In the political bubble, it’s a common belief that you are at a turning point. It always feels important, always feels like the next few days, weeks or months will change the whole lexicon of political life for a generation.
On reflection, and with the benefit of hindsight, those times are rarely as important as they seem. However, I’ll happily wager that the current phase of political events in Scotland will stand the test of time as truly transformational.
This is Scotland’s nexus.
The Scottish electorate has just taken the biggest decision in 300 years on the future of their nation, and the next political generation will live in the shadow of that referendum for years to come. Already two vastly differing perspectives on that result have pervaded water cooler conversations all over the country. Half the nation believing that a decision has been made, relatively decisively, and we all need to do now is get back to the knitting, so to speak. The other half believing they were robbed of success by some false promises made in desperation by their opponents in the dying days of the campaign.
Both are partly right, but the individual party responses to the split reveal everything about their discipline and determination to win advantage in the nexus for the generation to come.
For the SNP, the dejected and defeated of only a month ago, this has been an halcyon period. Spurred on by a three-fold growth in membership, they have seized the momentum when they should have been denied forward propulsion through a combination of exhaustion and depression. Suddenly, opinion polls predict them seizing 54 of 59 Scottish seats at the General Election next spring. That won’t happen, of course. Or could it?
They have challenges, of course, including a membership that will be much more radical than many of their elected representatives – and they will crave the lingering prospect of a second referendum to renew the ties between left and right who share little other than a belief in independence.
This nexus period will either see them confirmed as the “peoples’ party” of Scotland, the home of the middle ground voter, or the home of the “fundie”, a party of the independence-obsessed.
Now consider the opposition, those who should have been basking in the triumphant glory of denying the SNP their founding objective. Basking briefly, before setting about belatedly changing the political weather in Scotland.
Instead, Labour have accelerated a period of introspection and self-loathing which has been building for 15 years. During the phase of devolution for Scotland, they have never managed to get a grip on devolved relationships within their party, whilst in Government in Westminster and in Holyrood, they were glued together by a combination of sustained success and intra-party relationships mediated by the civil service. Removed from office north and south of the border, the fissures have opened and discontent has become disrespect at least, hatred in the extreme.
Johann Lamont’s departure, and the frankness with which she explained her reasons for going, has brought an external focus onto what internally has been accepted for years, the Scottish Party is fissured down the middle, whilst at the same time holding the keys to Number 10 for Ed Miliband. For without that small army of Scottish Labour MPs assembling at Scottish airports every Monday, the chances of forming a labour majority in the Commons recedes into the middle distance.
They are now presented with a leadership choice that opens up all the old wounds, a Blairite MP facing one left-leaning and one ultra-left MSP in a battle for supremacy. For Labour’s best interests, this is a battle that needs to be fought and won decisively. I suspect it is a war that Jim Murphy, the able and articulate centrist would have chosen. If he is to win, he believes, he needs to win in a manner that sets Scottish Labour on a new and different course.
He will know that all the former rules of politics have not been turned upside down, Labour needs to win Scotland, like everywhere else, from the centre ground – and have nothing to gain from continuing the arms-race to the left on which they were embarked under Lamont, and which would presumably be continued by leadership adversaries Boyack or Findlay.
This is a decision for Labour that will start their rebuilding, or confirm their imminent cremation. The stakes could not be higher.
So, too, for Scotland’s Conservatives, a party that has spent the last 20 years on the sidelines, like the veteran footballer, now relegated to the bench, making only fleeting appearances on the political front-line. For them, the goal is open to rebuild and enhance the prospects for the centre-right north of the border.
The referendum has provided a priceless foundation for a party that remains the ultimate unionist option – indeed, the only one to retain the word “unionist” in its name. Having demonstrated a greater degree of alignment between its support and the wider electorate than for many a long year, the question is, can they capitalise? Their “Friends of the Union” group has demonstrated that there is a significant force of notional supporters that they can call upon for support, effort or money, yet there is not yet any great sign that they have in place a strategy to confirm that conversion, nor much evidence that they can leap forward from their new base of 15% in the polls.
Their able young leader, Ruth Davidson, has the chance to deliver concrete improvement. Another chance like this may be forty years away, and she will feel under considerable pressure to deliver, particularly given the enthusiastic endorsements for her abilities that have been liberally dispersed by Downing Street.
This is either the turning point for the Tories, or the final nail in their coffin if missed.
And for the Lib Dems, so historically strong in rural Scotland, the next seven months will tell if their MPs truly have the personal appeal to hold on in the face of an onslaught. One suspects that, with only three mainland MSPs after their 2011 disaster, a similar cull at the General Election may well have the grim reaper knocking on Scottish party HQ.
For the Lib Dems, they may be months from oblivion in Scotland, or 200 days from proving the benefits of MPs “digging in” include exceptional electoral resilience.
In essence then, this is a turning point like few others in history in Scotland’s political landscape. All the main players have threats and opportunities, but of them all, the overall course of the country remains in Labour’s hands. Their failure has been the making of the SNP over 20 years. Their complacency has been the fuel in the nationalist tank.
Facing a new formidable First Minister, will they retreat into themselves again, or rediscover some belief, feel Scottish once more, and reconnect with the base that has questioned them over the last decade and largely deserted them on 18th September?
A lot rests on the Labour shoulders of Messrs Murphy, Boyack and Findlay. The course of national events for the next 30 years that lies at their feet.
At this nexus in national history, Labour need to chose wisely.
Photo credit: Colin