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THE HOWFF – 2.4.2015

Peter Duncan

by Peter Duncan

THE TECTONIC PLATES ARE SHIFTING

Students of economics will have felt in 2008 that their reference books had become redundant more or less overnight. Suddenly, the received wisdom was being rewritten under their feet, all their putative dissertations on the stability of national finances having to be hastily restructured under the daily shockwave of news from the domestic and international financial markets. It was an exciting, if somewhat chaotic, time to understand economics.

Much the same sense of disbelief seems now to have moved on from economics to politics. The old assumptions are being discarded, longstanding truths being set aside. Excitement for some, as the tectonic plates are shifting in Scottish political life – particularly astounding given the stalemate in the UK national opinion polls.

Fascinatingly, the ordinary business of Holyrood has become almost incidental to the bigger picture changes happening on the streets around it. Has there been a period since devolution, where the business of the Scottish Parliament has mattered less to the political mood of the country? Given that Holyrood has little to prove as the centrepiece of political life in Scotland for the medium and long term, that’s more than a little surprising.

First Minister’s question-time has for months been an opportunity to rehearse the lines for General Election leaflets, and remarkably little else. Whilst the Parliament continues to legislate freely, one suspects that the vast majority of Scots would find it impossible to name one item of recent parliamentary business.

Instead, the political fulcrum has moved to Westminster, as we contemplate the most significant electoral change for over 60 years. And for the first time, an election in Scotland is being looked to by the rest of the UK as the most likely source of national change.

With estimates of Labour losses in Scotland still spread between 25 and 40 seats, who can doubt that Scotland is once more at the heart of a national UK election result. As we head into the Easter holiday weekend, there will be many former MPs hurriedly contemplating life outside Parliament for the first time in many years, and a large cohort of candidates already in their heads measuring for the curtains in their London flats.

The major problem for Scottish Labour is that losing can quickly become a habit. Ask the Tories. For a political generation, the Scottish Conservatives persuaded themselves that their vote share had reached rock bottom. When it dipped below 25%, it couldn’t possibly fall farther argued party insiders. They did the same when it fell through 20%, then 17.5%. A likely squeeze in May will test that baseline again, and they will be devastated that a major shift in Scottish political opinion is happening without their participation.

Scottish Labour gives the impression of still believing that there is a natural floor to their support, when in truth what they think is a floor, may well be a trap door.

Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale will hope that a result in 35 days that is bad, even awful, but not quite as awful as it could have been is enough to halt the decline. Some observers are not so sure. The route to 2016’s elections looks fraught with difficulty.

Discipline in the party will be stretched to breaking point with up to 40 or so unemployed former MPs pontificating about the route back to power, suddenly becoming self-proclaimed experts on devolved politics and grassroots campaigning, whilst their colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are sure to become increasingly uncertain over their prospects. I want to believe that someone as competent and capable as Jim Murphy can plot a way back, but I’m starting to struggle to see that pathway.

Meantime, the First Minister has enjoyed a fruitful term since New Year. There have been some unsettling and unsteady performances at FMQs, but with Holyrood in the background, not the foreground, effective performances from Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale are likely to count for little. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon has spent three months cementing the “progressive alliance” that she believes is the route to influence at Westminster, whilst building a picture of a mass-membership movement on the march. And whilst Alex Salmond remains Lynton Crosbie’s poster boy for Nationalism, SNP strategists will know that they could not have written the national narrative better.

Posters of Alex Salmond with Ed Miliband in his pocket is exactly what the nationalists would have chosen. On the one hand stirring up English resentment, making a “please don’t leave the family” message much less likely during any future independence referendum; and on the other, firing belief amongst Labour voters in Scotland that they can dabble in nationalism and stiffen Red Ed’s resolve.

Remarkably, the mantle of stable government in Scotland and prospective tactical expeditionary force at Westminster are not being seen as inconsistent. Perhaps that is the nationalists greatest achievement. They are being rewarded by a win/win scenario for May 8th – either a Conservative PM to inspire further nationalist resentment, or a Labour PM who can be driven in desperation to do business on their terms.

This is an exciting, if somewhat chaotic, time to understand Scottish politics. The tectonic plates are undoubtedly shifting.