Border crossing

Would the SNP win votes in the north east? Gerry Hassan sees opportunity for the radical parts of England to make common cause around the Scottish party’s centre-left agenda.

It won’t have escaped the notice of north east observers that the country across the border has been changing dramatically. First came the independence campaign and debate, followed by the election of 56 Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs to Westminster.

Eight years into power in devolved government, the SNP have so far balanced the art of being both incumbent and insurgent. They have cultivated anger and disappointment at the Labour Party – the historic political establishment of Scotland. At the same time, they have become the new insiders, without yet turning the public against them.

But beyond Scotland, the SNP have also gained in stature, thanks to distrust of the Westminster political class. And now, the SNP have positioned themselves as champions of progressive politics, not just in Scotland, but by voters in England too.

Photograph by Ninian Reid under Creative Commons licence

Photograph by Ninian Reid under Creative Commons licence

How has it come to this? Is there any substance to the Scottish Nationalists’ newfound British appeal? And how could it manifest itself in the future? The question of whether non-residents of Scotland could vote for the SNP featured in a list of most searched-for terms provided by Google after the general election leaders’ debates. Some have even wondered whether the SNP might consider standing candidates in English by-elections. Ahead of the general election, Christine Grahame, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, did consider contesting the Berwick seat held by Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith before her party’s executive ruled it out.

Regardless, for the foreseeable future the SNP will shape politics across the border. Those TV national debates gave SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon a platform and opportunity to speak to people who knew little about her or her party. People liked what they saw: someone intelligent, likeable and reasonable, with an attractive mix of policies.

Yet “Sturgeonmania” had a counter-reaction. Tory posters appeared with Ed Miliband in Salmond and Sturgeon’s breast pockets. The spectre of a Labour minority government backed by the SNP at Westminster was seen as “illegitimate” and a threat by some UKIP and Tory voters. These fears played their part in Lynton Crosby’s strategy of scaring voters back into the Tory fold.

But as the Labour Party searches for a new leader, the continuing popularity of the SNP outside Scotland has been illuminating – not just for what it says about the SNP, but as a commentary on the state of Britain. Across large swathes of England, including the north east, there is a profound and painful sense of loss and disappointment at what politics has become, and about politicians and the worldview they propagate.

You can almost reach out and touch the chasm and void within English left-liberal opinion where once there were collective hopes and dreams invested in Labour, Lib Dems and the potential for radical change. Today, there is no real vehicle for such aspirations in England beyond the Green Party.

To this sense of powerlessness outside English Tory heartlands, the SNP speak as a modern-day expression of the centre-left – they are credible, popular, in government and competent. They are not easily dismissed as either impotent or oppositional.

The role of political language is crucial in how the SNP are seen. The maiden speeches of SNP politicians such as Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard have caused major ripples. In comparison, a whole generation of Labour MPs have bought into a disconnected, anti-emotional lexicon of marketing, packaging and positioning that has little resonance with voters.

Many SNP politicians talk in a way that combines the personal with an emotional insight, making them appear authentic, grounded and genuine – they talk the same language as voters. The difference between Labour and SNP languages is that one is a closed political class non-dialogue which demotivates and demoralises; the other motivates and resonates with a wide group of people.

If the SNP cannot stand in England what are the chances for co-operation? Or for the north finding a better political voice at Westminster? There is scope for cross-border traffic between Scotland and the north of England – correspondence, alliances and making common cause against the inexorable centralisation and condescension of the British state. The political realities of a Tory government with a slender majority of just 12 seats means there is plenty to play for.

The UK isn’t working in the interests of most people. That much should be obvious to people in Scotland and the north of England. But the solution to this isn’t just constitutional change, whether Scottish independence or a Northern Assembly. It means mapping out a very different set of economic and social policies to those championed by Westminster and successive Conservative and Labour governments. And it will require the SNP to adopt an English centre-left agenda around which the radical parts of England can coalesce and make common cause.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and author of numerous books including Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland. You can follow him on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “Border crossing

  1. Before anyone considers a role for the SNP south of the border I feel there are two things people should consider. Firstly is there already a party (however nascent) south of the border which wants to see real subsidiarity in how they are governed and represented. Secondly I would urge anyone South of the Border who hasn’t already done so to read the final report of the Scottish Commission on Local Democracy (

    The findings of the report are that whether or not the SNP are in power at Holyrood or anywhere else they have continued (nay accelerated) the drive towards even more centralisation in Scotland. Having lived and worked in the Highlands for 25 years and only recently moved back to the North East I am surprised at how much the centralisation of local and central government is mirrored exactly on both sides of the border.

    The SNP clearly have a mandate in Scotland but that mandate is not particularly sophisticated if one looks at it in the context of just how under represented communities are in decision making and in being part of decisions which have real outcomes in their daily lives.

    Funnily enough this was never an issue during the independence debate (only the greens gave it a short nod during their campaign).

    Local democracy is the debate we should be having and we should start right at the beginning by asking ALL the political parties to listen!

  2. Interesting article…
    The north of England has several fledging parties, that contested the recent GE, and any sensible strategy would be to look to work with, encourage etc. Standing outside of Scotland in these areas would not be a sensible long term strategy.

    Yorkshire First are Observer members of the EFA (European Free Alliance – the same grouping as Plaid, Mebyon Kernow, and the SNP) and would welcome expertise but not interference.

    The UK is indeed not working well for all parts AND regions when 9 out of the 10 poorest areas in the whole of Northern Europe are in the UK – 3 in historic Yorkshire. We aspire to first rate devolution for Yorkshire with similar powers to Scotland. But we also want to learn from Scotland, and go much further than Edinburgh (Or York for us!). We are essentially champions of a revitalised local and regional democracy, that recognises the need, ability and powers to decide regional issues and opportunities without having to go cap in hand to Westminster.

    We also do not define ourselves on the left/right spectrum, have no party whip and all candidates have to sign up to the Bell Principles (Code of conduct and way of acting for elected officials).

    As such we are at heart democrats, believe in significantly more powers and control being exercised at local level, and believe in a reformed UK… Slightly different from the SNP! But our door is open for any discussions – we had excellent support, encouragement and respect in our position from many SNP supporters during the election.

    Last point… We received a higher % in our first election than the SNP. And Plaid, Ukip & Greens did in theirs… (1.5% EU election after just 7 weeks from launch and 600 quid spent!)

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