“Were you up for Salmond (And Much More)?”: A Look Back at the Extraordinary UK General Election Results in Scotland

The change in Scotland's political Map from 2015 to 2017. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK; cropped by Wesley Hutchins

The change in Scotland's political Map from 2015 to 2017. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK; cropped by Wesley Hutchins

     It was a memorable night which began and ended in ways few had predicted, and which may have marked a yet another significant turning point in Scotland's political landscape, as well as the future of the United Kingdom.

     At just after 10:00PM UK time, the exit poll was revealed to show that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives would lose their majority, though remain the largest party with 314 seats. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was projected to gain 34 seats for a total of 266, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon would have 34, and Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats were given a bump up to 14.

     The immediate reaction was one of extreme bewilderment. On Twitter, the poll aggregator Britain Elects tweeted two words which expressed the astonishment of the nation and for the matter, the world: “Holy sh**.”

     For the past couple of weeks, polls had been showing a narrowing of what had been a formidable lead for the Tories at the time when Theresa May had called for the election in April to shore up her position in the negotiations for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (aka, “Brexit”). A botched manifesto roll-out, a u-turn on elderly care policy, May’s refusal to participate in debates and her cool demeanor, as well as a general feeling of complacency and overconfidence in the party had turned off many voters. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, all but written off for its biggest defeat since Michael Foot’s leadership in 1983, picked up steam as his avowedly left-wing and socialist platform connected with those tired of austerity and weary of Brexit – somewhat like our own Bernie Sanders in America.

     However, most pundits still believed that even if May did not achieve the eye-watering majority of around 100 seats, she would still manage to retain a majority government, if only barely and she would at least be able to claim that she had her own mandate, as opposed to inheriting David Cameron’s. Now this exit poll was upending all those assumptions. The pound fell sharply, Twitter went crazy, and morning editions of newspapers across the country went to press proclaiming how the Prime Minister’s gamble had failed.

     Shocking as this was with Theresa May potentially no longer at the helm of a majority government, more surprising with particular regard to Scotland was the exit poll showing the SNP losing 22 seats – a stunning reversal for a party that had achieved the incredible feat of winning all but three of Scotland’s 59 constituencies just over two years ago. A deeper analysis of the exit poll resulted in a list of seats that were likely to change hands, and among them were seats belonging to SNP deputy leader and Westminster group leader Angus Robertson (Moray) and former SNP leader Alex Salmond (Gordon) and they were at serious risk of losing that evening, along with other stalwarts of the party would have their parliamentary careers coming to an abrupt end. The poll also implied that all three main pro-Union parties were performing better than expected and would make significant gains at the SNP’s expense.

     Following the initial reaction, there was disbelief and urges of caution. Elements of the Tories and the SNP – two of the parties of government in the UK – took the exit poll to task, with the former insisting that they would have a majority and perhaps a bigger one at that, and the latter saying its losses would be far more limited.

     Indeed, within that first hour or so after the poll was released, it did seem as though the projections may have been off, at least to some degree. The first results that were declared in England were holds for Labour, but also featured significant increases in the Conservative vote – some of it coming from people who had voted for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2015. Surely if these were to be replicated in other places that were not safe Labour seats and/or in areas where Labour had been vulnerable to UKIP, then it would indicate the potential for more Tory seats and perhaps a majority Tory government.

     On Twitter, there were reports of backtracking on the poll as the results came in one by one and showed trends contrary to what the poll had indicated, and if it had underestimated the Conservative vote across the UK, it may have also underestimated the SNP vote in Scotland as well – perhaps by a lot. Journalists, commentators, and partisans on all sides were expressing skepticism. In Gordon, where initial reports had Alex Salmond and his Conservative opponent in a tight race, now it was being reported that the former first minister was out in front.

     As much as many of us wanted him out of Parliament, it was simply inconceivable that he would lose and that so many SNP seats would flip to a pro-Union party in part because of his name recognition in particular and the staggering majorities of many SNP MP’s more generally which have to be overcome. For this reason, the Tories, Labour, and LibDems expressed extreme caution in an effort to manage expectations and avoid potential disappointment. “Was it possible?”, many of us asked. Yes, but not probable and another reason was the concern that in some seats, the votes of those parties would cancel out each other, so that even though a majority of constituency voted for a pro-Union candidate, it got an SNP MP due to the split vote. It seemed more realistic that the SNP would lose 15 seats at most.

     As the counting continued to progress however, it became apparent that something was afoot. In the North East and Perthshire, it was reported that the three Union parties were experiencing increases in vote share, as well as in the South of Scotland, but that the Tories were particularly showing strength against incumbent SNP candidates. More striking was what was happening in the Greater Glasgow area, where Labour had been dominant for generations, but the SNP had become the new game in town. Once insurmountable Labour parliamentary majorities had been replaced with towering SNP ones in the city which had voted “Yes” for separation and ended Labour’s 37 year control of the city council to put the SNP in charge. Even in the event that Labour or any other party benefited from a swing against the SNP, the general feeling was that it would not be enough to overcome the entrenched nature of the SNP in this area.

     And yet, by midnight UK time, Labour was having reason to be increasingly optimistic as the counting continued and showed them as least keeping up with the SNP in the Glasgow area and Clydeside seats. On the other side Scotland, it was also reported to be in first place in East Lothian and holding on well in Edinburgh South, where Ian Murray appeared to be picking up a larger majority than in 2015. Meanwhile in Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire, the LibDems were running close with SNP, though they too were feeling very confident about their chances at retaking them.

     Then at just after 1:00AM in the UK, the first Scottish result came in the form of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, just to the southeast of Glasgow where Scottish Labour had begun its campaign, and it was a Labour gain. On an 8.9% swing, Gerard Killen had overturned Margaret Ferrier’s 9,000 vote majority and won the seat with a majority of 265 even as the Tories and LibDems also made gains here.

     The shock of this result could not be overstated: a constituency which had utterly rejected Labour only two years earlier for the SNP in the wake of the independence referendum was now returning a Labour MP against virtually all projections and predictions. In my own review of the Scottish constituencies likely to change hands, I did not pay attention to any of the Glasgow area seats, save for East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire. To be sure, it was only one result, but the 9,000 vote majority Labour managed to overturn was bigger than majorities in other nearby constituencies, which meant that they were in play and that it was possible that the exit poll had been accurate after all.

     As it was, next to declare was Paisley and Renfrewshire South, where a majority of 5,600 stood between Labour and Mhairi Black, who had defeated Labour’s Douglas Alexander in 2015 to become the youngest parliamentarian in over 300 years. She faced a closer fight than expected, though she stayed on with a significantly reduced majority of 2,500 in part because of the division of the vote between the three pro-Union parties; there were more than enough votes from the Conservatives and LibDems which could have been used to block Black by lending them to the Labour candidate, who was her closest opponent. Indeed, there had actually been a swing from Labour to the Tories, suggesting perhaps that the attacks on Labour’s stance on the constitution/separation – including Nicola Sturgeon’s last minute revelations – may have had an impact. Not for the last time this night, a majority pro-Union constituency would end up with a separatist MP who had a smaller majority than last time and therefore was more realistically beatable. The only question now was: “How many more?”

     Indeed, many of us were bracing for this to happen in a great many seats, which would blunt any significant advance against the SNP and allow them bragging rights and an excuse for another divisive referendum. To be fair, they would likely do this with 34 MP’s as much as with 45 MP’s – a majority of seats being all that mattered. However, it would definitely weaken their case with the former and give us hope that Scotland would become more politically balanced.

     West Dunbartonshire (containing Clydebank, birthplace of some of the great ships of the Cunard Line at the old John Brown’s shipyard) was the next result to declare, and once again, the sitting SNP MP was re-elected with a reduced majority 2,200, which could have been overcome with more tactical votes for the Labour candidate from other pro-Union candidates. The silver lining of course was that the rising vote share for all three parties indicated that at the very least, there was a backlash against the SNP, and that just as towering Labour and LibDem majorities could be toppled as they were in 2015, so could SNP ones in 2017. Hopefully, it would be just a matter of time before what happened in Rutherglen would be repeated across the country.

     Sure enough, as the 2:00 hour approached, reports were coming through saying that in East Dunbartonshire, where the vote had been so close as to say that “John Swinson” had been elected, the Liberal Democrats were increasingly confident that Jo Swinson was pulling away from SNP incumbent John Nicolson to reclaim the seat she had held from 2005 to 2015. Labour was all but claiming victory in East Lothian, and the SNP had pretty much thrown in the towel on border constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh, and Selkirk – saying that while there vote had held up, the LibDem vote had transferred to the Conservative candidate, John Lamont. Meanwhile in the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar), the difference between Labour and the SNP’s Angus MacNeil was said to be in the hundreds.

     Then another declaration, this time from the Ayrshire seat of Kilmarnock and Loudoun, which stayed with the SNP’s Alan Brown, whose majority was reduced, but was still significantly ahead because of a swing which mostly benefitted the third-placing Tories while the Labour vote remained mostly flat.

     Thankfully however, the next declaration wasn’t so much just good news as it was a major upset: long-time SNP MP Mike Weir lost his Angus constituency to the Conservatives. This is was one of the areas that had been on the bubble for changing hands, though more likely to stay put than not. Now, here were the Tories overturning an 11,000 vote majority to take a seat with a 2,700 vote majority which they had targeted for years in an area that had been part of their old Scottish heartlands before the SNP came along. Labour and the LibDems also benefited from the swing against the SNP, but it was mostly for the Tories and they came out on top in spectacular fashion as it was starting to become clear that the SNP may be in for a rough night.

     The next results from Dundee weren’t surprising given its status as a “Yes City” during the referendum and both of its SNP MP’s were re-elected with reduced, but still substantial margins as Chris Law (Dundee West) and former SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) fell below 40% of the vote share and the other parties gained. Interestingly for a city in which Labour and the SNP have traditionally been the top vote-getters, the Tories edged out Labour for second place in Dundee East – yet another sign of that party’s revival in Scotland.

     After 2:00AM came the results from several constituencies and therefore a clearer picture of new political landscape. In quick succession, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Falkirk, and the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) emerged with re-elected SNP MP’s and it was the same story as with the other ones: substantial swings away from the SNP and the pro-Union parties putting on votes to cancel out each other to allow the SNP candidate to win. All of these were seats previously held by Labour and Labour was the main challenger, but surges in Conservative support helped to prevent Labour from winning and knocking the SNP down another peg.

     It was around this time that the result in Perth and North Perthshire rested on a knife-edge as the margin between SNP incumbent Pete Wishart and Tory MEP Ian Duncan was only 36 votes, and that a recount was underway at the request of the Tories, for whom this seat was one of their top targets, and had been since they lost the predecessor seat of Tayside North in 1997. Winning here against another veteran SNP figure here would be hugely symbolic and mark the return of Perthshire to being Tory country.

     However, the next result to come forward provided that symbolism. In Moray, the Tory candidate Douglass Ross defeated Angus Robertson – overturning a 9,000 vote majority to oust the SNP’s leader at Westminster and ending the SNP’s hold on another area that had previously been a Conservative heartland. This was a “Portillo moment” in the highest sense and Robertson became a major casualty in what appeared to be a pro-Union wave across Scotland that was at least in some way reversing the SNP tsunami two years ago. Surely at this point, there were some lower-profile SNP MP’s and candidates who were starting to wonder: “If it could happen to him, what about me?”

     A few minutes later, Glenrothes in Fife was declared to be an SNP hold, but this was followed by Labour’s surprise victory in Midlothian, where Danielle Rowley overturned Owen Thompson’s 9,800 vote majority and retook the seat for her party with 885 votes to spare. Another close race concluded in Inverclyde, where Labour came within 384 votes of retaking that constituency from the SNP – another place where a few tactical votes could have made the difference.

     Over in Ochil and South Perthshire meanwhile, tactical voting may have indeed made a difference with the Conservative Luke Graham gaining the seat from Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a high-profile and veteran SNP figure formerly of Labour and the Tories. While more attention had been paid to the very real possibility of the North Perthshire seat switching hands, the South Perthshire seat was seen as less likely to change and the last two months of projections showed it being a likely SNP hold. It was therefore surprising to see Ahmed-Sheikh lose this seat, but then again, this was an election which throughout the UK as a whole, was producing results previously unimaginable. South Perthshire was now blue once again after 20 years and it seemed that its northern counterpart would soon follow.

     Meanwhile, the SNP successfully held North Ayrshire and Arran, where a 13,500 vote majority against Labour in 2015 had become a 3,600 vote majority against the Conservatives in an area they had represented for the most part until the 1980’s when Labour started winning here, before eventually ending up with the SNP via Patricia Gibson. In East Renfrewshire, her fellow party colleague Kirsten Oswald was not so lucky as she went to defeat at the hands of Conservative candidate Paul Masterton. This seat, also historically solid Tory territory until 1997 when it voted for Labour’s Jim Murphy, it then SNP in 2015, and was now back in Conservative hands with a majority of 4,700.

     On the other side of the Clyde in East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson made her political comeback. Polls and projections had this being a close-run deal, but as it turned out, Swinson took back her old seat with a comfortable majority of over 5,300 votes against John Nicolson’s 2,000 vote majority two years ago. This was the first Scottish seat won by the Liberal Democrats, as well as their first net gain of the night, with hopefully more to come.

     Indeed, if what was being said on Twitter indicated anything, there would in fact be more. Reports were coming in to claim that SNP majorities were falling everywhere as Labour, the Tories, and LibDems were all eating into the SNP vote from 2015, and that the party was facing trouble in Glasgow. Glasgow of all places, where they had been given control of the city council just weeks before. Labour in particular was starting to feel optimistic about retaking some seats in the city.

     Perhaps this switch had to do with the reaction against another referendum, but also likely due to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity appeal to many of the soft “Yes” voters who could be persuaded that they could get the government they wanted throughout the UK and not just in an independent Scotland. Indeed, given the financial difficulties and austerity which a separated Scotland would likely have to go through, the potential argument from Labour may have been that in fact, the only way to get the kind of government they want is by sticking with the UK and signing up with Corbyn and Labour.

     Glasgow rapper Darren McGarvey – aka Loki – is a known supporter of independence, but has become very critical of the SNP for their cautiousness, lack of a radical agenda, and focusing too much on…you guessed it, independence. He stated on the BBC that Corbyn – who began the last day of Labour’s campaign in the city on Buchanan Street – had “called his bluff” by proposing an agenda that was “genuinely left wing and of genuine substance”, and that while he would still vote for independence in another referendum, this wasn’t what the vote was about and therefore why he had voted Labour. Perhaps there were many others in the city of the same mindset and voted accordingly.

     Meanwhile, there had been rumors and perhaps early indications that both Aberdeen North and Aberdeen South were going to flip from the SNP to Labour and the Tories respectively, which would have been surprising since the SNP was projected to hold the former. However, it was revealed that Aberdeen North had been held by the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman with a majority of 4,100 votes, while Aberdeen South was still counting. In Glasgow East, incumbent MP Natalie McGarry had been elected under the SNP banner as she defeated Labour’s Margaret Curran, but had resigned from the party whip after allegations of financial impropriety regarding her involvement Women for Independence organization during the referendum. Her SNP replacement, David Linden, held on to the seat with just 75 votes ahead of Labour, whilst the Tories doubled their vote. Glasgow Central was a much less tight affair with Alison Thewliss being returned with a majority of 2,267.

     Up north, there was hardly such relief for the SNP has Alex Salmond arrived at his count in Aberdeen. It is clear that we wasn’t happy with the less-than-desirable news about the Tories possibly winning his seat, as well as perhaps knowing of the fate of his colleague Angus Robertson next door to him. By this time, a total of seven SNP MP’s were already gone, and the night was far from over.

     Just after 3:00AM, Glasgow North East was declared to be a gain for Labour via candidate Paul Sweeney. They had lost it in 2015 when the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin took the seat on a swing of 39% which was the biggest swing of the election back then and memorably “broke” the BBC’s swingometer (prompting the Beeb to “recalibrate” it). Now Labour was reversing that with a swing of its own to take the seat back with a majority of 242. All things considered and with having a Glaswegian MP once again, this was becoming a good and better than expected night for Labour. More close results were announced from Dunfermline and West Fife, where the SNP’s Douglas Chapman held on with 844 votes over Labour, and in Lanark and Hamilton East, where the Tory surge propelled them to within 266 votes of toppling Angela Crawley.

     Then after being all but known as a matter of fact, the result from East Lothian at last revealed that Labour’s Martin Whitfield had regained the constituency from the SNP’s George Kerevan – overturning his 6,800 vote majority and winning by 3,000 votes. East Lothian had been a big target for the party and as far as most commentators (myself included) where concerned, it was their only realistic prospect for a gain in Scotland. Indeed, a surge in the Conservative vote gave proof for the reasoning behind why this seat, if it were to flip from the SNP, would go to them and not Labour. However, it wasn’t enough as the increase in Labour vote – albeit smaller than that of the Tories – was enough against the declining SNP vote to put Labour on top.

     Back in Glasgow, the SNP’s Patrick Grady held Glasgow North with a reduced majority of 1,060 votes over Labour and down south, the Tories pulled off another surprise victory when Bill Grant gained Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock from the SNP’s. The old Ayr constituency was once a solid Conservative seat at Westminster and thus, this represented yet another area going back to Tory blue. Minutes later, Aberdeen South also returned to its Conservative ways when Ross Thomson defeated the SNP’s Callum McCaig. Then there were two more holds for the SNP in Airdrie and Shotts and Glasgow South with majorities of 195 and 2,027 respectively over Labour. They SNP also held on to Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, where two years ago, Drew Hendry had defeated Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. Hendry’s majority, as with everywhere else had been reduced, but he was nearly 5,000 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, who was a Conservative as the LibDems had fallen to fourth place.

     Down south in Fife, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s old constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath returned to Labour via Lesley Laird with a majority of 259 over the SNP, while in Edinburgh, Tommy Sheppard held on to Edinburgh East with a 3,400 vote majority over Labour. Then at last came the result from Perth and North Perthshire: Pete Wishart squeaked back into Parliament by the skin of teeth with a majority of just 21 votes! This was a seat that had been consistently projected to swing to the Conservatives via candidate Ian Duncan, even if only by a few votes in his direction, and with the loss of Angus Robertson and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, it seemed somewhat inevitable that Wishart would go as well. Then again, nothing in politics seems to be inevitable these days and if anything is possible, the re-election of Pete Wishart was one of those things. Still, Wishart’s previous majority had been 9,600 and with Labour and the LibDems increasing their respective vote shares in a constituency they knew they didn’t have a chance of winning, it was another story of the three pro-Union parties putting up votes, canceling each other out, and letting the SNP in through the back door.

     It was the same story in Glasgow North West – an area once represented by Labour’s Donald Dewar – where Labour came up short against the SNP by 2,500 votes, as well as Glasgow South West, where the SNP’s Chris Stephens hung on by an even tighter margin of only 60. However, there was good news from Coatbridge, Chryston, and Bellshill, where Labour’s Hugh Gaffney overturned an SNP majority of 11,500 votes and took back another former heartland seat for his party with a 1,500 vote majority. With this win, Labour was now expecting to finish the night with seven seats in Scotland, with Ian Murray expected to eventually emerge with an increased majority in Edinburgh South.

     It was around this time that SNP politicians and members (including Alex Salmond, still await the results in his Gordon constituency) looked at the rest of the seats to declare and thought it safe to begin banging the drum on how the SNP won the election with the majority of Scottish seats – attempting to downplay the number of seats lost. As it was, the party did go on to hold on to Linlithgow and East Falkirk with a majority of 2,900 over Labour, as well as Cumbernauld, Kilsyth, and Kirkintilloch East – also over Labour with a majority of 4,200 votes.

     Then there came two critical victories for the Liberal Democrats; retaking Caithness, Sutherland, and Easter Ross and Edinburgh West. The latter seat was a big LibDem target, especially after they had retaken the overlapping Holyrood constituency last year and with candidate Christine Jardine, they overturned former SNP MP Michelle Thomson’s 3,200 vote majority against them two years ago and took back the seat with 2,900 votes to spare. The former seat in the Highland council area was another former LibDem seat once held by John Thurso until he was defeated by the SNP’s Paul Monaghan (of RT fame), but was not included in most projections as flipping from the SNP. Interestingly, the LibDem vote was almost unchanged from 2015, but a massive swing from the SNP to the Conservatives doubled the Conservative and brought the SNP down enough to deliver the seat to LibDem candidate Jamie Stone with 2,000 votes to spare. Perhaps a case of “accidental” tactical voting?

     At any rate, the Tories found victory elsewhere with a string of significant gains. In Berwickshire, Roxborough, and Selkirk – jokingly known as the “John Lamont Seat” because of him standing there at the last three elections – was finally won by John Lamont. Two years ago, he had narrowly lost the seat by 328 votes, but now won it from the SNP’s Calum Kerr with a whopping 11,000 vote majority and 54% of the vote as SNP and LibDem votes transferred to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Andrew Bowie won with nearly a 8,000 vote majority over the SNP, and in Stirling, Stephen Kerr squeaked by with just 148 votes to spare over the SNP to become the first Tory MP representing it in 20 years since Michael Forsyth.

     By now, it was after 4:00AM UK time and the exit poll which was treated with caution at the beginning of the night was really looking quite accurate. There were four more SNP victories in central Scotland and the south: Livingston, where Hannah Bardell won with reduced, but comfortable majority of 3,878 against Labour; Motherwell and Wishaw, which returned Marian Fellows with 318 votes over Labour; Edinburgh North and Leith, a seat which was heavily contested, but resulted in Deidre Brock hanging on with 1,600 votes to spare in a roughly three-way race with Labour and the Tories; and Central Ayrshire, where Phillipa Whitford’s majority was sharply reduced as voter swung from her to the Tories and the Tories came within 1,200 votes of wresting the seat from her.

     This string of SNP wins was finally followed Ian Murray’s triumph in Edinburgh South. Two years previously, he hang with an increased majority of 2,600 votes against the SNP wave as the rest of his party was decimated across Scotland; this time, he increased his majority still further to an enormous 15,500 votes and with 55% of the vote – the biggest majority and largest vote share in this year’s election in Scotland – and he was now one of seven Scottish Labour MP’s heading to Westminster as the party was seemingly being revived from political oblivion. Murray was also first of the three pro-Union MP’s after 2015 to have his result declared, with LibDem Alistair Carmichael and Tory David Mundell still awaiting the declarations in their constituencies.

     Meanwhile, the SNP held the UK’s largest constituency, Ross, Skye, and Lochaber in the Highlands. Once the seat of the late Charles Kennedy, it fell to Ian Blackford (now the SNP's leader at Westminster), who ousted the former leader of the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 5,100 votes. This time, even though his vote share declined, his majority grew to 5,900 votes as overall turnout fell and a decline in the LibDem and SNP vote was matched with a rise in the Conservative vote which has not enough for the Conservatives to win this seat. In Edinburgh South West, the Conservatives came within 1,100 votes in a three-way fight for taking former Chancellor Alistair Darling’s old constituency, but the SNP’s Joanna Cherry held on and prevented what could have been a return to Tory blue this area once represented by Sir Malcolm Rifkind as Edinburgh Pentlands.

     However this disappointment was overcome by what was biggest upset of the night in Scotland: Alex Salmond lost his Gordon seat to the Conservatives. All throughout the campaign and into the night, the thought of dethroning a man, who it must be conceded, has been a political giant and changed the trajectory of Scottish – and to some extent, UK – politics, was an enticing yet dim prospect exactly because of his stature. Even with the favorable conditions for the Scottish Tories – having won the council elections in the Gordon area last month – and the exit poll showing that he was in trouble, it was somewhat expected that Salmond would pull out a victory, if only a narrow one.

     However, this was already one of those nights when a big name and a towering majority hardly mattered. The fact that he lost and the scale of the defeat – over 3,000 votes behind Tory candidate Colin Clark – couldn’t have made it clear that this was a big win for the Tories (beyond their dreams) and a historic moment which represented just how severe the backlash had become against the SNP over a potential second referendum and other policies, as well as their grip on the political scene, which was started by the former party leader and first minister himself. When Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson talked up the possibility of taking Gordon based on the local election results, Salmond said that she was arrogant to “continue the line of ‘we’re going to take this seat, and we’re going to take that seat’. Once it doesn’t happen, it’s very bad news for Ruth Davidson’s credibility.”

     Now people will live on to ask the question: “Were you up for Salmond?”

     The news of Alex Salmond’s defeat had hardly been absorbed when news came that his former constituency of Banff and Buchan – were he had started his parliamentary career – had returned to the Conservatives 30 years after he had defeated Sir Albert McQuarrie, the “Buchan Bulldog”. His successor to the seat, Eilidh Whiteford, had been the MP since 2010 when Salmond stepped down to focus on his jobs as an MSP and First Minister of Scotland, and at the last election, she held it with majority of over 14,000 and a 60% vote share. This year, her vote plunged by 21% as David Duguid of the Conservatives overturned that margin to win the seat by almost 3,700 votes – a remarkable swing of 20.2%.

     This was a massive earthquake result as with Gordon, because few people believed that Banff and Buchan would flip to the Tories and the party itself believed that both seats were out of their reach. At best, there may have been a swing in favor of the Tories, but only that. However, as many people have noted, not only were there strong feelings against another referendum, but also dissatisfaction with the EU and adherence to the Common Fisheries Policy, which some in the North East fishing industry believe has been harmful. Combined with this being an area with conservative (with a small “c”) tendencies, and a decision between the pro-EU SNP and the Tories promising to deliver Brexit, perhaps the result should not have been surprising, but it was still stunning.

     And yet, this dramatic night still was not over with five seats still left to declare. In one of those seats, North East Fife, a second recount was underway after the Liberal Democrats were ahead by two on the first count and by just one vote on the second. If this result was to stand, it would have meant that the LibDems would have at least four seats in Scotland – with Orkney and Shetland still to declare if Alistair Carmichael would continue to be its MP.

     It was now 5:00AM and while virtually all attention was on the elections to Westminster, there was a by-election to fill the Holyrood seat of Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire which had been vacated by John Lamont when he announced his candidacy for the overlapping Westminster seat of Berwickshire, Roxborough, and Selkirk. Aside from its connection to the overall general election, this by-election also gained some notoriety for featuring Alex Salmond’s sister Gail Hendry as the SNP’s standard bearer here. Almost expectedly, the Conservatives held on the seat with ease as Rachael Hamilton took over from Lamont, who as noted above, won the Westminster seat.

     In a sign of the times for the Scottish Conservatives, they were running low on people to fill the gap left behind at Holyrood by Ross Thomson, who was going to Westminster to represent Aberdeen South. Unlike Lamont who represented a constituency, Thomson was a regional list member for the North East region – having been elected from a list of Tory candidates on the basis of the proportion of the vote that they had received in the region last year. According to Scottish Parliament rules, his vacancy is to be filled by the next person on the list at the time of the election last year, but as reported by the BBC, Colin Clark (now MP for Gordon) and Kirstene Hair (now MP for Angus) were also on the North East region list for the Conservatives and another person, Nicola Ross, had quit the party. Excluding her, they are down to Tom Mason, their last person on the North East list and if something happens to him or any other North East Tory members, then those seats will not be filled until the next Holyrood election in 2021.

     One way to look at it – as mentioned by the BBC’s Philip Sim – is that the Scottish Tories, once left for dead, have revived to the point where there are more positions for them to take up than there are of them. 

     That issue wouldn’t befall them in Argyll and Bute, where they put up a good fight against Brendan O’Hara, but came up short by 1,300 votes – having slashed his majority by around 7,000 votes. The Conservative surge here had displaced the previously dominant LibDems down to third place and the Conservatives back in the running here for the first time since the seat was created in 1983.

     However, the LibDems would prove their resiliency elsewhere with Alistair Carmichael holding on to Orkney and Shetland. Except for a fifteen period from 1935 to 1950, this area has been a stronghold of Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1837 and they have won every general election here since 1950, which is the longest active streak for a party in any British parliamentary constituency. The SNP surge in 2015 and an attempt to legally remove Carmichael from office due to the “Frenchgate” affair almost brought that to an end, and though he survived, questions remained about his future. Would he stand for election again and if so, would the SNP be back to finish him off? As it turned out, he did stand again and won re-election with a vastly increased majority of 4,500 votes, which is lower than what he had in 2010, but significantly more comfortable than the 817 votes he survived on in 2015. Not only that, but he was now one of four LibDem MP’s from Scotland as the party fought its way back from irrelevance, as well as the second of the three pro-Union MP’s who survived in 2015 to have his result declared, with David Mundell’s declaration not far behind.

     Before him though was the declaration of the seat next door to his – Dumfries and Galloway – where Alister Jack defeated Richard Arkless with a majority of 5,600 votes, resulting in another historically Conservative area, like so many others that night, returning to blue. Afterward, the result for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale was announced and David Mundell emerged victorious with an expanded majority of nearly 9,500 votes – the biggest he’s ever enjoyed since his first election to the Commons in 2005. Having been the lone Scottish Tory MP for twelve years, Mundell was on the receiving end of the joke about there being more giant pandas than Tory MP’s. Now having definitively defended his seat with a bigger majority, the Secretary of State for Scotland was being joined by 12 other colleagues as the Scottish Conservative revival reached a new level.

     At 6:00AM, there was now only one seat left to declare: North East Fife, where only one vote stood between SNP incumbent Stephen Gethins and his Liberal Democrat challenger. A third recount was underway and there was the real prospect of a new counting team being brought in and/or that the race would come down to a coin toss should this recount produced a tie. Finally at around 6:30AM, it was announced that Gethins had held on by just two votes, a far cry from the majority of 4,300 he enjoyed in 2015, but that was all he needed to stay on. In fact, most of the swing against him benefitted the Conservatives, but the LibDems remained by far the second-place party and they considered a legal challenge.

     However, for all intents and purposes, all constituencies had declared and full and the end result on this dramatic and historic night was that the SNP fell to 35 seats, while the Conservatives, Labour, and the LibDems rose to thirteen, seven, and four seats respectively. In term of vote share, the SNP finished with 36.9% of the vote, followed by 28.6% for the Conservatives, 27.1% for Labour, and 6.8% for the Liberal Democrats.

     Those seat totals and percentages reveal an election night which was truly astounding, not only because of what happened, but because of the scale and the extent.

     Regardless what the SNP spin doctors and their most fervent supporters (or are otherwise trying to convince themselves and anyone who will listen), this was a devastating night for their party. In one stroke, they lost 21 seats, watched their vote share plunge by 13 points and they shed half a million voters, and along the way, some of their biggest names disappeared from Westminster – Angus Robertson, the deputy and Westminster group leader; Mike Weir, the chief whip; international trade spokeswoman Tasmina Ahemd-Sheikh; and of course, their foreign affair spokesman and former party leader, Alex Salmond.

     Yes, they retained the majority of Scottish seats and remain the third biggest party at Westminster, but this already a forgone conclusion from the beginning of the campaign, because the SNP had 56 seats last time around and steep majorities in most of them which were believed to be very difficult too overturn. It was also known that the party would likely lose some seats, with the only question being: “How many?” What was surprising and what they cannot ignore (try as they might) was that they ended up with vastly fewer seats than almost anyone expected and that it could have been worse as some of those vaunted majorities all but evaporated.

     The reality is that the SNP got squeezed on all sides as the three pro-UK parties all tore into its support from 2015. Rural areas in Perthshire and the North East which had once been the bedrock of SNP support since the 1980’s and 90’s were now reverting back to the Conservatives and their new heartlands in the Central Belt were on shaky ground too as Labour and the LibDems were making a comeback. Indeed, one reason why this night was as surprising as it became was due to the unexpected strength shown by those two latter parties which had been all but been left for dead in Scotland.

     In particular, Labour was only expected to pick up one seat, East Lothian – if that – and there were some doubts about the party hanging on to Ian Murray’s Edinburgh South constituency, so that there appeared to be the possibility of Labour being completely wiped off the political map. However, it emerged with six new seats – all of which had been lost to the SNP two years ago and all of which they took back in an election which seemed to partially reverse the nationalist tide. It won East Lothian, not by the slimmest of margins, but with over 3,000 votes to boot against George Kerevan. Elsewhere, the margins were smaller, but Labour managed to pull out wins in Midlothian, Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and more remarkably, in its old Glasgow area heartlands of Coatbridge, Chryston, and Bellshill, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and Glasgow North East. Oh, and Ian Murray kept his Edinburgh South seat with over 15,000 votes to spare – a remarkable feat which has hardly imaginable throughout the campaign.

     As for the Liberal Democrats, they did about as well as they could have with all things considered, for conservative estimates had them winning three seats; they ended up with four and almost won a fifth. Like Labour, they took back old heartlands from the SNP – Edinburgh West, Caithness, Sutherland, and Easter Ross, and East Dunbartonshire – and Alistair Carmichael held Orkney and Shetland with an increased majority from 2015. Back then, when that was their only seat, they had 7.5% of the popular vote in Scotland. It is therefore remarkable that with only 6.8% of the vote this time, the LibDems won more seats, which is a credit to their campaign targeting and concentrating resources in seats they believed were winnable and it paid off.

     However, the biggest beneficiaries by far of this election were the Scottish Conservatives. The party which had been completely wiped out in 1997, had only held a solitary seat at Westminster since 2001, been branded as “toxic”, and made into a pariah and the butt of the infamous panda joke had not only returned from oblivion and irrelevance, but emerged as a major player once again on the Scottish political scene and with the potential to shape UK politics as well. Since the start of the campaign, it was thought that the Tories were poised to win new seats in Scotland – perhaps a half-dozen or so in realistic terms and indeed, there had been the concern that a with past proclamations of Scottish Tory revivals and breakthroughs, this would be a dud or at least fall below expectations. This perhaps explains why they astutely managed such expectations and urged a great dose of caution when the exit had the SNP losing 22 seats.

     However, the Conservatives went on to have their best general election in Scotland since 1983 when they won 21 seats with Margaret Thatcher at the helm (and when considering vote share, it was their best result since 1979, also with Thatcher). This time, they won 13 seats – far more than what they expected in their wildest dreams. There were the seats they expected to gain in any circumstance – Berwickshire, Roxborough, and Selkirk, Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and Aberdeen South; there were the seats they believed they had a 50:50 chance on a better than expected night – Stirling and Moray; and then there were the seat they considered long-shots and only attainable on an exceptional night – Ochil and South Perthshire, Angus, Ayr, Carrick, and Cumnock, Banff and Buchan, and Gordon. Additionally, they held Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale – the seat of Scottish Secretary David Mundell – by nearly 10,000 votes.

     In short, the won just about everywhere, but were particularly strong throughout their traditional heartlands in Perthshire, the North East/Aberdeenshire, and the South/Borders – areas where they are once again dominant (with the notable exception of Perth and North Perthshire) and with particular interest to the South/Borders, they represent all of the constituencies in that area for the first time since 1959. Also for the first time since then, the Tories had a greater percentage of the popular vote than Labour thanks to big increases in their vote across the country, with the SNP vote dropping sharply and swinging to them, so that there were Tory gains (in vote percentage if not seats) in places where they had been moribund for decades.

     Aside from these superlatives and numbers (which have been astutely written about by blogger Kevin Hague), it is a testament to the strength of the SNP backlash that all three pro-UK parties did as well as they did and significantly outperformed expectations, including my own. Indeed, the breakdown of the results have shown that they could have done even better, because in places where the swing against the SNP was not enough to take the constituency, it was enough to slash dwarfing majorities to the point where several seats were up in the air for much of the night. Of those, there were nine seats won by the SNP by a thousand votes or less, and if they had gone the other way to the second-place candidate, the Conservatives would have added two seats (Perth and North Perthshire and Lanark and Hamilton East) for a total of 15, the Liberal Democrats would have had five with the addition of North East Fife, and Labour would have picked up six more (Inverclyde, Dunfermline and West Fife, Glasgow South West, Glasgow East, Motherwell and Wishaw, and Airdrie and Shotts) for a total of 13 – which would have amounted to 26 SNP seats and a collective 33 seats for the pro-UK parties.

How the political map of Scotland would have looked if the nine most marginal SNP constituencies had voted the other way. Image Credit: BBC; modified by Wesley Hutchins.

How the political map of Scotland would have looked if the nine most marginal SNP constituencies had voted the other way. Image Credit: BBC; modified by Wesley Hutchins.

     For Labour, most of these seats would have come from its old West of Scotland heartlands and the fact that it did come agonizingly close in those places in addition to winning back the seats has been attributed to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As was mentioned above, there were people like Loki the rapper who voted for independence and may well still support independence, but were attracted to Labour’s manifesto under Corbyn as well as what they saw as Corbyn’s bona fide socialist credentials. In contrast, the SNP has become seen as too cautious and compromising for the sake of middle class votes, and the result has been that some of the soft “Yes” voters who abandoned Labour two years ago are now at least giving the party a hearing again and voting for it. In other areas of the country, particularly in the North East, the Tories benefited from something of a Brexit bounce in part due to fishing communities and their attitudes toward the EU. In both cases, there was also some fatigue over the SNP being too obsessed about independence to the point that nothing else seemingly matters.

     Indeed, it was the issue of another referendum in breaking up Britain which loomed large over this election and the pro-UK parties campaigned to varying degrees opposing such a referendum, so as to make the SNP “get back to its day job” in running the day-to-day functions of the Scottish Government and return to politics not purely centered on constitutional issues. The result was a shellacking at the polls and a 61% pro-Union majority between the three parties which asserted itself and told the Nats: “No, we’ve had enough, thank you.” While the number of seats did not reflect this, the political map of Scotland has nevertheless become more healthy, colorful, and representative of Scotland.

     All of this is why even with a majority of Scottish seats at this election, the SNP lacks what they had hoped for: the ability to claim that they are the will and voice of Scotland made in flesh, so that they would have had the moral case and leverage for applying pressure on Westminster for a second referendum. However, it appears that have not got the message, at least not entirely. Nicola Sturgeon has admitted that the possibility of another referendum may have had an impact at this election, but little else.

     The problem is that Sturgeon misjudged the voters of Scotland in the wake of the Brexit vote. She expected – as did I, it must be said – that there would be a sharp spike in support for separation with Scotland voting overwhelmingly for the UK to remain in the EU, but the UK as a whole deciding to leave. Within hours of the vote being declared, she announced that a second referendum was “highly likely” so that Scotland could keep its place in the EU while the rest of the UK got out. What ended up happened was that people resented their pro-EU vote being used for naked political opportunism and being taken for granted. The sustained spike in support for separation has not happened and if anything, the signs are that it is going the wrong way, with this election being proof of that.

     There is the possibility that this a bump in the road from which the SNP may bounce back – and in these febrile times, don’t count against it – but it could also be something far more and it may well be the Nats have to reckon with the possibility that we are past “Peak SNP” and that the election amounted to something of a market correction. At the least, what has happened suggests that Sturgeon prematurely marched her troops up the mountain and convinced them that all they needed was one more push to get to the top and see a Promised Land which now appears far more distant and less inevitable.

     Depending on how Brexit goes, this may change, which is why the new SNP Westminster group leader Ian Blackford is calling a second referendum an insurance policy against Brexit. However, there are many who are seeing right through this, such as Fraser Whyte on Twitter, who said that this was akin to saying: “chopping my leg off is insurance against stubbing my toe”. Indeed, independence and the case for it has become complicated and even less reassuring because of Brexit, especially when one considerers that all of this may lead to Scotland being out of the UK and the EU – a double whammy which few people desire and at any rate, there’s also a recognition that the UK matters vastly more to Scotland than the EU.

     The result is that waving the independence issue around in any context has proved a vote loser and is testing the patience of the electorate and the SNP are danger of acting as though nothing has happened and treating this election as a minor blip before regular service resumes in the march to independence. Well, just ask Labour about the “minor blip” they’ve had since losing power at Holyrood in 2007.

     However, the pro-UK parties must not become complacent and wait for the SNP to make mistakes and hope to ride to more victories based on them. This election has given them a tremendous boost and the 24 seats between them can serve as the foundation for further growth, but they need to articulate their respective visions for Scotland within the UK and lay down credible alternative policies. This is especially true at Holyrood, where there is a market for fresh ideas after ten years of SNP rule, but also at Westminster, where they can influence policies which affect to whole United Kingdom. Non-party organizations such as Scotland in Union will also play a role in providing a non-partisan outlet for pro-UK activism and have already shown their capacity for making a difference. The tide appears to be turning, but it will be imperative to challenge the SNP head-on on more than just constitutional issues to ensure the Union’s long-term survival.

A Tough Decision on Daesh

Coalition Airstrike on an Daesh position in 2014. Image Credit:  Public Domain (Screenshot from Voice of America)  via  Wikimedia Commons

Coalition Airstrike on an Daesh position in 2014. Image Credit: Public Domain (Screenshot from Voice of America) via Wikimedia Commons

     Last night, the House of Commons voted 397 to 223 to expand RAF airstrikes on Daesh/Islamic State to Syria, and therefore take a greater role in the 60 country coalition against the terrorist organization, following an eleven hour debate in the chamber.

     The decision does not come lightly, and many MP’s on both sides acknowledged the mostly respectful disagreements with their colleagues on this issue of war and peace in the complex battleground of the Middle East, with IS posing a threat to the people in that region and to just about everyone else in the world. There is much at stake and so many moving parts to all of this, with the outcome far from certain and depending - to a great extent - on the conduct and actions of others in this troubled area that has already seen much violence, chaos, and displacement.

     Like many people, I have been conflicted on this, and I have spent time reading the wide range of opinion on what to do.

     In 2003, I supported the Iraq War, and at the time, I was a twelve year old kid who was caught up in the emotions of 9/11 and supremely believed our country was doing the right thing by going after Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Nearly 13 years later, I am older and much more skeptical of overseas military inventions – especially in countries which do not pose a direct threat to the United States, and this skepticism is due in part to the fall-out resulting from Iraq War, which is at least partially responsible for the current situation.

     However, I have not become a peacenik who automatically rejects conflict of any kind, any time, or any place, and there are times when real evil and barbarism must be confronted for the sake of humanity and civilization.

     Daesh/Islamic State is certainly an evil force which practices barbarism to the nth degree and is driven by an extreme and sickening ideology which wants to export throughout the Arab world in the form a caliphate and eventually bring about the Apocalypse. Worse is that their methods have made their way into Europe, where 130 people lost their lives to IS terrorists on an otherwise normal night in Paris, France. Other incidents have occurred which have cost the lives of several more civilians at the hands of these thugs.

     Clearly, they have to be dealt with. But how?

     Memories of the Iraq War are still fresh in people’s minds, and no one wants to fight yet another conflict in the Middle East which can easily become a drawn-out quagmire. No one wants to take action which potentially threatens lives of innocent civilians, which in turn drives more refugees to other parts of the world. No one wants Western efforts to be potentially used as a recruiting tactic for IS, which results in some Western-born Muslims to join IS to train and fight with them, and possibly return home to terrorize their fellow citizens – Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

     Then again, it is naïve to believe that if we just leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone, or that peaceful methods must be tried to come to a solution and avert more conflict and bloodshed. The problem with Daesh is that they unreasonable. They do not value human life in the way that most of us do, and their ideology does not allow for anything less than the hope for martyrdom and enjoying virgins in heaven. We in the US and the Soviets cared enough about the lives our own citizens to step back from the brink of nuclear war in 1962, and the Germans and Japanese saw the futility of putting their people through more war in 1945.

     In contrast, there is no expectation that IS can be reasoned with because they are a death cult and have no regard for the lives of others, let alone their own, which is also why there can be no expectation that they won’t attempt to attack Western cities again if we decide to leave them alone. Even if they did leave us alone however, they would still be beheading and raping people, and pillaging cities and towns throughout the Middle East in the pursuit of their caliphate and other parts of their crackpot agenda.

     Still, we cannot pretend that there will not be risks in conducting the airstrikes and a possible ground war in the future. Therefore, the real question was whether the case for action outweighed the case for inaction, and both courses are hardly optimal.

     This is where our elected representatives come into the mix. We send them to their respective legislative bodies to make tough decisions on our behalf, and we expect that they will make informed decisions in the national interest which requires much introspection, meditation, and considering the facts on the ground (some of which only they are privy to) as well as the potential consequences either way – all while also listening to their constituent's.

     Indeed, there were many MP’s who laid out articulate and well-grounded reasons for their respective votes for and against the motion to conduct airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South laid out his basis for voting against the motion in one of the longest Facebook postings I have ever read, and it was as considered and thoughtful as the reasoning given by the Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis in favor of the motion. Both men in my opinion, took a considerable amount of time in thinking about the decision and how they came to it, and this was seen with many other parliamentarians in speeches, Facebook posts, and newspaper editorials.

     The person who stood out most was Hilary Been, MP for Leeds and the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who gave an eloquent address in favor airstrikes (and going against his boss, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn) – reminding everyone of Britain’s obligation to fight injustice, evil, and fascism under the United Nations Charter and in response to the request for help from its ally, France (by a socialist president, Francois Hollande). He talked about the internationalist ideals of the Labour Party that saw trade unionists fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and saw Britain standing up to Hitler and Mussolini. He called out Daesh as the fascists of our time who hold the British people, British values, and British democracy in contempt, and that they must be defeated. Benn also based his case as part of a wider strategy to push IS out of territories under its command, so that it can be degraded and so that the overall Syrian Civil War can be brought to an end, and warned that the terror upon France could happen to Britain as well if no action was taken to stop them at the source.

     In doing this, Benn made the case not only for invention (better than Prime Minister David Cameron) but for Britain to step up in other ways, such as taking in refugees and helping to rebuild Syria, which owes to its tradition of doing such things as an influential world power.

     Agree with him or not, he made his decision based on what he believed was right, and so did many of the other MP’s, and that's why I really cannot blame people for the way they voted, and I don't envy the positions they occupy as parliamentarians. This was a tremendously difficult decision, so regardless of their views, I respect the MP's who at least showed some careful consideration before casting their vote. It was no time for political point-scoring (because for example, it's not about Scotland and the SNP's separatist obsession) or emotive language, but for taking a principled stand and speaking moderately on such a serious issue with people’s lives in the balance.

     Only time will tell if they made the right decision, and I doubt that the people who supported the strikes did so without some misgivings or complex feelings.

     The decision taken by the Commons last night on Daesh was by no means easy and comes with no guarantee of success, but there was also a price to pay for inaction against people who cannot be reasoned with.

     For my part, I’m still not sure about the direction to take, and we in America will have to decide as well how we will conduct ourselves in all this. However, I respect the decision made by Britain, and I will be rooting for it in the hope that its actions will be for the better.

Transatlantic Discontent

The establishment of British and American politics have been shaken up in recent years by people such as (from left to right) Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon, and Nigel Farage.  Image Credits: Corbyn:  See Li  via  Flickr , Sanders:  Marc Nozell  via  Flickr   cc , Trump:  Michael Vadon  via  Flickr   cc , Sturgeon:  Ninian Reid  via  Flickr   cc,  Farage:  Euro Realist Newsletter  via  Flickr . Modifications and montage by Wesley Hutchins.

The establishment of British and American politics have been shaken up in recent years by people such as (from left to right) Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon, and Nigel Farage.

Image Credits: Corbyn: See Li via Flickr, Sanders: Marc Nozell via Flickr cc, Trump: Michael Vadon via Flickr cc, Sturgeon: Ninian Reid via Flickr cc, Farage: Euro Realist Newsletter via Flickr. Modifications and montage by Wesley Hutchins.

     In the United Kingdom, the winter of 1978-1979 has been known as the Winter of Discontent, a phrase coming from the opening line of William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York”. It describes a period of economic and political malaise in the country which resulted in the election of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and the greatest sea change in British politics since Clement Attlee’s Labour government following World War II.

     Over 35 years later, it can be said that with regard to Britain, “the isle is full of noises”, and this is borrowed from another line by Shakespeare – this time, from The Tempest. Certainly, it does describe the rapidly changing and seemingly restless nature of British politics and society today. The improbable rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the UK Independence Party (UKIP), other political and social movements, and the once unthinkable notion of a politician like Jeremy Corbyn leading Her Majesty’s Opposition have rocked the political establishment.

     All of these movements speak to the disenchantment with mainstream politics and the embrace of what are considered to be the fringes on both the left and right ever since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the subsequent Great Recession. The economic downturn combined with austerity measures and the general feeling that the establishment is not adequately responding to the needs of the people has made for a vastly cynical populace that no longer wishes to take its cues from the establishment and now listens to, and supports, whatever and whoever speaks to them.

     This has resulted in the fracturing of British politics as the broad consensus shared by the main political parties – Labour, Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats – appears to be coming undone, and even though the “center” did hold in the recent general election with a (slim) majority Conservative government being returned to power under Prime Minister David Cameron, it appears that the current political upheaval has not yet run its course, and there are parallels across the Pond in America.

***

     The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition Labour Party on September 12, 2015 was nothing less than a repudiation of the centrist establishment that had been running the UK’s leading left-wing party since the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994. Blair had led the party to three straight general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005 – ushering 13 years of a Labour government with him as prime minister, and making him the most successful leader of the party and the longest-serving Labour prime minister.

     But there has always been an undercurrent of Labour supporters and sympathizers who believed that the party had drifted to far to the right in order to capture the center ground of British politics and win elections, and when Blair’s successor Gordon Brown lost the election of 2010 and resigned as party leader, one of his protégés, Ed Miliband, won the leadership – helped along with the backing of the trade unions who preferred him over his Blairite older brother David. Under Miliband’s leadership, the party edged to the left, but struggled to present a clear and viable alternative to the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats under David Cameron, which emerged after the electorate had produced a hung parliament with the Tories as the biggest party but with no overall control of the House of Commons.

     Indeed, it was felt that the party had become “Tory-lite” – merely going for changes along the edges of what the Tory-led government was doing, and not vigorously opposing its agenda of austerity, which the Tories have said was due to Labour spending too much and racking up huge budget deficits. All of this came against the backdrop of the financial crisis and Great Recession, during which Labour under Gordon Brown had bailed out failing banks and engaged in extra spending to stave off a deeper crisis. But Labour’s credibility on the economy was heavily damaged by all this, which resulted in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.

     That government engaged in a program of fiscal austerity, which proved very controversial because it involved cutting benefits and housing payments to the unemployed/underemployed, implementing welfare reform, increasing tuition fees for universities, privatizing the Royal Mail, and expanding the use of private delivery of public services (including the National Health Service), and other measures designed to reduce the deficit and put the country back on track.

     But for many, these were nothing less than going after the poorest and most vulnerable in order to pay for the financial calamity brought about by lightly-regulated banks, and as the economy struggled to bounce back with austerity measures in place, the government became very unpopular.

     The Liberal Democrats, as the junior partners of the coalition government with party leader Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister, suffered the most from a backlash by some of those who had voted for it as an alternative to both Labour and the Tories in 2010. Most significant among younger voters was its acquiescence to the increase in tuition fees, which it had pledged to oppose during the election, and this became emblematic of a party more concerned about power than its promises.

     Ideally, it was Labour that should have reaped the rewards of this discontent, but the party suffered from three major problems. One was that while people were willing to support a Labour government in the abstract, they could not imagine Ed Miliband – lampooned as Wallace from Wallace and Grommit in the press – as prime minister. Second was the sense that Labour – not wanting to abandon the center ground – was not putting forth a distinct and viable vision from that of the coalition government and the Tories in particular. This leads to the third issue: the rise of left-wing alternatives.

     In Scotland, the SNP under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had portrayed Labour as part of the “Westminster Establishment”, where it along with Tories and LibDems were virtually indistinguishable from one another, and also complicit in the recent parliamentary expenses scandal, and other – real and imagined – “Westminster misdoings.” This was played to the hilt during the independence referendum campaign during which all three parties participated in the Better Together campaign to keep the United Kingdom together. Even after they were defeated, the Nationalists saw a spike in popularity as the message about Labour being no different from the Tories resonated in places such as Glasgow and West Central Scotland, Lanarkshire, and Dundee, which had been voting Labour for generations, but now felt disillusioned and taken for granted by a party which had (supposedly) abandoned its traditional working class and left-wing values in pursuit of chasing Tory votes in Middle England, and had been standing “should-to-shoulder” with the Tories during the referendum – leading to pejorative of “Red Tories.”

     In England and Wales, the party was treated on similar grounds by the Green Party and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, but it was in Scotland where the energies of referendum campaign had spilled over to general election this year and resulted in Labour losing 40 of its 41 Scottish seats to the SNP, including that of Jim Murphy, the leader of the party in Scotland. Overall, Labour was defeated across the UK and a majority Tory government emerged, helped along with an economy that was showing signs of life, which boosted the Tories economic credibility and prevented Labour from overcoming the economic baggage associated with it during the financial crisis.

     Ed Miliband resigned, and the party was in search of a new leader. The initial three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall – were establishment figures who were more-or-less committed to keeping Labour in the center in the belief that a lurch to the left of Miliband would do the party no favors. Nevertheless, just enough MP’s nominated the obscure backbencher and left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, the 66 year old MP for North Islington, to be placed on the ballot in the leadership election. Many of them nominated him not such because they wanted or expected him to win the leadership, but because they hoped he would broaden the debate within the party and show that there was at least still a place for left-winger like Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn - the party republican rebel-turned-Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. Image Credit:  David Holt  via  Flickr   cc

Jeremy Corbyn - the party republican rebel-turned-Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. Image Credit: David Holt via Flickr cc

     But as the other candidates failed to impress, Corbyn tapped into an antiestablishment sentiment throughout the UK, and was soon on the rise. He was helped along by hundreds of thousands of new members to the party and many more who paid £3.00 ($4.60) to be a “registered supporter” of the party and voted for him. Establishment figures such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown warned against his election as leader and emphasized the need to be in power, but increasing numbers of Labour members and sympathizers – many of whom had been disillusioned by the rightward direction of the party – were in no mood to listen to who they saw as unimaginative dinosaurs from another era that had the party ever farther away from its traditional roots as a party that stood up against vested interests and demanded radical action to improve society for everyone – especially the disadvantaged and working classes.

     The result was that Corbyn was elected with nearly 60% of the vote – a huge popular mandate larger than Blair’s in 1994 – on this tide of antiestablishment feeling to become the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party since the 1930’s.

     Among other things, he is a republican who believes that the British monarchy ought to be abolished (though he has said that this is not a priority). Corbyn would like to see Britain give up its nuclear deterrent in the form of the sea-based Trident program, and by extension, wants to terminate membership of NATO, which is after all, a nuclear-tipped military alliance. For that matter, he wants Britain to reduce its military commitments and stay out of military interventions. He has shown a lukewarm attitude toward the UK’s membership of EU – partly out of concern for worker’s rights and the economic bloc’s negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States. Corbyn favors higher taxes – especially on the wealthy, and wants to reverse the current course of austerity with increased government spending, alongside the Bank of England printing more money as part of what he calls a “people’s QE” – a reference to the quantitative easing (QE) provided to banks during the financial crisis and recession. Most significantly, he favors the renationalization of industries and public services that have been privatized over the last four decades, such as railroads and energy companies.

     Taken together, this amounts to a complete reversal of everything that has characterized Labour in the last generation or so – away from moderate social democratic thinking, rejecting the politics of the Third Way, definitively dispensing with the “New Labour” brand, and returning to socialism.

     Much ink has already been spilled on, and hot air released about, the death of not just New Labour, but the Labour Party as a significant political force in the United Kingdom which strives to be viable and competent alternative to the current government, and more crucially, actually wishes to be in government and hold the reins of power.

     Indeed, with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats following their involvement in the coalition with the Tories, it would seem that the Tories are on their way to perpetual rule. But they have a majority of only 12 in the Commons, and even though this can be bolstered to around 30 with the support of Democratic Unionist (DUP) and Ulster Unionist (UUP) MP’s and the exclusion of the abstentionist Sinn Fein MP’s from Northern Ireland , the reality is that the Tories have their own problems.

     Before the election, they were most concerned about a threat from the right in the form of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to terminate the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). Under party leader Nigel Farage, the party had succeeded in campaigning against the increasing influence of the EU over British internal affairs, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed off by the last Labour government. It also exploited public anxieties and concerns over immigration – mostly from the EU (with its policy of freedom of movement among member states) and especially after restrictions to some former Eastern Bloc countries were lifted in the last decade as they acceded to EU membership. This too was done by the last Labour administration, and indeed, it was perceived as out of touch with the public on immigration, especially after former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called a voter “bigoted” after she asked him questions on immigration during the general election campaign on 2010.

     Meanwhile, David Cameron of the Tories had called on his party to stop “banging on” about Europe, for even though it was the Conservatives who took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) under Edward Heath in 1973, ever since the Maastricht Treaty which formally created the European Union, the party has struggled with divisions over the issue of whether to be a member. Indeed, those who started UKIP were former Tories like Farage who disagreed with Maastricht, which was negotiated and signed off by John Major in 1992, because they saw it as a sell-out of Britain’s sovereignty. Fast-forward to more recent times, and the issue of immigration – among others – has animated those who are “Eurosceptics” and wish to see the UK control its borders. This includes many Tory MP’s, especially those elected in 2010 and in this year, who were elected partly on the basis of getting tough on immigration and reversing the influence of the EU on Britain, especially on British laws.

The colorful pint-drinking leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, who wants to see Britain terminate its membership of the European Union. Image Credit:  Gage Skidmore  via  Flickr   cc

The colorful pint-drinking leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, who wants to see Britain terminate its membership of the European Union. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr cc

     During the last government, support for UKIP – which Cameron once dismissed as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists” – increased dramatically as immigration numbers went up (despite David Cameron pledging to keep them down), as more EU laws applied to Britain, and as Britain’s participation in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) seemingly made it virtually impossible to deport foreign criminals and radical clerics.

     In the face of this and more than a few backbench rebellions over Europe, Cameron in 2013 announced that should his party win the next general election, he would seek to reform the terms of Britain’s existing membership of the EU, following which he would hold a referendum on that reformed membership by 2017. In the local elections of 2013 and the EU parliamentary elections in 2014, this did not seem to help Cameron or his party as UKIP made major gains in these elections, and in particular, topped the EU poll last year. Later on, there were two UK parliamentary defections from the Tories to UKIP, and the threat of several more as UKIP appeared to be gaining strength at the expense of the Tories heading into the general election.

     As it was, the Tories held themselves together to win the election outright – their first such election victory in 23 years – by campaigning hard on the notion that voting for UKIP would result in taking votes from the Conservatives in critical constituencies and result in Labour winning the election (or even worse, a minority Labour government at the beck-and-call of the SNP), and that only a Tory government could deliver an referendum on reformed membership of the EU.

     However, as much as that strategy worked, it masked the divisions within the party which will likely become increasingly apparent as the referendum gets closer. David Cameron, his Chancellor of the Exchequer (and potential successor) George Osborne, and many others are almost certain to campaign on a vote to keep EU membership – mostly in agreement with business interests which want unabated access to the 500-millon strong common market of the EU, but there are also others – possibly led by London Mayor Boris Johnson (another possible Tory leadership contender) – who may reject the reformed terms and campaign to terminate membership. The current refugee/migrant crisis in continental Europe may tip the balance in favor of leaving the EU because of the EU’s policy of free movement among member states.

     David Cameron may hope for a united Tory front on Europe, but this appears increasingly unlikely, and he may find himself campaigning against his own MP’s, and possibly members of the cabinet as well in a referendum campaign. Despite moving to the Right to hold things together, the issue isn’t going away for the Prime Minister, and may result in a fracturing of the Right, as is currently the case with the Left.

     In addition, there has been a sense that the Conservatives have become more “metropolitan” by supporting initiatives such as the legalization of same-sex marriage. This was an example of the influence of the Liberal Democrats in the last government, but also of the Tories themselves taking a page out of the New Labour playbook and modernizing to become more acceptable to a wider electorate (and to shake off being the “Nasty Party”). It was no wonder that David Cameron was referred to as the “heir to Blair” among some sections of the press during the early years of his leadership.

     Nevertheless, this modernization – among other things – has angered some in the more traditionalist base of the party, and threatened to detail the party’s chances of winning this year. That did not happen, but if there are further ruptures among the different factions of the party and Cameron is unable to contain them, British politics will definitely be a whole new ball game if the center is indeed, unable to hold.

     Across the Pond in the United States, politics has not entirely fractured in this way, for we still have tightly-knit two party system between the Democratic and Republican parties. But there are and have been antiestablishment undercurrents in recent years which may have an effect on the trajectory of the parties and American politics.

     Among the parallels with politics in the UK, there is a feeling that the government is not doing enough to protect the interests of ordinary people since the onslaught of the financial crisis and Great Recession, and that instead, they serve special interest groups and wealthy campaign contributors to the detriment of everyone else.

     As with Britain, the financial crisis prompted the US government – then led by Republican President George W. Bush – to spend vast sums of money bailing out banks that were deemed “too big to fail”. As the economy went into recession and hundreds of jobs were lost, the American public punished the Republicans and elected Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama in 2008 as the nation’s first African-American president, and strengthened his party’s command of both houses of Congress, which meant that for the first time since 1995, all elected parts of the US federal government – both houses of Congress and the White House – were controlled by the Democratic Party.

     As Obama and the Democrats went forward on stimulus spending in the hope of helping the economy to recover and not just bailing out financial institutions (mortgage companies, banks, investment houses, insurance companies, etc.), but also the American automobile industry. The President also successfully pushed through health care reform legislation (known popularly and pejoratively as "Obamacare") to achieve nearly universal health insurance coverage for all Americans.

     However, there was a backlash against what was seen as too much spending and too much bailing out, particularly on political cronies and interest groups. On the right, the Tea Party movement rose in robust reaction to President Obama’s policies and was embraced by the Republican Party, who were able to ride on a wave of anti-Obama sentiment and wrested control of the House of Representatives – though not the Senate – from the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections.

     Since then, the Republicans have had to contend with the antiestablishment rhetoric being turned on them, for the establishment – for all of their use of bluster and rhetoric against the Democrats – want to get things done and know that in order to do so, they have to work with the Democrats and make compromises. However, the new intake of Republicans has been in no mood to compromise. They believe they were given a strict and solid mandate to oppose Obama’s policies – not least “Obamacare” – and wanted nothing more than to bring the President down to his knees and force him to agree to their demands.

     Their opposition to Obama was based on a general and ideological belief in small government, and that Obama’s policies were increasing the size and scope of government beyond what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution. So they therefore saw themselves was standing up for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which would see the federal government shrivel up to something vastly different to what it is now. In addition, there have been – as in the UK – a myriad of social issues that animate religious fundamentalists, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and several Republicans were elected on the basis of opposing those things.

     Over time, this has manifested in government shutdowns and threats of government shutdowns as some of the more ideologically-pure Republican members refused to even support their own party’s leadership on passing budgets to fund the government and raising the debt ceiling in the hope that doing so would force Obama’s hand. None of these attempts have really succeeded in doing anything to force the President on a u-turn of his major policies, and have actually hurt the Republicans, as they have been seen as sore losers who did not accept the Obama’s victory in 2008 or his reelection in 2012. In addition, the military ban on openly homosexual soldiers has been lifted, and the Supreme Court has struck down the state-by-state bans on same-sex marriage.

     Nevertheless, this strain of Republican politics hasn’t gone away, as is obvious by the rise of real-estate developer and celebrity television host Donald Trump, who has successfully tapped into the disillusionment among grassroots Republicans who feel that the party has been inept in confronting Obama and that whole political establishment is rotten to the core. As a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency in next year’s general election, Trump has reignited the flames of the issue of illegal immigration as he has made controversial remarks about immigrants and questioning the long-established legality of birthright citizenship. He has also made a name by showing condescension and contempt for the establishment. In turn, he has shot up in the polls as the unexpected frontrunner for the nomination as a populist straight-talker who is not connected to the Washington establishment or the well-heeled donor class.

Controversial, outspoken, and unchained to anybody but himself, Donald Trump has emerged as the unexpected front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential nominating contest. Image Credit:  Gage Skidmore  via  Flickr   cc

Controversial, outspoken, and unchained to anybody but himself, Donald Trump has emerged as the unexpected front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential nominating contest. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr cc

     The result has been that established figures such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – son and brother of two former presidents – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich are now in single digits in most polling, with Trump and another outsider, Dr. Ben Carson, leading the pack with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina making a recent surge thanks to an unhappy base within the party that views many in the establishment as just as bad as Obama, if not worse.  Some of them had problems with George W. Bush and his brand “compassionate conservatism”, which to them resulted in making government bigger, spending more money, running bigger deficits, and promoting immigration reform with some form of amnesty or pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country – all of which has resulted in the term “RINO’s” (Republicans In Name Only) to describe moderate or liberal Republicans.

     Meanwhile on the Democratic side, the landscape is not as fractious or acrimonious, but there are still signs of restlessness towards the establishment in the form of Hillary Clinton.

     Like the Labour Party in the UK, the Democratic Party in the US had to moderate from its more left-wing stances to become electable to an electorate that gave two landslide victories to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and another one to George H.W. Bush in 1988. Four years later, Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency and won reelection in 1996 as a “New Democrat” who was pro-business, pro-military, and deficit-conscious, while still extolling the virtues of the New Deal (which brought Social Security) and the Great Society (which brought Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights reforms).

     But Clinton also got flak from the left flank of his party for signing anti-crime legislation which they claim has resulted in a disproportionate number of poor people and ethnic minorities going to jail and giving America the highest prisoner population among advanced economies. The liberal left has also criticized Clinton-era welfare reforms, which were made as a compromise with the Republican-controlled Congress, and have seen tougher limits on the availability of welfare benefits, which they see go against the spirit of the New Deal and the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. On top of all this was the sense that the Democrats had gotten too close to big money and Wall Street in particular, and also supported the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which were contentious issues as well against the Labour Party in Britain).

     Enter Barack Obama, who challenged President Clinton’s wife Hillary, then a US Senator from New York, for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and won on a platform of being antiwar and took on the orthodoxy of the centrist establishment that had been running the party since the Clinton era.

     But even under Obama, some of the more strident left wing voices – while applauding him for healthcare reform and overseeing progress on LGBT rights – have criticized him for not doing enough and being too cautious in the White House with regard to poverty (especially in urban areas), taking on the criminal justice system (with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement), gun control (as his presidency has witnessed several mass shootings), more forcefully taking on banks and corporate interests, and doing something about the increasing gap between rich and poor.

     Now Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s first Secretary of State, is running again for the nomination, and as a person who is to the right of Obama, some grassroots Democrats looked elsewhere for a candidate who appealed to them.

     Enter Bernie Sanders, the independent, self-described “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, who has become a serious contender for the Democratic nomination by running to the left of Clinton (and even Obama) and appealing to those who have felt left out by the more centrist establishment, in a similar fashion that Jeremy Corbyn is doing with regard to the Labour Party in the UK. So far, Clinton is still the prohibitive front-runner for the nomination, and it is expected that most Democrats will support her if she wins. However, there will likely be an expectation that she (or anybody else) takes the party in a more left-wing and “progressive” direction on a variety of issues, and effectively overturn some of the legacy of her husband’s presidency and the steps that Democrats took to become electable on a national basis.

Hillary Clinton has been feeling the "bern" because independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has electrified that left wing of the Democratic Party in his run for the presidential nomination. Image Credit:  Gage Skidmore  via  Flickr   cc

Hillary Clinton has been feeling the "bern" because independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has electrified that left wing of the Democratic Party in his run for the presidential nomination. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr cc

     But if the Left in Britain and America wishes to succeed electorally with people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it has a lot to prove in order to win. Most importantly in my opinion, it has to provide a definitive answer to whenever images of 1970’s malaise are shown on both sides of the Atlantic – high interest rates, stagnant economies, back-to-back strikes, energy crises, trash piling in the streets, and etc. There are many people – including members and supporters – who lived during those times and don’t remember them fondly, compared to some on the Left who look back at those days as the golden era of the Post-War Consensus (Keynesian economics, high taxes, high regulations, a generous welfare state, and in the case of Britain – nationalized industries) that had dominated transatlantic politics regardless of party since the end of World War II.

     When that consensus started coming undone by forces beyond the control of governments (i.e., globalization, the rise of competitive overseas economies, etc.) and people suffered as a result, the Left had no adequate or credible answer for the electorate, who in response, elected right-leaning governments in the form of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, who had a simple answer: government was the problem, not the solution. They successfully challenged the Post-War Consensus – saying that it resulted in the crises of the 1970’s – and pushed for a new direction of liberalized markets, less regulation, lower taxes, free trade, and shrinking the government in domestic affairs. In the process, they forged a new establishment consensus that has been in place ever since and hardly challenged.

     The Left has to challenge that consensus of our time with a credible and sustainable alternative, just as Thatcher and Reagan challenged what was the consensus in their time with something that – for better or worse – has so far outlived both of them, and has (it had to admitted) resulted in overall greater prosperity since the 1970’s on a macroeconomic level.

     Corbyn and his supporters believe that there millions of would-be voters who did not turn out last time around because Labour did not distinguish itself enough from the Tories, and that if Labour tapped into those voters and expanded the electorate, Labour will stand a chance to gain power under Corbyn. Leftist Democrats in America believe in the same thing – getting more people out and voting by being more radical and getting away from the center.

     However, just as former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said that you have to work with the army you have, not the army you want, political parties of all persuasions have to work with the electorate they have as opposed to the electorate they wish to have. So often, people who say they will vote don’t actually vote – usually because they don’t think their votes will a difference, and even if they believe it can, they are skeptical of the party that offers sweeping change because they don’t believe that change can be delivered.

     Now to be fair, Barack Obama did manage to expand the electorate to people you had not voted before by engaging them with an inspiring vision of hope and good change for the future. At the same time however, that vision had to be a realistic one that could be bought into by moderate centrist voters, not least by some people in his own party. By doing this, he was able to assemble a broad coalition of voters which allowed him to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and become a two-term president by winning in the North, South, East, and West.

     Some people believe that Obama has changed the trajectory of American politics to the left, and that with America’s demographic changes, the Democrats will be able to offer a more progressive and leftist vision for the country, especially at a time when the Republicans seemingly have a shrinking base and a dilemma on how to move forward in the face of that. Only time will tell.

     As for the Labour Party in the UK, it seems destined to take a left turn under Jeremy Corbyn, and the conventional wisdom is that it will not be in government again for another decade because the party has made itself unelectable with people more concerned about ideological purity than obtaining power. On the other hand, Corbyn has said that despite his personal views, he wants to see debate within the party on a variety of issues – making it more about what the membership wants rather than what he wants. So perhaps there can be an opportunity for the Blairites and other moderates within the party to have their say and influence party policy in a way that suits them, but is also agreeable to the rejuvenated left wing elements. Perhaps it is possible that Labour under Corbyn will have an inspiring and realistic vision for the UK that can unite the party and make it electable throughout Britain.

     In Scotland, the party faces a particularly difficult dilemma. It was beaten over the head by the SNP during the referendum and general election for “abandoning” its left-wing progressive principles in the pursuit of power, and lost almost everything on the basis of that rhetoric. After all, a common refrain from some former Scottish Labour voters is: “I didn’t leave Labour; Labour left me”, and “I’m not a nationalist; I’m a socialist!” But with the election of Corbyn as UK Labour leader, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that unless Labour quickly becomes a credible alternative to the Tories and win a UK general election, many Scots will conclude that independence is the only way to get a left-wing government.

     However, the SNP itself – despite what its most fervent supporters say – is not a socialist party. For the past 15 years or so, it has portrayed itself as a moderate social democratic party that has largely accepted the post-Thatcher consensus – so much so, that it once placed an emphasis on dropping corporate taxes to stimulate economic growth. The Nationalists attracted the support of “Middle Scotland” with popular polices such as the Council Tax freeze and “free” university tuition, and with the “Red Tory” rhetoric, has made inroads into the once dominant Labour areas of Central Scotland. But it has yet to enact anything particularly radical or redistributive with the powers already devolved to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, in which it has an outright majority, and Nicola Sturgeon knows that Scotland is not as radical as has been made out to be, and that the SNP would not be where it is without the support of politically moderate Scots.

Having served as Deputy First Minister under Alex Salmond since 2007, Nicola Sturgeon succeeded him as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP following the rejection of independence by Scottish voters, but her party has enjoyed a surge of support that allowed them to win all but three of Scotland's 59 seats in the UK House of Commons. Image Credit:   Christine McIntosh  via  Flickr   cc

Having served as Deputy First Minister under Alex Salmond since 2007, Nicola Sturgeon succeeded him as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP following the rejection of independence by Scottish voters, but her party has enjoyed a surge of support that allowed them to win all but three of Scotland's 59 seats in the UK House of Commons. Image Credit:  Christine McIntosh via Flickr cc

     Nevertheless, her party has gained traction on the idea that progressive thinking is a hallmark of Scottish politics, while English – or rather “Westminster” – politics can be characterized as reactionary, conservative, and therefore, “un-Scottish”, which again shows the need for breaking up Britain in her world view. Kezia Dugdale, the party’s leader in Scotland (and the eighth in 15 years), knows that up to a third – if not more – of her party’s traditional voters abandoned it during the referendum and general election, and that getting a substantial number of them back will be key for Labour to win power again, both in London and Edinburgh.  For this reason, perhaps one benefit from Corbyn is that he may be able to broaden the debate and show that British politics throughout the United Kingdom can be a place for left-wing thought, and that “Westminster” is not a monolithic entity.

     At the same time, the Scottish Conservatives – under leader Ruth Davidson – have to find some way of making their party more acceptable to the people of Scotland. Once the dominant party as late as the 1950’s, they went on a gradual decline and then lost all of their MP’s in the Blair landslide of 1997, and have only had one MP since 2001. This was partly due to Margaret Thatcher and some of her more unpopular policies such as the Community Charge (Poll Tax), which was rolled out in Scotland one year before the rest of Britain, and Thatcher – even in death, and having been out of power since 1990 – has been a four-letter word there, and has become a massive liability for her party. The sooner the Scottish Tories can make people seriously think about their policies and what they can do for the people of Scotland (and put Thatcher to one side), the better chance they have of winning.

     Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, having been reduced from over 50 MP’s to only eight at the general election, are now making overtures to moderates in the Labour Party, who may become – if they are not already – disaffected by the leftward tilt of the party, and especially if they are completely shut out of debate and discussion over the party’s future and do not see at least some moderation from the unreconstructed Bennite that is Jeremy Corbyn.

     All of this means that more coalition governments may be in store for the UK going forward as more people on the left and right vote for niche parties rather than large “broad-church” parties with various factions. Compromises will still have to be made, though not in the parties, but in government among the parties that form coalitions. This then calls into question the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) electoral system, which worked when the Tories and Labour received over 90% of the vote and the system all but guaranteed one-party governments. But the decline of the two major parties to just 65% of the national popular vote (and with the Tories able to govern the UK with just 36% of it) has prompted debate on the need for electoral reform, which I have written about.

     Perhaps this is the new normal, and that the current Tory majority will prove to be a blip in the long-term view of things, and that some form of proportional representation – whether in the Commons or Lords – will be needed. Only time will tell.

     Meanwhile in America, our two-party system is still strong, but there are significant forces on the left and right that wish to see the parties move away from the center and take on a more ideological bent. Three months ago, I could have easily predicted that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would be the respective nominee’s of their parties for next year. Now, I genuinely cannot tell what is going to happen.

     Indeed, the big political story in America and Britain through the last several months is that the pundits have been proven wrong on so much. Few predicted that the Tories would have an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons in May, nobody gave Jeremy Corbyn a chance at winning the Labour leadership, and the rise of Trump and Sanders was on no one’s radar until recently.

     Right now, politics is going to be interesting to watch on both sides of the Atlantic. However, I do hope for what is best for our two countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, and that for all the rhetoric that gets thrown around, the current tide of antiestablishment politics, and the frustrations of people on a variety of issues, people can have a reasonable and civil debate about the future going forward for the benefit of generations to come. Anyone who believes in our hard-fought democratic traditions ought to agree with that, and have faith that the citizenry will make the right decisions in this period of noisy discontent.