I remember when Scottish politics was pretty boring and predictable and nothing ever seemed to happen. When I was first elected in 2001 only one Scottish Westminster seat changed hands and in 2010 absolutely no seats changed hands at all. In the Scottish Parliament the steady decline of Scottish Labour was more apparent but was always considered to be a temporary set back and something that would, in time, be reversed. The great adversaries of the era were the dominant Labour party and the insurgent SNP. Everybody understood the rules and the terrain of the fight and we got down to the business of slogging it out.
Now everything has utterly changed. The contest for political dominance is now between the SNP and the Conservatives profoundly changing the nature of our political debate and redefining the terrain that our politics are now conducted in. All of this has happened within five dramatic years and the changes in our national politics has been as quick as it has been overwhelming. Scottish Labour has all but disappeared reduced to one MP and a diminished rump of mainly list MSPs. The remarkable feat of the Conservatives beating Labour into second place in the last Scottish election has firmly established them as the main opposition in Scotland.
There may be several reasons why all this has come to pass but the only one that matters is the independence referendum. Where the Conservatives got it right in their pitch in the referendum Labour got it totally and utterly wrong. Labour took the gamble that they spoke for their support when they enthusiastically embraced the union cause. Their arrogance extended to believing that campaigning with the Conservatives would be uncontroversial and they sincerely believed that following the independence referendum they would be placed with a 1979 supremacy with the SNP humbled once again. The Tories on the other hand had absolutely nothing to lose knowing that there would never be an issue with their support.
If fighting the independence referendum war was bad for Labour the way they have tried to prosecute the peace has been disastrous. Their former ‘centurion guard’ of seats now have unassailable SNP majorities and their unionism now only seems to antagonise those that they once represented. The Tories on the other hand quickly understood that the constitutional debate instead of concluding was only getting in to its stride. If they could remain the true defenders of the union they could enlist unionist support from a diminished Labour Party and establish a new potent pitch based around personality and a cause that secured fifty five percent support.
This is why the campaign against an indyref2 is just as important for the Tories as the SNP’s campaign for another referendum is important for us. Labour meanwhile are stuck in a meaningless no-man’s land pitifully wailing about the continuing constitutional debate, hoping, praying, that the Scottish people will move on. It could not be worse for them.
With a Conservative opposition the constitutional debate will therefore be promoted even more enthusiastically as Conservative support becomes increasingly motivated and dependent on opposition to a referendum. Having a Conservative opposition as the main unionist party is also immensely helpful for us in the SNP. That’s because they help properly define what unionism now represents. Westminster rule increasingly means continuing Conservative rule and voting for the union now means endorsing the right of a Conservative Government we didn’t vote for run its writ in Scotland. The case for the union therefore will in time become a proxy and a case for Conservatism. Having the Scottish Tories as the union’s main proponents in Scotland helps crystallise the clear options available to the Scottish people.
And what of Labour you may ask? Well they seem to have made their choice. No sensible person associated with the Labour Party is talking about any sort of Labour government for a generation yet they still seem to be asking what is left of their support to get behind what can only now be a Conservative led union. After the disaster of recent years it would seem Labour have learned absolutely nothing.
The new constitutional debate is therefore quickly becoming about whether we should have Scottish self Government or Westminster Tory Government. That seems quite a good place to resume hostilities.