Was it nationalism wot won it?

As the early UK elections results started to confirm last Thursday’s exit poll predictions of an SNP landslide and overall Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election, Peter Mandelson was asked what went wrong for labour. His answer was that it was squeezed by two nationalisms – the SNP bringing Scottish nationalism into play north of the border while UKIP’s blue English nationalism took its toll elsewhere. And on Friday, as David Cameron reflected on the Conservative victory he stressed the need to bring together the nations of the United Kingdom.

Given the astonishing dominance of the SNP’s win in Scotland, with 56 of 59 seats (albeit on 50% of the votes cast), alongside UKIP’s increasing share of the votes – up 10.7 England and even more in Wales – the argument that nationalism has coloured this election looks like a compelling analysis. Dissecting what this means for the Union will be a key issue of this Parliament. But, are we in danger of hurtling along a devolution path with a dangerously muddle-headed interpretation of these election results? I’m not convinced that this election marks a genuine nationalist moment so much as it does the working through of disengagement from Westminster politics – a longer term trend that is often recognised but very poorly understood by the main parties. Understanding whether this is indeed the case is absolutely vital: a full response to disengagement requires urgent constitutional reform – but not the same constitutional reforms as if the problem is a rising tide of nationalism.

Thinking again about voters’ choices should raise doubts about the nationalism analysis. While 50% of voting Scots (on an impressive turnout of 71%) opted for a national-by-name party, only last year 55% of Scots voted against Scottish independence (on an even more impressive 84.5% turnout). It was, to be sure, a narrow victory for the ‘No’ camp, but significantly, Nicola Sturgeon refused to make a second referendum an issue for any post-election coalition with Labour. While the SNP’s rhetoric emphasised repeatedly the representation of Scotland in Parliament it was a position to defend Scotland against the impositions of a Tory government and a wider Westminster elite – not against the English per se. The SNP were undoubtedly helped by an exciting, engaging and dignified campaign in both the independence referendum and in the General Election, but that doesn’t mean it is nationalism that Scots have flocked to. The SNP are clearly to the left of Labour but stressed their willingness to deal with Labour in an anti-Tory coalition that defended working people against austerity measures. Scotland has long been anti-Tory and many Scots see Scotland as suffering disproportionate effects of the harsh regime of cuts that has apparently only just begun.

UKIP have undoubtedly been stoking nationalism – this time a variant mixing ‘British’ and ‘English’ as convenient – in their election campaign. But again it is questionable whether the 3.9 million voters who selected UKIP were motivated by nationalism or other matters. UKIP drew votes more successfully from Labour than the Conservatives1 – probably because wavering Tories were sufficiently worried about the prospect of a Labour victory that they returned Conservative votes. The Conservatives clearly played the final days of the campaign well, during which they repeatedly stressed the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition as economically dangerous. Were nationalism the draw for Labour-turned-UKIPers one would expect UKIP to find happier hunting among Tories than Labour supporters. One might also expect a rising tide of nationalism to affect Wales but Plaid Cymru saw only a very modest increase in vote share. So, it seems less likely that previous Labour voters moving to UKIP did so having discovered a love of British nationalism, so much as that they were attracted by Nigel Farage’s particular brand of ‘man in the street’, anti-politics campaigning. The yarn that Farage has spun around migration has been coloured by economics much more than identity. So if you were to believe migration to be a drain on the welfare state and a push on house prices, then it wouldn’t necessarily take nationalist fervour to seek to limit it.

Nigel Farage has been just as happy as Nicola Sturgeon to criticise both an ‘out-of-touch Westminster elite’ and our creakingly unproportional electoral system. The 1.2 million Green voters – up from 286,000 in 2010 – are an additional group that see the main parties as incapable of offering solutions to today’s problems. Meanwhile, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats is, in part, punishment for joining the government. A party that was already very successful at the local level and in 2010 won plaudits for its ability to appear ‘in-touch’ became branded as dishonest and found itself running a campaign stressing the importance of ‘stability’ more than almost anything else. The natural outsiders became insiders and thus tarnished were rejected.

Of course, without more detailed polling on reasons for voters’ choices it is difficult to be certain on all of this. Additionally, we must accept that just over 67% of voters did indeed select either Conservatives or Labour. The comparable figure in 2010 was 65%, but in that year the Lib Dems gained 23% of the vote, leaving just 12% of voters plumping for one of the smaller parties (against 25% this year). Given the negative nature of the rhetoric in the late stages of the campaign it is likely that many Con & Lab voters were trying to keep the other lot out, especially in marginal seats where voters understand the particular influence their votes have. Nevertheless, clearly the two main parties continue to attract considerable support among the 65-66% of the electorate who participate.

These caveats aside, to the extent that the interpretations above are reasonable it suggests that rather than a surge in nationalism we may have seen a surge in anti-Westminster feeling. With all the polling throughout the campaign suggesting a hung parliament, a quarter of voters chose to embrace multi-party politics – perhaps relishing the idea that the agenda of either Conservatives or Labour could be shifted in a fresh direction by coalition with other parties. The other parties chosen represented both left and right wings but had in common a position as outsiders and presented staunch critiques of the status quo. Indeed, the left-right spectrum seems unstable in this environment. Moreover, voters chose smaller parties knowing that the electoral system is rigged against them. If these are mere protest votes – registering disappointment with the main parties when voting in a safe seat and knowing that your vote will have no influence on the outcome – then in a system of proportional representation we can expect them to disappear. If voters really prefer the ‘stability’ of occasional baton changes between Conservative and Labour then the big parties have nothing to fear from PR. But if the embrace of smaller parties represents a real desire for more creative, inspirational politics based on a much wider set of political values and ideas – and it is my hope that that is exactly what it represents – then PR is essential to allow real multi-party politics to flourish. Changing the electoral system then becomes far more urgent a task than devolution motivated (somewhat perversely) by the aim to keep the Union united in the face of supposed multiple nationalisms.


1. To put that another way, in marginal seats where polls predicted a strong UKIP vote, the Conservatives outperformed relative to the polls. Those wavering between UKIP and the Conservatives often plumped for Conservative. Eric Kaufmann demonstrates as much on the LSE politics blog.