Rule from Westminster has been resented by many Scots since the Act of Union in 1707. The independence movement, with 39 per cent support, is as strong as it has ever been and Alex Salmond, Leader of the Scottish National Party, is using this support to his advantage. The cost to the traditional parties is dear; Lib Dem support has been as low as 3 per cent of Scottish voters in recent years; Tories hold a single seat; and Labour’s hegemonic voice in Scottish politics is on the wane. In the words of David Cameron, Leader of the Conservative party, “all’s not well with the Union”.
However, this political takeover cannot be put down entirely to Salmond’s populist policies and keen eye for political advantage. The leaders of the traditional parties are as much to blame as he is to praise.
During an interview on the last day of his party’s conference, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party, could not name the front-runner for the race for leader of the Scottish branch of his party. He referred to Ken Macintosh as “the third candidate who is putting himself forward”. That is a serious political gaffe if ever I have seen one. This may be because the Labour party is complacent about its position in Scotland; it may be because Miliband is a dithering leader who is incapable of leading his party well and was voted in simply to appease the hard Left of his party. I do not know. What I do know is that Labour are beginning to lose their once strong position in Scotland. This will endanger the future of the Union, which they claim to want to keep intact. It will also endanger the future of their party; many of the most powerful members of Tony Blair’s New Labour were Scottish MPs, from Gordon Brown to Douglas Alexander. They also hold over 40 Scottish seats in Westminster. If Scotland were to secede from the Union it would be disastrous for the party. The party must find a way to promote the benefits of Union while addressing the problems Scottish people face. The countries’ rivalry is healthy but Labour must continue to promote a united front.
The Labour party are not the only party that have been ruffling feathers in Scotland recently. David Cameron has ignited a feud between his party and Alex Salmond. Cameron’s government has decided to increase the supplementary tax on North Sea Oil extraction from 20 per cent to 32 per cent, equal to £2bn, to fund a cut in fuel duty. North Sea Oil is a big earner for the Scottish Economy, indeed one of Salmond’s key points for why Scotland should go it alone. He feels that this new tax could prevent investment in Scotland’s oil industry and would prefer a more “progressive” tax regime. However, with BP launching a £4.5bn project in the Shetlands Cameron does not see oil extraction as an important project to save from the cuts.
The Conservatives are already unpopular in Scotland. Holding only one Scottish seat in Westminster and running only one of the 32 Scottish councils, the Conservatives have floundered in the face of strong opposition from Labour and the SNP. Now, the Scottish Conservatives want to break away from the party in Westminster and form a separate party.
Murdo Fraser, the favourite in the leadership race for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, believes the Conservative party has become “a toxic brand” in Scotland following Thatcher’s guinea pig like policies, including the hated poll tax of the 1980s. Fraser still believes in a strong and united Kingdom and a centre Right ideology but he believes the perception of the Conservatives in Scotland is hindering the ability of the Scottish party to make strides with the country’s electorate.
Fraser’s plans bring into question the Conservatives’ plans for the protection of the Union. Without a presence north of the border it would appear more and more that Britain under the Conservatives resembles English dominion over Scotland more than joint and fair union between the two countries.
The traditional parties should address this problem if they really are committed to the Union. With Plaid Cymru gaining support in the Westminster elections as well as in the Welsh assembly, the four nations within one will begin to resemble four distinct countries and the case for continued union will be very weak.