We are the masters now? Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

The winds of change are blowing through Scotland - and it's not over yet

It feels as if something fundamental has changed in Scotland - and there is more change yet to come.

Scotland feels different. It is as if something fundamental has shifted in how voters see politics, the consequences of their votes, and themselves.

For years a sizeable segment of voters have thought at Westminster elections that the most important issue was voting Labour and holding the line in Scotland in the hope of keeping the Tories out and electing a Labour Government. This sentiment so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have dissipated: the dam which once held so firm, has well and truly burst.

Now an SNP wave looks like it will engulf most Scottish Labour seats and notables in a tartan tsunami remaking the political map of Scotland – one with profound implications for the UK.

Yet, as we speak, a little more than a week from polling day, most of Scotland, let alone the UK, does not really fully comprehend why this has happened and what it could mean. This is obvious in the pro-union camp of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, but also its principal benefactors: the SNP. Nationalist politicians may make great play of how disorientated Labour are by the new mood, but they too are not sure what has changed, only that post-referendum the wind is suddenly blowing in their sails.

One thing which has shifted is how Westminster and British Labour are perceived. It has been revealing that post-referendum Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has continually repeated the mantra that he is ‘not a Westminster politician’, and instead ‘a Scottish politician who goes to Westminster’. Such is the toxicity of the Palace of Westminster.

Scottish Labour is increasingly viewed in a negative light. Beyond the ranks of the Nationalists there is a sense of deep disappointment and even betrayal about its recent trajectory and history. This has become a mantra about the ‘sell out’ of New Labour, the absence of an effective centre-left social democracy in Scotland or Britain, and a yearning for a politics of substance. It mixes an elemental anger about Scottish Labour and an elegy for a past world where politics and choices were more clear and stark.

South of the border something is stirring too. And this is having an impact in Scotland. We have witnessed what at times looks like a kamikaze English Tory campaign which contradicts nearly everything said in the referendum campaign. This has the result of undermining Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader and her party, who has distanced herself from such utterances. But even more seriously, it is weakening by the day the basis of the union.

One interpretation of how Scotland has changed is to see it as becoming post-indyref defined by ‘two tribes’: one SNP, the other unionist, Yes and No. And related to this the SNP advance is understood as the triumph of a ‘faith based politics’ and rise of irrationality over reason.

This is a caricature of modern Scotland and it is telling that the prognosis comes from leading pro-union commentators such as Alex Massie, Iain Martin and Chris Deerin. This section of unionist Scotland is, to put it mildly, disconnected and disaffected at the state of public opinion: referendum won, this whole thing was meant to be safely back in its box. But instead the natives are still restless and the natural order under threat.

The ‘two tribes’ account draws from the historical trope of a ‘divided Scotland’: a nation which couldn’t sit with or overcome its divisions, whether Highland and Lowland, Protestant and Catholic, West and East, and more.

However, this wasn’t underneath the headline figures the experience of the referendum. Under the Yes/No binary choice there were only two small camps on each side which were vociferously tribal and partisan. The strategies of both Yes Scotland and Better Together were predicated on at least 60 per cent of the electorate having soft or potentially changeable views on independence.

The related argument of this is that the rise and untouchability of the SNP is due to the mesmerising hold of their ‘faith based politics’ which have weaved a spell on the minds of Scottish voters. This is supposedly the reason why the limitations of SNP politics and its record in government hasn’t become an issue. Sadly, this misses that voters have consistently seen the SNP in office as competent, while recognising that the government’s overall budget (and scale of cuts) is set by Westminster. Perhaps as important, all politics, credos and political parties involve an uneasy cohabitation between faith and fact.

What hasn’t cut through in the election campaign has been a sequence of increasingly desperate pro-union charges against the SNP. The Labour Party thought it had been given a political weapon early in the campaign when Nicola Sturgeon in one of the first TV debates declared that full fiscal autonomy was a priority for the SNP post-election. This allowed Labour to cite Institute for Fiscal Studies figures showing that this would produce a current deficit between spending and revenue in Scotland of £7.6 billion. But like everything Scottish Labour touches at the moment, it did so in a ham-fisted way which proved implausible beyond the tiny tribe of Labour true believers.

The SNP has presented a positive, progressive vision of Scotland – one that has been aided by the inadequacies of their opponents. Murphy has seemed to think taking the greatest hits from the New Labour manual would suffice, and when it hasn’t worked, has been bereft of any new ideas.

Tory Ruth Davidson has impressed, but is the leader of a future party which doesn’t yet exist and which she has little notion how to bring about. Lib Dem Willie Rennie is leader of a past party which used to exist and shows little sign in the near future of making a comeback. Little wonder that Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie shone so much in the referendum campaign, and fancies his party’s chances in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections; the same being true of the currents around the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign who are rumoured to be setting up a new party for next year.

The attractive, upbeat nature of the SNP and the limitations of their opponents look likely to be enough to see the political map of Scotland turn yellow on May 7. The only doubt now seems to be whether Labour faces a wipeout, or can retain enough of a foothill of support to envisage the possibility of a future comeback.

Yet politics works in mysterious ways. ‘Peak SNP’ if that is what May 7 produces will radically alter the dynamics and contours of Scottish politics. A huge SNP Westminster intake will see the raising of unrealistic expectations which the party will struggle to control. A weak Conservative or Labour government will give the Nationalists the prospect of significant influence, but they cannot be seen to back the former, or bring down the latter.

Moreover, Scotland’s politics changing has altered its place in the union, and the nature of the union itself. This will have all sorts of unintended and unforeseen circumstances. One will be that in Scotland as well as the UK, the SNP’s policy prospectus and record in government will come under more detailed scrutiny. Another is that if Labour faces a Scottish Armageddon the current pro-union majority will coalesce around another, perhaps, more credible and convincing force.

Scottish politics are for the next few years going to be exciting, unpredictable and high profile. The coming SNP wave doesn’t mean that the party can assume its dominance is permanent, or that its interests and those of Scotland are synonymous: an assumption which has been inherent in how Cameron and senior Westminster Tories have talked about the SNP. Whichever way it develops the future shape and politics of Britain look likely to be determined by that of Scotland.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.