Episode 12: Severe Amnesia

John Lanchester

So the Tories believe they have finally found a theme which can ‘cut through’ on the doorstep: the peril of Scottish nationalism. Sir John Major was wheeled out yesterday to stress the danger we all face. In Major’s words, ‘this is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment that our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable government, pushed to the left by its allies and open to a daily dose of blackmail.’

If that was all he’d said, it would be fair enough as an expression of opinion. The trouble came earlier in his speech:

The SNP have offered to support Labour in an anti-Conservative alliance. And of course, as you know, the Scot Nats are deeply socialist. And by support I don’t necessarily mean a formal partnership but an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding, to keep Labour in power. Labour would be in hock to a party that pushed them slowly but surely ever further to the left.

There is a difficulty with that statement: it assumes that everybody in Scotland has severe amnesia. The SNP’s first term in office came in the aftermath of the 2007 Scottish elections, when they won 47 out of 129 seats. They went on to form a minority government, one which stayed in office throughout a full four year term with the support of the 17 Tories who had won seats in Holyrood. If you were looking for a form of words to describe the arrangement, you might say that it wasn’t a formal partnership, more an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding. This means that the ‘Scot Nats’ were sufficiently centrist to be kept in office with Tory support, as a preferable alternative to Labour, as recently as 2011, but in the four years since they have somehow mutated into a ‘deeply Socialist’ party rabidly far to Labour’s left.

This doesn’t make much sense, since every sentient adult in Scotland knows perfectly well that the Tories were keeping the SNP in office earlier this very decade. The audience for Major’s remarks, though, isn’t in Scotland but in the parts of the English electorate which are deeply touchy about the idea of the SNP playing a role in the governance of England. In other words, this is yet another Tory pitch to the Ukip vote.

There are plenty of things you could say about the unfairness of what might be about to happen. If a 4 per cent SNP vote translates into 40-plus Westminster seats, and a 13 per cent Ukip vote translates into one seat, you don’t have to be a Kipper to say that isn’t fair. It’s also odd that a party which isn’t standing in most of the UK, comes from a country where most areas of government have already been devolved, and wants to break up the UK, may have a decisive role in the administration of the UK. But the Tories aren’t arguing about the constitution: they were perfectly happy with the electoral system when they thought it was going to help them win. (And Labour are no different.) What’s happened is that the big parties have set up a system in which it is impossible for the SNP to lose. They either get an Etonian-led pro-austerity Tory government, which will fire up support for Scottish independence as nothing else could; or they get a say in the running of the country. It’s an amazing hole for the mainstream parties to have dug.


  • 25 April 2015 at 8:40am
    AllanLRB says:
    It is not so amazing when you consider the complacency of Labour in relation to their Scottish vote, which that 2007 Scottish parliament result should have alerted them to. Even when there was an SNP majority in the last Scottish election they viewed it as an aberration. But it was indicative of a shift in opinion towards the SNP not solely predicated on support for independence. As for the conservatives, they appear to have given up on Scotland, despite there being around 15% support for them up here, and are gleefully painting a vote for the SNP as somehow democratically illegitimate.