The most unpredictable general election in a generation
This is the most unpredictable general election in a generation. In — hell, yes — two generations. More. The most unpredictable vote since time began, or certainly since cavemen voted to allow women members.
We are all agreed. It’s the most unpredictable election since the last one.
What makes this one interesting is not only the likely outcome. We can all surely see what is about to happen.
For the purposes of imagining how it will work, think of the Palace of Westminster as our large hadron collider.
In that magnificent old place, old politics will violently collide with new politics, or certainly what passes for new politics in an archaic system.
What emerges (and how politicians behave) remains to be seen and is important, but why is all this happening in the first place?
This is a crisis for the establishment that has been many years in the making. The most obvious indication that change was afoot was the faltering turnout in elections. What better measure has there ever been of political engagement than the number of people who feel moved to vote?
In 1950, turnout surpassed 83%. In 2010, it was 65%. In the Scottish Parliament elections of 2011 — four long years ago –barely half of those eligible bothered to vote.
Irrespective of all this, politicians and other residents of the bubble(s) would scratch heads and stroke chins, as if the gigantic brains that are smashing particles together beneath a Swiss mountain were required to understand the problem.
But then, in the course of the Scottish independence referendum, it became unavoidably clear that the world had changed, and in what way.
For what seemed like years (actually, it was years), people outside the political bubble argued and fought, sometimes literally, in schools, offices, pubs and village halls, and in the mother of all debating chambers — the internet — where non-believers are struck down with the trusty sword of anonymity.
It is obvious that people are tired of the way politics is carried out in this country. We’re all a bit weary of a governing elite that has little or no hinterland, and whose principal means of communication is akin to the Victorian father to a small child. I say, you do. Don’t even think about having a mind of your own.
This is our form of an Arab Spring, but we’re too British to say it. In the West, we really do think we’re different, and that our current version of democracy is here to stay.
For some, the timing of this popular uprising is good. Had this wave of disenchantment struck a few years from now, the SNP — for example — might not have benefited as much as it is about to do.
For all the party’s deserved successes, it governs Scotland in pretty much the same way as its predecessors, including the old, all-powerful Secretaries of State for Scotland.
It’s a top down approach, with power concentrated in the hands of a few at the centre and sustained moaning about media bias. That’s the way of an establishment.
Time will tell what role, formal or other, Scotland’s Nationalists will play in governing the UK, but the great, simple thing about a democracy is that if 30 or 40 or 50 SNP MPs are returned to Westminster in May, they can do what they like.
Only fools will underestimate them or dismiss their seemingly unstoppable rise as a protest.
The Spectator’s Alex Massie, a good friend of Charlotte Street Partners, wrote (in The Times) recently that Nicola Sturgeon could tell Scots that the moon is made of cheese, and many would believe her.
He went on to argue that if Nicola then suggested that cheese moons are good for Scotland, many of her supporters would accept it as the truth.
That may or may not be right. I wager that we will never know.
However, the problem for the other parties is that Nicola Sturgeon is, for the most part, talking perfect sense (let’s pretend she didn’t tell England and Wales to vote for the Green Party). She is a class act.
I heard the new First Minister speak at the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) annual forum this month. She delivered a high quality, politically clever speech and she looked every inch the stateswoman.
The primitive political points about Westminster letting Scotland down were in there. But they were deployed skillfully, diplomatically and powerfully.
She went on to give a barnstorming speech to her party conference, promising to put the backbone and guts into a Labour government at Westminster and simultaneously clarifying, for those who could never work it out, where the SNP now sits on the old political spectrum (it’s left, left, left).
This is what the old party system is up against. Instead of watching SNP conferences, and praying that the room is full of Trotskyites or one-eyed England haters, why not take a moment or two to reflect on why those rooms are bigger than they ever were and much more full than yours?
I’ve heard it said by some long-serving Nationalists that the SNP membership used to be completely bonkers, and so is unlikely to have got worse.
If that’s right — and it sounds plausible — then it’s reasonable to assume that this is a party that is more mainstream than it has ever been.
The SNP, and to a lesser extent UKIP and the Greens, have become the gathering place for ordinary people who yearn for change. People who want to see power exercised closer to them and be represented by people likethem.
They want to participate in big political arguments about things that affect them directly. Jobs, the cost of living, education, health, housing, pensions, crime and security.
They want more money in their pockets and are no longer passive bystanders who take an interest in politics every few years.
It is the failure to see this change coming, and a London-based leadership that no longer understands Scotland, that will shortly present the Scottish Labour Party with its near-death moment.
How it responds to this existential crisis will determine whether the party of John Smith, a politician quietly and subconsciously revered by so many, and that roll call of senior Scottish Labour figures, survives the decade. Think about that. We really are talking about survival. Of the Labour Party. In Scotland.
These are, literally, incredible times, and this is the preamble to a more regular series of comment pieces from our team.
In Chris Deerin and Andrew Wilson, we have two of Scotland’s heavyweight (believe me) commentators.
Chris is arguably the finest columnist working in Scotland today, and his work is admired beyond our still indiscernible border. In the interests of balance, I should say that his writing is traduced occasionally too.
Andrew Wilson is my co-founder of Charlotte Street Partners. He is the most optimistic and unflappable person I have ever met and he knows the SNP inside out, having been one of its most prominent minds for two decades or more.
We will all be commenting throughout the election campaign, providing insight and opinion, and the foundations — we hope — for many an argument.
Join us here and feel free to shout, challenge or violently agree.
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Written by Malcolm Robertson, Founding Partner