A lion in the room

A lion in the room

By M.J. Akbar | 9 May, 2015
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, reacts as she is surrounded by candidates and supporters at a counting centre in Glasgow, Scotland, on Friday. Reuters
The news with historic momentum is that Scotland declared political independence from England without leaving Britain.

Every election shifts politics. It takes an unusual one to alter geopolitics. Britain became, in the first week of May, a different country.

The big story is not that David Cameron converted a precarious toehold into an agile perch. Or that Ed Miliband will stumble out of the frame with the weird ineptitude he displayed when eating a sandwich. The news with historic momentum is that Scotland declared political independence from England without leaving Britain. How this will impact governance, stability and unity is the narrative waiting to unfold.

The Scottish National Party, a name which is quite uninhibited about intentions, won on a scale that ended ambiguity. It took 56 of 59 seats in Scotland. Both the Tories and Labour have been reduced to English parties, while the tired Liberal Democrats have been reduced to ash.

Labour's demolition had two reasons; and the second will be more difficult to resolve. It lost the argument on the economy because it cannot appreciate that faux socialism is passé. There is a message here for anyone who can read, and that includes us in India. Voters are not interested in the economics of sulking. They demand the economics of aspiration and delivery.

Political literacy can be determined by a simple measure; whether your mind is open or closed. There are still politicians in many Indian parties, particularly Congress, who imagine that pink blotting paper is a substitute for ideas.

Any electorate wants governance to lead to a better quality of life. That has not changed since Adam came down to earth. Everyone wants elimination of poverty and a rise in prosperity. The useful aspect of democracy is that voters understand the rational routes to prosperity. They know the difference between pseudo-patronage and growth that brings jobs across the spectrum.

But there was an important subtext to this general election that makes it unique in British annals. If Scots voted for their nationalists, then the English also voted for an English party: the Tories. That was the decisive undercurrent which swept Cameron to victory. Labour, neither here nor there, was lost in more senses than one. Even formations that claimed to have their nose close to the alley, like the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, missed this tide. UKIP was so busy protecting Britain from Europe that it forgot to stand up for England against an assertive Scotland. The Tories won the "England for the English" vote.

Cameron won a majority just from the seats in England, with 36.9% of support. But that figure, like a good statistic, or, more famously, like a bikini, hides more than it reveals. Take away Scotland, where its support was dismal, or Wales, where it was dismal, and then minus the immigrant section, and you find that the Tories won more than 40% of the white English vote.

The challenge before the next Cameron administration is enormous. England is adrift of both its unions, the arranged marriage with Scotland crafted five centuries ago, and the rather more recent, unsteady affair with the European Union. The ménage à trois is coming apart at the seams. Much of England wants to opt out of Europe. Most of Scotland wants to opt out of Britain, and hold on to Europe as an alternative anchor. The seams will be tested when Cameron holds the referendum on Britain's association with the European Union within two years. They will be strained when the Scots ask a logical question: what happens next?

Much of England wants to opt out of Europe. Most of Scotland wants to opt out of Britain, and hold on to Europe as an alternative anchor. The seams will be tested when Cameron holds the referendum on Britain’s association with the EU within two years. They will be strained when the Scots ask a logical question: what happens next?

The short answer, preferred by the Tory establishment, is to offer Scotland greater autonomy leveraged by further economic handouts. A compromise works when there is room for give and take. Every previous elected government in Whitehall had its unwritten quota of Scottish ministers. This will be the first government in Britain without an elected Scottish minister. Cameron cannot share power with SNP because SNP wants power in Scotland, not Britain. There is another question whose answer remains difficult to find: have the Tory and SNP constituencies drifted too far apart? Britain will, in all likelihood, be too engrossed in its internal problems to find the energy for a meaningful presence on the world stage in the next five years. That is perfectly understandable. A break-up of the union would be too traumatic for the Tories, a party which still privately mourns the loss of Hong Kong during the Margaret Thatcher era. But, as Alex Salmond, father figure of SNP, said, a lion has roared in Scotland.

Cameron would surely prefer to view Scotland as merely an elephant in the room: huge problem, and dangerous when provoked, but still a vegetarian. Lions hunt. Elephants nibble at leaves. London will offer a feast of nibbles. We shall see if the Scottish lion changes its diet.

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