Victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could reshape UK, while a Boris Johnson win may lead to Scottish independence, writes Joyce McMillan.
It’s the general election that no-one except Boris Johnson really wanted; the latest in the year since 1918, and so close to midwinter that voters in Shetland will have less than six hours of daylight in which to reach polling stations.
Yet as we last learned in 2017, elections are strange beasts; not only reflections of the political landscape, but catalysts which can change and reshape it. And as soon as this one was announced, a subtle shift seemed to take place; as if what had seemed, in anticipation, like a Christmas gift for the Prime Minister, was suddenly morphing into something much more nuanced, and full of possible pitfalls.
For consider this; that although many Scottish voters of a centre-left persuasion may have been dreading this election, set at a time of year that almost guarantees a lower Scottish turnout, it may just turn out to be an electoral contest in which they can hardly lose. Over the last two decades, these voters have been shifting from Labour to the SNP, largely thanks to Alex Salmond’s masterly positioning of his party just slightly to the left of New Labour.
Most of these voters – and I am one of them – are not ideological nationalists; for them, Scottish independence is a means to an end, a way of escaping from a Tory Britain that, since 1979, has delivered far too many right-wing governments, committed to undermining the welfare-state foundations of the postwar British state.
So it’s worth observing that if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party does better than expected in this campaign, and even finishes as the largest party at Westminster, the UK political landscape will change in ways that are profoundly significant to that large group of Scottish voters. Of course, the current wisdom is that Corbyn will not do well, and that his party’s long-term vagueness about Brexit will prove a fatal weakness.
Injustice, privilege and corruption
Yet the truth of this election is that while the current Tory leadership has been almost entirely focussed on achieving a hard Brexit – and has been shedding “moderate” Tory MPs at an alarming rate, as a result – the Labour Party has spent the last four years developing a policy programme that actually addresses some of the deep-seated ills in current British society, and is built around the idea of a Green New Deal that begins to tackle the climate crisis – now a major concern for voters – in a way that offers hope.
The possibility cannot be discounted that over a six-week election campaign, with mandatory equal broadcast coverage, that programme will begin to exert a strong appeal for a country tired of social injustice, privilege and corruption; nor will that appeal stop at the Border. And for Scottish social democrats, that will be good news, in that it creates pressure on the SNP to sharpen up its social-democratic credentials, and to avoid drifting too far towards the neoliberal centre; and also raises the possibility, faint but fascinating, of a Labour or Labour-led government at UK level.
Suppose, though, that none of this happens; that the current Conservative poll lead holds, and that Boris Johnson indeed returns to Downing Street with an overall majority, on a powerful wave of pro-Brexit votes. To judge by Boris Johnson’s recent prime ministerial performance – culminating in his spectacular threat to seize back control of the Scottish NHS, at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions – this would indeed herald a grim time for Scottish social democrats; an imposed hard Brexit, a blow to the Scottish economy that would deeply damage confidence, a likely undermining of the devolution settlement, and a deterioration in vital rights and protections, all made worse by a humiliating Brexit settlement in which every country of the UK gets something like the EU outcome they voted for, except Scotland.
Threat of disinformation
Yet even in the face of Scotland’s ingrained caution on all matters constitutional, it seems to me that this outcome, with this Prime Minister, can only hasten the moment when Scotland finally decides, by one means or another, to take control of its own future. To put it bluntly, if the UK as a whole can re-elect a Tory government now – after that party’s recent spectacular displays of incompetence, self-interest, deliberately divisive politics and sheer illegality, combined with a decade of deliberate impoverishment of vital public services – then there must be little hope of political change or reform, at UK level, for at least the next decade; and eventually, Scots will draw their own conclusions, and vote for independence.
So what can go wrong, this time round, for the Scottish centre-left? The most depressing outcome might be another hung parliament, providing no clarity about the direction of UK politics, and a guarantee of further confusion.
Then there is the possibility of an all-out effort, as part of the Conservative campaign, to weaken the position of Scotland’s centre-left by driving down the SNP vote through a fierce targeted campaign of disinformation; already, on social media, I have seen strong assertions that the Scottish NHS is “the worst-performing in the UK” and that many Scottish constituencies “voted strongly to Leave” in the 2016 referendum, both demonstrably false. With Facebook refusing to ban fake facts in political advertising, the possible impact of a deliberate campaign of online lies, similar to the one co-ordinated by Dominic Cummings during the EU referendum campaign, cannot be ignored.
It remains true, in other words, that this winter election is one of the least predictable of modern times. With a little luck, though, and a little street wisdom about how to deal with modern methods of voter manipulation, those on the centre-left of Scottish politics – probably a majority of us in this country – stand to emerge on the morning of 13 December with a clearer view of our choices. Either the UK will reject Boris Johnson in ways that offer hope for a new and reformed Union, or it will fail to do so, confirming for many the gradually growing view that independence represents our only realistic way forward; and for that, in the end, those of us trudging to the polls through the darkness of a Scottish December may finally have reason to be grateful.