Fear’ campaign in the EU referendum wasn’t the vote-winner they thought it was, and would backfire. He must think about that moment a lot.
And Ian Murray, joined by other Scottish Labour veterans of the 2014 referendum campaign, has spent the last three years warning Jeremy Corbyn of the consequences of sitting on the fence over a divisive, binary national question tangled in the barbed wire of cultural identity and the constitution. Now, like Cassandra’s nightmares come true, Labour and the Tories have been thrown from the battlements. But the results in Scotland show they haven’t hit the ground yet.
Having breached the gates, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party can sack what’s left of the Westminster two-party system. Already, his victory means Farage can expect to enjoy another five years in the media spotlight.
In 2014, Ukip followed up its European victory with a humbling for the Conservatives in the Clacton by-election. Next week, the poll in Leave-voting Peterborough gives Farage the chance to plunge the two-party establishment into an even deeper panic.
Two months ago, when European elections had just been announced, I wrote that the UK should prepare for Tommy Robinson MEP. Thankfully, I was wrong.
The day that was published, the first EU election poll had Labour in the lead, followed by Ukip; the Brexit Party hadn’t yet signed Farage up and had the support of just one-in-ten voters.
The genius of Farage’s new vehicle was that it used the radicalisation of Ukip, with its trolls, criminals and racists, as a vessel to siphon off a decade of accumulated impurities. Farage was Dorian Grey, with Ukip as the picture in the attic.
Already, again, the wrong lessons are being learned. Some pollsters and commentators say the Brexit Party has already passed its peak; in 2014, Ukip voters said they would back the party in the general election the following year, but didn’t.
The Tories and Labour weren’t polling around 10 per cent each in 2014, and if the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that politics post-Brexit don’t follow the pre-Brexit rules.
Desperate Labour frontbenchers in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London have swung behind a second EU referendum under any circumstances – but what if it’s too late?
Some commentators look at the rehabilitation of the Liberal Democrats and say how quickly political fortunes can change – but the Lib Dems went through a decade of pain to get here, a process sped up by the political opportunity of Brexit handed to them by Labour.
Voters didn’t just punish the main parties for the failure to deliver or fight against Brexit, but the haplessness of the failure. That impression, built up over three years, could take much longer to dispel, especially if U-turns are seen as grudging or opportunistic.
For proof of that, the UK parties only have to look to Scotland, and the total collapse of Labour. The natural party of government came fifth in the polls and lost both its MEPs, including one of the most experienced parliamentarians in these islands. Another leader who never fully got to grips with the job is possibly on his way out, and there is no one to follow him.
As a chaotic, overcrowded leadership contest gets underway, the Scottish Tories have plenty to worry about, too. They owe their revival to post-referendum polarisation, and the remarkable fact that the highest Tory vote share anywhere in the UK was recorded in Scotland, saving their sole MEP, must be thanks to a core of Unionist voters who have nowhere else to go.
How will those voters react to Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, as he is the favourite to do? If there was one thing that Theresa May got credit for from Scottish Tories, it was believing in her mantra of the “precious Union”. Johnson can’t command anything like that respect, and his persona of the consequence-free ‘Merry Englander’, as described by his biographer Andrew Gimson, doesn’t seem to impress as much in Presbyterian Scotland, where things have a price. And when the inevitable clashes with Ruth Davidson come, how will that look?
Most of all, Scotland offers this warning to the two main parties: the SNP still rides high in the polls despite the fatigue of 12 years in government because it is fuelled by constitutional dispute.
Across Europe, these elections accelerated the political fragmentation that the UK had been remarkable in avoiding. At the end of the beginning of Brexit, the UK parties shouldn’t need Macbeth’s witches to tell them: they’ve only just started paying for this.