It didn’t have to be this way. Less than a year ago, with the United Kingdom facing break-up as Scottish nationalists edged closer than expected to a win in an independence referendum, the Westminster big guns hustled north to promise the Scots that all would be well if they chose to stay together.
Scotland, after all, has its own parliament, sitting in Edinburgh, which decides on most of the matters that affect the electorate, such as health and education.
That the nation chose to stay as part of the UK may have been celebrated by the political classes, but it was viewed by the many, many people in the rest of the UK, who had no say in the referendum, as proof that the Scots were happy to have their cake, and eat it too.
After the referendum’s loss, the SNP, by rights, should have been a spent political force in Westminster; happy to hole up and govern its rump of the UK from the Scottish parliament in Holyrood; leaving the “real” parties to get on with governing down south.
The party’s long-standing leader, Alex Salmond, even resigned on the day of the announcement, his dream of an independent nation crushed for at least another generation.
Different political landscape
What a difference eight months makes. Today, the UK woke up to a very different political landscape. The SNP managed a near-clean sweep, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, to become the third biggest party in Westminster.
The worst fears of the English – hyped up by ever more bigoted and jingoistic headlines in Britain’s right-wing press – that the SNP would be kingmakers in a hung parliament, a be-kilted cabal of shady Scotsmen dictating the country’s future – have been averted by the Conservatives squeaking a narrow outright majority.
But the SNP’s victory will still have seismic effect on the nation’s political scene. While Labour won’t have to come begging to the Scots for support in a minority government (something Ed Miliband had been vehement in saying he would not do) a combined Labour and SNP bloc in opposition, however informal, will make governing very tricky indeed for David Cameron.
The worst fears of the English … that the SNP would be kingmakers in a hung parliament – a be-kilted cabal of shady Scotsmen dictating the country’s future – have been averted by the Conservatives squeaking a narrow outright majority.
The national parties in Scotland are not so much in disarray as totally annihilated. Labour’s Scottish leader, Jim Murphy, had a disastrous campaign, culminating in the humiliating loss of own seat; the LibDems’ highest profile causalities, including former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and former LibDem leader Charles Kennedy, were on the Scottish battlefields. (The Scottish Tories actually ran a good campaign, with Ruth Davidson emerging as a refreshing political force, but their single seat north of the border reinforces their irrelevancy.)
How did it come to this? How can a party that should have been on the political ropes less than a year ago do so well? The answer is that the national political parties, in winning the referendum, all but sowed the seeds of the nation’s inevitable split.
As the referendum date drew near, shock polls predicted a win for the “Yes” campaign for independence, the major parties launched a massive campaign for Scotland’s hearts and minds.
In a vanishingly rare show of unity the Labour, LibDem and Tory leaders rushed north to pledge their undying love for their Scottish neighbours, and promising the Scots pretty much the Earth – provided they stayed in the Union.
Promises made in haste, they say, are broken at leisure. In this case the promises were discarded in even more obscene haste than they were made – and the Scots have punished the parties for what they see as egregious deceit.
The swing to the SNP is political pragmatism at its best – the Scots electorate – a politically savvy bunch at the best of times – are simply ensuring they have the best representation at Westminster you can possibly have; a bloc that will fight to get what they were promised at the referendum.
An independent Scotland
But what of the future? The SNP, canny operators that they are, insist that another referendum isn’t on the cards. Don’t believe that for a second – the party’s entire raison d’etre is an independent Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, has engaged the electorate in a way her predecessor could never have dreamed of doing.
The Scots, disgusted with how they have been demonised by a hysterical national media, angry at betrayal from the key parties, and stoked on the “Sturgeon effect” will seek, and win, another referendum in 5-10 years.
The major national parties, already banished from the political scene in Scotland, will have no real interest in fighting a “No” campaign in the same way as 2014. And the English electorate, angered by Scots influence over their affairs, will be glad to say “goodbye” to their cousins.
The so-called “West Lothian Question” – the thorny issue of Westminster MPs sitting in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland being able to have a say over matters that affect only England – will finally be settled, once and for all, with the dissolution of the United Kingdom.
Alistair Crighton is head of Special Project at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. Before moving to the Middle East, he was a journalist in his native Scotland, where he worked for newspapers including the Sunday Times’ Scottish edition.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.