The independent research organisation, UK IN A CHANGING EUROPE has just published (11 December) an article – what it terms an ‘in depth exploration of an important topic’ – entitled ‘The British general election of 2019 and the future of British politics’.
This is an organisation whose output I follow and generally regard as high quality. The title sounded interesting and the article worth a reading. Its take on this subject ended up triggering these reflections.
The context of the 2019 General Election
We are reminded that: ‘It is two years since the United Kingdom went to the polling stations on a cold December day, returning Boris Johnson to Number 10 Downing Street with both a clear mandate to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the parliamentary majority to do so.’ And we’re also told that: ‘In 2019, it was the spectre of the previous election (in 2017) that haunted the campaigns of both the main parties.’
Regarding the Conservatives, following its loss of a majority in 2017 it is argued that: ‘Everything the party could change, it did, whether that be its offer to the electorate, the way it constructed and sold that offer, or the way it managed the campaign – both at headquarters and on the ground. The greater urgency of the Brexit crisis in 2019, after two years of Parliamentary deadlock, helped to ensure that Johnson’s relentlessly repeated ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan resonated with the public and thereby reduced the appeal of Labour’s ‘something for everyone’ compromise messaging.’
Notably, the author failed here to add ‘with little or no effect in Scotland’!
On Labour the analysis suggests: ‘Labour was caught in a trap during the 2017-19 Parliament: it could not afford to alienate the Remain-leaning activists and voters who provided the bulk of its 2017 support, yet could not win a subsequent election without a stronger showing among Leave voters. The party had no choice but to try and bridge the Brexit divide, yet Corbyn’s efforts to do so left Labour with a Frankenstein policy (a renegotiated deal followed by a referendum in which it would not pick a side) that neither side of a polarised electorate found attractive or convincing.’
Again the irrelevance of this to matters in Scotland is not mentioned. The thing that strikes me from all the analysis in the article is that the context which framed the 2019 GE and its electoral outcome had – to say the least – very little to do with Scotland’s politics! As to the impact of all this on Scotland, we know that’s an entirely different matter!
Other parties’ futures
Notably, and certainly from a perspective gained in Scotland, the article devotes a lot of space to the Lib Dems. And it does so despite making this observation: ‘The Liberal Democrats returned a meagre cohort of MPs to the Commons for the third successive British general election, and their leader Jo Swinson was automatically removed having lost her seat ..…’ But then it adds: ‘Yet the 2019 outcome was not wholly negative for the party, as the geography of Liberal Democrat support was reorganised by Brexit in a way which may create a platform for future success.’
Sustaining its optimism: ‘There is now a very clear battleground for the Liberal Democrats to fight on, with a swathe of target seats where it starts in a credible second place. Perhaps Swinson will be to her successor, Ed Davey, as Theresa May was to Johnson – the leader who bequeaths an electoral map which forms the basis for a breakthrough performance by their successor. Time will tell.’
The article even devotes paragraphs to the Brexit Party!
British politics or English politics?
Given much – candidly, almost all – of the content, one would be forgiven for thinking the article’s title really should have “English’ replacing ‘British’ politics.
There are 18 pages of text. So what of the place of Scotland’s politics? What of the SNP, the third largest political party, presently far ahead numerically of the Lib Dems in the British parliament?
A search for the term ‘Scotland’ yields this one return: ‘The SNP continues to dominate polling in Scotland, yet the route to a new independence referendum remains unclear.’
A search for the term ‘SNP’ yields two returns, the one in the previous extract and also this: ‘It’s hard to imagine the SNP or the Liberal Democrats propping up a minority fourth term Conservative government.’ (Did the Lib Dems not prop up a minority Tory government on a relatively recent occasion?) A search for ‘Sturgeon’ and for ‘Blackford’ gives no returns.
But a search for the term ‘Liberal’ (as in Liberal Democrats) yields 15 returns. Even Ed Davey gets a mention and Jo Swinson gets four! A search for ‘Farage’ yields three returns including one from this interesting sentence: ‘Farage’s decision to stand down candidates in Conservative seats at the 2019 British general election may therefore rank as one of the most consequential campaign decisions taken by any politician in recent years. Johnson’s path to a majority would have been much rockier had Farage continued to press his case in Conservative constituencies.’
So not only did a party, the Tories, who have failed to win a majority in Scotland since the mid 1950s, win a third term in government in 2019 but it did so according to this assessment in part due to ‘the most consequential campaign decisions taken by any politician in recent years’. That is an impactful decision taken by a politician, Nigel Farage, whose party had failed to gain any substantial traction with the electorate in Scotland ever. Another telling illustration of NOT better togetherness?
Uncomfortable but unsurprising conclusions
From this assessment of the British general election of 2019 and the future of British politics some uncomfortable conclusions can be drawn: (I) the context influencing the 2019 General Election, its outcome and impact had little to do with politics in Scotland; (ii) the success in 2019 of the Tory party which in turn was assisted by the campaign decisions made by the leadership of the Brexit party is notable for one thing – it involved two political parties with little traction in Scotland before, during or since 2019; (iii) the success in 2019 of the Tories assisted by what the article terms a Labour Party offer which ‘neither side of a polarised electorate found attractive or convincing’ is once again a feature only of England’s politics.
So when the author of the UK IN A CHANGING EUROPE article devotes much attention to the Lib Dems and scant attention to Scotland and the SNP when examining the twin issues of the 2019 General Election and the ‘future of British politics’, is this simply an acknowledgement, perhaps even unconsciously, of realpolitik – the practical and material factors of greatest importance?
The General Election of 2019 centred on England’s politics. The future of British politics is really the future of English politics whilst this Union still exists. A self-evident democratic deficit – and consequent limitations on agency within this Union – might well justify the author’s relative indifference to Scotland and its politics.