In one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, voters gave a decisive rejection of the current government and its leader. My party worked hard to secure that victory – we knocked every door, rang every phone and pressed the issues that the people of Shropshire care about – but such a tidal wave of change would not have been possible without the growing sense amongst regular people that the government was on the wrong track, and that change is needed.
Between mounting corruption and sleaze scandals and the charge of hypocrisy over lockdown rules – to say nothing of the harm done to farmers and other businesses as a result of their bungled trade deals – the Tory edifice was already wobbling. North Shropshire was yet another hammer blow at the crooked foundations that hold Boris Johnson up.
His position is shaky – but he is far from the only one with something to lose.
The Prime Minister has been the SNP’s greatest recruiting sergeant these past two years. The nationalists are right to be afraid that their symbiotic relationship with the Tories risks being broken apart if voters in all parts of the UK start to realise that Johnson can be beaten and that a change in government may be coming.
It is said sometimes that the Conservatives are the “natural party of government” – that unless other parties can prove their case to govern, the Tories win by default. Whether or not the claim has any merit, the biggest boosters of the idea of inevitable Tory rule are the SNP.
It is not hard to see why. The quasi-English-nationalist strain of Conservatism that has become dominant in the party in the last few years has been a perfect foil for the Scottish nationalists.
All manner of political and moral questions become a great deal easier when you can hand wave away people south of the Tweed on the basis that they are “irredeemable”, a caricature of our worst excesses rather than the living, breathing, nuanced and changing human beings that we all are in reality.
That most Scottish people dislike Johnson’s aristo-populist form of politics is hardly surprising. The problem for the SNP, however, is that most English, Welsh and Northern Irish people feel the same way. They proving that more and more in the polls, and at the ballot box. Frustration with King Boris and his government is not unique to Scotland – it is something we share with every corner of the country.
Even the current Conservative majority in Parliament was built upon a minority of votes in 2019. Grievance against a Tory government is less a reason for independence than it is a call for electoral reform and proportional representation to be delivered.
What if, instead, Scots looked south to see a reforming, progressive government in place of the Conservatives? If Westminster saw a change of management, whether a single party or a coalition, empowering those with a real commitment to progress and change, then a great deal of the fear factor that powers SNP support would drop away overnight.
After all, this has happened before. It was barely 20 years ago that the devolution settlement for Scotland and Wales was agreed and implemented, and discussions on further constitutional reform have never ceased since.
If the majority of Scots are old enough to remember a time when there was no Scottish Parliament then it belies the claim that meaningful change within the United Kingdom is impossible. Indeed, in those days many wondered if the Conservatives could ever recapture power again – yet more evidence, if it were needed, that political narratives are never so fixed as the SNP would have you believe.
Liberal Democrats have been strong advocates for federal and electoral reform, and Labour are (belatedly) coming on side as well. There is growing evidence that within a few years we could see the wheels turn again on progressive change across our country. We’ve done it before – we can do it again.
The SNP narrative of an irreparable, irredeemable United Kingdom is not merely wrong on the facts however – it is wrong on the principles too. No political movement that claims to be “progressive” can lean on arguments that amount to dismissing en masse the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland on the grounds that “they cannot be fixed”. It rather betrays the less-than-liberal roots of nationalist thinking.
If you believe in liberal democracy, then you believe that progress is always possible as long as you keep making your case. Change may come in fits and starts, or see reverses along the way, but nothing is ever set in stone. Nothing – and no people – is ever “irredeemable”. We keep debating and voting and changing with time. We make our pitch again and again, based on our values and our ideals.
The SNP’s strongest pitch, however, repeated ad nauseum throughout the last two years, has been about personality politics: “Would you rather have Nicola or Boris?” It speaks volumes about the emptiness of their offer. After 14 years of failure on education, on the NHS, on the economy – all we hear from the SNP is “at least we are better than the bottom of the barrel”.
It also speaks volumes about the SNP’s coming weakness when King Boris is finally dethroned.
After all, if voters are getting wise to governments which run on failure and distraction, and leaders complacent in the assumption that their right to rule cannot be broken, why on Earth should they stop with Boris Johnson?
Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and party spokesperson on home affairs, Northern Ireland and constitutional reform