Dr David Moon is Senior Lecturer in Politics, and Dr Sophie Whiting is Lecturer in Politics, at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.
Rather than being the ‘Brexit Election’ widely predicted and in some political corners desired, the 2017 snap General Election has, with its resultant hung parliament, had the unexpected consequence of placing relations within another union of nations centre stage – the United Kingdom. The outcome of the General Election has highlighted the differing political context within each of the UK’s nations. Furthermore, the emergence of the DUP as a crucial player in the subsequent formation of a minority Conservative Government – and thus in securing Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister – has generated unexpected interest in Northern Ireland, a place which, throughout history, has been shunted outside the psyche of ‘British politics’. This article provides a brief overview of what the election has meant for politics in the devolved nations; specifically, polarisation (Northern Ireland), diversification (Scotland) and amplification (Wales).
Polarisation: Northern Ireland
Given the comfortable Conservative majority predicted in the run up to the election, it was not expected that the politics of Northern Ireland would come to play such a crucial role in determining the next government. However, the outcome was always going to be important for Northern Ireland for two key reasons: (i) Brexit and the question of the Irish border; and (ii) getting the government at Stormont back up and running. Yet, the result and the DUP’s subsequent position as kingmaker have illuminated broader trends within UK politics and devolution.
First, Theresa May’s decision to reach a deal with the DUP to secure her minority government has placed a spotlight on the differing rights that citizens in Northern Ireland possess, in particular around same-sex marriage and abortion. For many British citizens outside Northern Ireland, the recent discovery of the views and position of the DUP on these issues has sparked concern, with widespread revulsion expressed through social media at the idea that the party might exert influence on social policy at Westminster. Whilst the DUP’s set of demands will not include a reversal on the relatively liberal legislation in Scotland, Wales and England, this reaction has demonstrated the general indifference previously shown towards Northern Irish politics, particularly at the expense of progressing rights and social policy. In the past, this has not just involved the Conservatives; indeed, in 2008, a deal was made between Gordon Brown and the DUP, securing the latter’s support for the extension of detention limits for terrorist suspects in exchange for the UK government not interfering in Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The concern now being expressed towards the Conservative-DUP ‘friendship’ thus highlights a wider trend of blinkered vision when it comes to the politics of Northern Ireland, particularly around issues that are taken for granted in the rest of the UK.
Second, the election itself has further embedded the polarisation of Northern Irish politics. With the more moderate parties of the UUP and SDLP losing all their MPs, Northern Ireland’s 18 seats are now dominated by Sinn Fein (seven seats) and the DUP (ten seats), plus Lady Sylvia Hermon retaining her seat as an independent candidate. It is this polarisation between the DUP’s unionism and Sinn Fein’s nationalism that is reflective of the current state of devolution in Northern Ireland. The collapse of Stormont in January following accusations of an expenses scandal left a political vacuum in Northern Ireland that subsequent talks have been unable to resolve. Sinn Fein’s questioning of James Brokenshire’s neutrality as Secretary of State caused talks towards getting power-sharing back up and running to falter earlier this year. The even closer friendship the DUP now enjoys with the Conservatives will exacerbate the tension and polarisation of Northern Ireland’s politics, with Sinn Fein already declaring the ‘deal’ between the two parties a betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement. It is now difficult to conceive how any Conservative-led negotiations will reboot devolution in Northern Ireland.
Politics in Scotland has in recent years been calcified around a central division between pro-Union and nationalist politics. This redefinition of politics around constitutional preferences and away from the classic left-right conflict over social policy saw the once hegemonic Scottish Labour Party overtaken by the Scottish National Party. The SNP has subsequently dominated Westminster’s Scottish seats and Holyrood. Such dominance made Nicola Sturgeon’s proposition for an IndyRef2 back in March seemed a likely win for Scottish nationalists following the Brexit vote. However, due in part to signs of pro-Union tactical voting, the snap election saw the SNP drop 22 seats to Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems, with the loss of big political hitters such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.
A rejection, no doubt, of the poorly timed call for IndyRef2 and an underwhelming SNP manifesto, this election result is also a demonstration that left-right politics has not been completely overshadowed in Scotland. Many who supported the SNP did so seeking progressive policy making, yet the party has been visibly overtaken on the left by the Labour campaign that hammered the nationalists in weak spots such as their record on education. Increasing their MPs from one to seven, Scottish Labour, at one time written-off, now has a base to continue its rebuilding. Simultaneously, the continued climb of the Conservative vote in Scotland has left leader Ruth Davidson as a figure of great influence within the party – and a challenge for Theresa May, as shown by her flexing her opposition to the Conservative-DUP deal. At the end of the election, the picture from Scotland demonstrates a diversification in terms of parties and a movement away from the constitution as the epicentre of politics. Where once Scotland’s exit from the Union seemed inevitable, it now seems less certain.
Wales’ General Election story is a tale of two halves. It started with Theresa May launching her election campaign in Bridgend, sending a clear message of the Conservative’s intention to make inroads into Welsh Labour territory. Polling in the early weeks of the election appeared to foretell a massacre, with results showing the Conservatives ahead of Labour and on course to win the most Welsh seats for the first time since 1922. Come election day, however, the result was the complete reverse. The Conservatives lost three seats to Labour who increased their previous majorities across the board, recording 49% of the overall vote. Welsh Labour finds itself in a far, far stronger position than before, its historic position as the hegemonic force in Welsh politics amplified rather than diminished.
There are several reasons for this turnaround. The first was a deep arrogance on the part of the Conservatives in Wales, exemplified by the party parachuting candidates into target constituencies such as Bridgend against the wishes of its local party members. The Welsh party also endured an unsightly spat between the Welsh Secretary (Alun Cairns MP) and the leader of the Welsh Conservatives (RT Davies AM) over who would appear on the BBC Wales TV debate (in the end neither did, with the party’s education spokesperson having to step in). Above all else, the appalling campaign run by Theresa May caused huge damage, with the release of the party manifesto a turning point for canvassers on the doorstep.
In contrast, faced with early polling threatening a defeat of existential proportions, Welsh Labour fought back hard. Framing its campaign as Welsh Labour, differentiated from the UK Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the party plastered their popular Welsh leader, Carwyn Jones, all over its leaflets and election broadcasts. It fought a soft-nationalist campaign, in keeping with the party’s strategy since the leadership of Rhodri Morgan (a titanic figure of Welsh politics who sadly died during the campaign), promising to “stand up for Wales” against the Conservatives, and warning the Welsh people not to “let the Tories walk all over Wales.” As noted, whilst rhetorically defensive, the campaign put the party on the offensive, snatching seats from the Conservatives and whittling away majorities elsewhere. Ultimately a win-win strategy, the Welsh Labour campaign, by foregrounding Carwyn, was able to inoculate itself to some degree from those sceptical of the party’s Westminster leader, whilst still attracting the support of Corbyn-enthusiasts – in particular, it seems, from outside its usual base.
As in England, Welsh politics saw the two ‘major’ parties squeeze out the smaller parties, achieving 82.5% of the combined vote (the Conservative party’s 33.5% would, in any other election, have been a momentous achievement). While it is too soon to say, Welsh Labour appears to have benefitted from general anti-Tory tactical voting, its message of ‘standing up for Wales’ eclipsing Plaid Cymru’s own similar but less convincing election pledge to ‘defend Wales’. Plaid’s vote share of 10.5% was its lowest since 1997, although their narrow victory in Ceredigion, by a mere 104 votes, now means that there is no Liberal Democrat MP in Wales for the first time since the party formed in 1859. Ukip – who in 2015 had come in fourth place, and in 2016 won seven seats in the National Assembly – saw their voters melt away to the blues and the reds.
What has this election revealed about the politics of the UK? If anything, the election campaign and results have highlighted the different political dynamics across the nation and the importance of understanding these in order to grasp modern UK politics. It is far too early to make any assumptions that the decline in seats for the SNP spells a long-term trend, but the growing support for pro-union parties in Scotland and the likelihood of greater DUP influence at Westminster has thrown the Union a life-line. Whether this can be sustained, however, is another matter.