General Election of 2015
In examining the 2015 general election we are attempting to make some observations about it which especially bear on our question of national identity and substate nationalism.
Scotland—And England; the Election Campaign
First of all, in Scotland the defeat of the Yes campaign for independence in September 2014 sparked a wave of new support for the Scottish National Party (SNP). This was reflected in polls showing support for the party, but also in a mood of enthusiasm which was marked by increased membership in the SNP and by a widespread mood of political engagement. Much of this can be attributed to the behaviour of the ‘Westminster’ support for the No campaign and their scrambled reaction to polls which had shown the Yes support in the lead. On the morning after the referendum result was publicised—with 55 % voting against independence for Scotland—Cameron made a speech which was widely seen as appealing to English anxieties over ‘asymmetrical’ devolution. Whereas just before the referendum speeches had all been about promises to a No-vote Scotland, just after it was very much about England. On 19 September 2014—the day after the referendum—Cameron sounded a quite different note to his ‘defence of the Union’ whose break-up ‘would have broken his heart’. Now was the time for England: ‘
We have heard the voice of Scotland—and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws... requires a decisive answer (cited in Dominiczak et al. 2014, The Daily Telegraph).
Later in the campaign for the 2015 general election, in April 2015, Cameron launched what he called ‘Our English Manifesto’—the first major party ever to do so (Gage 2015). He spoke of the unfairness of a situation in which ‘English MPs will be unable to vote on the tax paid by people in Aberdeen.. .while Scottish MPs are able to vote on the tax you pay in Birmingham____It is simply unfair’. In The Guardian, their political editor wrote, prior to the speech, ‘David Cameron will place himself at the head of English nationalism by promising to introduce England- only income tax from 2016’ along with development plans for the English regions (Wintour 2015b, The Guardian). Although Cameron made the customary denial that he was an ‘English nationalist’, the English Manifesto was launched on St George’s Day, which permitted Chancellor George Osborne to pose with the St George flag and declare ‘we have recaptured the flag’ (Harris 2015, Huffington Post). This was very different from the hash Labour made over the English flag when a leading party member posted a ‘tweet’ (interpreted as mocking) with a picture of a ‘white van man’ whose house was draped with the flag of St George (Graham 2015, The Daily Telegraph). The ‘English’ approach of the Conservative campaign was punctuated by references to the ‘threat’ of a coalition between the Labour Party and the SNP, whose social democratic policies could have made them allies of Labour (Wintour 2015a, The Guardian). Cameron saw such a prospect as a ‘coalition of chaos’ and the Mail posed Nicola Sturgeon as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ (Chapman 2015, Daily Mail ). It is not surprising that a number of commentators began to argue that England and English nationalism pose the greatest threat to the Union (Bienkov 2015). Owen Jones, who writes for The Guardian, wrote under the headline ‘English nationalism is out of the bottle’ and argued that the Conservatives ‘have opted to fan English nationalism and resentment’ (Jones 2015, The Guardian). Even the Financial Times carried a piece headed ‘England spells more trouble for the Union than Scotland’, in which the author (Ganesh 2015, Financial Times) suggested that English support for the Union was ‘a thin patina formed of habit’. In August 2015, Gordon Brown, former prime minister, accused the government ‘of stoking a dangerous and insidious’ English nationalism (Perraudin 2015; see also Bennett and Mcdonell 2013, The Times).
There were signs that in England there was not only dissatisfaction with ‘asymmetrical devolution’ but also profound irritation or even anger. Certainly a number of right-wing commentators gave expression, using some quite sharp language, to some rather bitter sentiments regarding Scotland. Writing immediately after the independence referendum in the
Daily Mail, Max Hastings (2014) suggested: ‘Wounds have been opened that will not quickly heal. Defeated Nationalists are already parading their resentments. The English will find it hard to forget the abuse heaped upon them by some Scots, who have revealed a viciousness hitherto un-comprehended in the South. Things have been said that cannot be unsaid.’
The Hastings piece is marked by intemperate language, and maybe some would regard it as a bit of ‘fun’. He goes on: ‘
If the Scots are to be granted what seems nothing less than home rule, they must no longer be allowed to brandish their claymores over English taxpayers through Westminster.’
Writing in the Telegraph (19 April 2015) Boris Johnson compared allowing SNP into government as being akin to letting ‘Herod run a baby farm’ (Johnson 2015, The Daily Telegraph). The right-wing press were full of articles ‘alerting the public’ to the dangers of an SNP-Labour coalition government. An item in The Spectator claimed that Cameron’s ‘scare tactics’ about SNP and Labour were showing signs of making headway (Hardman 2015). After the election the animosity continued, with sharp attacks on Nicola Sturgeon (new SNP leader) and the party’s representatives at Westminster (e.g. Letts 2015, The Daily Mail).