In the early part of the 20th Century, the Liberals dominated Scottish politics. That history is still important to the party today, with Scotland providing half of Liberal/Lib Dem leaders – all thoroughly decent people – over the last 61 years. Then the Tories tended to hold sway, often tussling with Labour but finally biting the dust at the end of the 50s. Then it was Labour’s turn for two generations, or just over 50 years. For my money, which isn’t that much admittedly, that all ended in 2010, not 2011 or 2015.
I remember the UK general election 2010 in Falkirk very well. I’d expected to be fine, albeit with a reduced majority, but Labour expected some bad results across Scotland to go with those we knew would come in England. Strangely, this didn’t happen. Labour lost the election in England – not as badly as some had predicted, making a win in 2015 possible, we thought – but in Scotland the party did even better than at the previous election, taking the same number of seats and actually more votes. I remember the conflicting emotions on parade; the long faces of SNP supporters who’d expected a breakthrough after their party’s 2007 Scottish Parliament success, and the surprised but jubilant faces of Labour folk who couldn’t quite understand why no breakthrough had some for the SNP.
I think now that there was simply a lag in time; Scots mainly hated the notion of a Tory government so much that they were prepared to put their faith in Labour one more time in the hope we might just cross the line. When it turned out Labour hadn’t crossed that line, in spite of the fulsome support of Scots, Scots saw Labour as losers who couldn’t protect them from the Tories after all. I could feel this this effect on the streets in Falkirk almost as soon as the election was over. It was then only a matter of waiting until the Scottish parliamentary election the following year. The rout which followed in the 2015 general election was a foregone conclusion, albeit its scale was even larger than anyone could have predicted.
Meanwhile, what of England? Well, while Tony Blair Labour never relied on Scottish MPs for his majority, only in 1997 and 2001 did the the Tories poll less votes than Labour. By 2005 they were comfortably ahead again and at the last two elections the Tories have taken comfortably over 100 more English seats than Labour. Pollsters are telling us that this gap is likely to double to 200 next month, with the Tories taking perhaps 350 and Labour perhaps 150.
At present, there is only one Wales MP, and no Scotland or Northern Ireland ones, serving as a (junior) minister in a UK government department (129 ministers are from England). In other words, the UK has not a British government but an English one with imperatives which extend from electors the length and breadth of England only. And while there seems likely be a very modest resurgence in Tory fortunes in Scotland, this is irrelevant to the Tories’ game plan. That plan is to win huge in England and use that overwhelming, generational mandate from England’s voters to take Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a journey to hard brexit and right wing economic policy.
The pundits are telling us it’s very likely that the Tories’ win in June will be of a similar order to Labour’s in 1997 and if so it seems reasonable to conclude that the Tory era ushered in in 2010 will last a generation. But this will be no ordinary generation. It will be one which forces all the countries of the UK to fit a right-wing, conservative mould made only in England; one which will shape political and civic life in the UK for perhaps the rest of the century. If Theresa May seems robot-like in pursuit of this, perhaps we can forgive her for that as human beings – she is indeed on the edge of becoming perceived by future historians as the most historically-significant UK prime minister since Churchill.
There is nothing Scots can do now but choose. For generations of 21st Century Scots, it will be either the English, right-wing Tory way or not. And if not it must be independence now; and the battle for what kind of non-Conservative Scotland Scots prefer, later.