Paris Gourtsoyannis: What the election has taught us

Glasgow witnessed an independence march on Saturday, but the SNP has not found new support for indyref2. Picture: GettyGlasgow witnessed an independence march on Saturday, but the SNP has not found new support for indyref2. Picture: Getty
Glasgow witnessed an independence march on Saturday, but the SNP has not found new support for indyref2. Picture: Getty
Political parties are contemplating contrasting fortunes after a disappointing general election campaign marred by terror, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Had it not unfolded in the shadow of yet another terrorist horror on the streets of Britain, Sunday would still have brought a procession of deeply affecting images.

Eilidh MacLeod’s body returning home to Barra, her coffin draped in the island flag and carried across the beach behind a lone piper, was a picture of pure sadness and dignity.

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That very intimate picture of grief accompanied the huge, collective expression of love and defiance by the tens of thousands who attended the One Love benefit concert in Manchester that evening.

It brought us the bravery of Ariana Grande, who honoured the victims and their city by refusing to be diminished, even as we were reminded of the vulnerability of ordinary people enjoying themselves.

I was reminded that yesterday was the anniversary of another powerful image. As news emerged of the Tiananmen Square massacre 28 years ago, the world watched the ‘tank man’ bring an armoured column to a standstill on an empty Beijing highway.

Their circumstances and the immediacy of the danger were very different, but I was struck by the commonality of how both young people refused to be cowed by violence.

Despite twice being stopped by deadly acts of terrorism, this general election campaign comes to an end in two days when voters go to the polls.

After a debate that has frequently been bad-tempered and hollow, we’ll be asked to make an unenviable choice between two candidates for Prime Minister better known for their flaws than their qualities. So what, if anything, have we learned over the past seven weeks?

Scotland went into this election being told there would be a second independence referendum by the spring of 2019. That prospect now seems remote.

It isn’t just because of the constitutional deadlock, but because Nicola Sturgeon has had to face voters with her plans sooner than she would have wished.

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Too many of them have said no. From the Borders housewife who previously backed independence and the SNP, to the Yes-voting East Renfrewshire cabbie who repeated back Theresa May’s “now is not the time” soundbite, I’ve met and heard from voters who will cast their first Tory vote out of fear of indyref2.

Even among the majority who will stick with the SNP, Ms Sturgeon still has to make peace with the Eurosceptics. For that reason as much as any other, a referendum before the UK and Scotland’s exit from the EU is complete looks unlikely.

If and when it finally comes, it increasingly feels as if it will have to be accompanied by a separate debate on an independent Scotland’s relationship with Europe.

For Labour, Jeremy Corbyn has seized the opportunity to show the country what political anoraks learned from two leadership campaigns - that he can win over a crowd and appeal to the anti-political mood by appearing ordinary and compassionate.

Kezia Dugdale has also had a good campaign, finding a new register when taking on both the SNP and the Conservatives over their records in government. For someone whose time in Labour politics has coincided with a period of nearly unbroken decline, she has managed to keep a smile on her face.

She has half-finished plans to reform her party’s internal structures and bring on a new generation of candidates and officials. It increasingly looks as if she won’t just get to make those changes, but may see them bear fruit.

Liberal Democrats went into this election hopeful that anger at Brexit could fuel their revival. But their campaign sputtered off the start line as leader Tim Farron faced awkward questions over his Christian beliefs, and eventually stalled as it became clear that only a small pool of voters still hold a torch for the EU. The Scottish Lib Dems face the very real possibility of outnumbering their colleagues from the rest of the UK.

As with the SNP and independence, the offer to reconsider the EU referendum result decision has come too soon for the Lib Dems. But that message could still become relevant if Brexit negotiations fail.

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If they persist and focus on shifting support from former heartlands to urban areas, a new, young leader could make good on a revival. Many will be watching to see if Jo Swinson can win in East Dunbartonshire.

Ruth Davidson’s stock is already high, and set to rise further if the Tories win the of Scottish seats that are expected. Much of that success is based on staunch opposition to a second referendum. But the campaign has also shown the Scottish Tories can still be put in a difficult position by their UK leadership.

Davidson was at her least comfortable having to defend the rape clause and the Conservative government’s record on security and foreign policy.

Both she and Scottish Secretary David Mundell were caught out in the weeks following the EU referendum, calling for compromises that were then ruled out by Downing Street. Rocky Brexit negotiations could make life difficult in years to come.

Terrorism has already cast its shadow over this campaign, with the idea of mass internment for those suspected of radicalism - a group numbering some 23,000 people - being discussed with an openness and credulity that scarcely seems possible.

UKIP’s vote has been absorbed by the Tories, but if it or a new force emerge on the right with a powerful Brexit betrayal narrative, it will be possible to trace its origins back to this election.

Throughout a dismal campaign, the only reassurance has been the sense of a public demanding more from reluctant political leaders. In televised set-pieces, the audience have consistently been the star questioners, and the collapse in the Tory lead at least offers this warning for the future: if you’re going to call an election, make sure you have plenty to say.