It is perhaps difficult to convey in writing to those outwith Scotland the enormity of the result of the General Election in Scotland. Newspaper and media headlines from around the UK and from the rest of the world talk of ‘end the end of Britain’; that British politics have been ‘blown apart’; that a ‘psychological change’ has gripped Scotland’; that the ‘end of the UK is inevitable’… A huge amount of media output and academic and political commentary has in the period since May 7 been devoted to explaining what happened in Scotland and why the SNP have been so successful. As ever there is no one factor at work here and the weight given to different contributing factors reflects the politics and different standpoints of those writing. But despite the differing perspectives at play here, there was a shared view that the outcomes of the 2015 General Election in Scotland were ‘seismic’, of ‘earthquake’ proportions.
The May 2015 General Election took place only 8 months after the Scottish Independence Referendum. As is now well known, 55% of the voting population of Scotland opted to say NO to Independence. That the referendum was held at all was itself also seen as an historic event: for the first time since 1707, Scottish voters were given a say on Scotland’s continuing membership of the UK. Arguably at no time since the Act of Union in 1707, that brought the parliaments of England and Scotland together, has the Union appeared to be under so much threat. The holding of a Referendum on Independence also reflects the increasing fragmentation of the UK and in particular the growing divergences that are now pulling the different countries and regions of the UK in different ways.
The 2014 Referendum saw Scotland catapulted to the top of the political agenda and rarely has the country been placed in such a spotlight. This focus also stretched well beyond Scotland and the rest of the UK. If the outcome of the Referendum was seen to end discussions of Scotland’s constitutional future for ‘at least a generation’, in the oft quoted comment from then Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, then within only a matter of days and a few weeks following the NO vote, it appeared that the SNP had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The post-Independence Referendum period saw the losing side of the Referendum, in the main the SNP, appear victorious and the Labour Party, the Party that were to the fore in the pro-Union Better Together/NO to Independence campaign, Labour, was gripped by turmoil.
If senior politicians in the main UK political parties, here referring to the main pro-Union parties, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Tories, had hoped that the Independence and constitutional issues would have gone away with a NO vote, they were to be severely disappointed. Within only hours of the Referendum result being announced, Prime Minster David Cameron was tying the issue of further devolved powers to Scotland with the question of devolution for England. The acronym EVEL has since entered political discussion and debate: English Votes for English Laws.
Made only days before the Referendum on September 18, 2014, the promise of additional and far-reaching additional powers for Scotland – a ‘vow’ made by the three main UK party leaders that was for many observers and voters a key factor in securing a NO vote - appeared to be under threat, by David Cameron at least as he sought to backtrack somewhat from the statements made only days earlier. The SNP were able to make considerable political capital out of this – arguing that this showed that Westminster political parties were not to be trusted, that a NO vote would fail to lead to significant additional powers for Scotland.
The key issue at debate in the above revolves around the notion of ‘significant’. What is meant by ‘significant’ powers? The establishment of the Smith Commission by David Cameron to explore and recommend on further devolution for Scotland unsurprisingly added fuel to the fire in terms of the future constitutional arrangements for Scotland and the rest of the UK with the SNP and others in favour of Scottish Independence arguing that the proposals on offer did not go far enough and that they represented a betrayal of the vow made days before the September Referendum.
The debate over additional powers has not gone away and despite repeated claims that the 2015 General Election in Scotland was not to be seen as a re-run of September Referendum, the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future – as well as of the rest of the UK – has continued to occupy a pivotal position in all political debates that have taken place since.