There are two conspicuous winners from last week’s general election in Britain. David Cameron’s Conservatives defied all the predictions of another hung-Parliament and won a narrow overall majority. Every bit as remarkable - in Scotland, a pro-independence party gained half of all votes cast there, and has emerged as the third biggest group in the Westminster Parliament . There are 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons in London - 56 are now held by nationalists. It’s a landslide on a par with the Aam Aadmi Party victory in Delhi.
The astonishing success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is being watched and discussed around the world. It is rare indeed for a separatist party to achieve such an electoral breakthrough. How did it happen?
Scotland accounts for a little under one-in-ten of the overall population of Britain. It has its own legal and education systems and a distinct and proud culture. Many Scots feel that their interests have been overlooked by a government based 400 miles away in London.
Demands for Scottish home rule have grown gradually over the past half-century – and led to the creation of a Scottish Parliament and government with devolved powers in 1999. It has authority over education, health, agriculture and justice; issues such as foreign affairs and defence rest with the UK-wide Parliament and government at Westminster, in which Scotland continues to be represented; there’s something of a tussle over tax-raising powers, but they rest more with London than with Edinburgh.
This devolution of power, introduced by a Labour government, was expected to take the heat out of Scottish nationalism. It had quite the opposite effect. The SNP, step-by-step, overtook Labour as the main party in Scotland. In 2007, the then leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, became Scotland’s first minister at the head of a minority government. Four years later, the SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.
Last year, the SNP managed to persuade the UK government to hold a referendum on independence. The people of Scotland voted against separating from England, but by a narrower margin than expected. The momentum rested with the nationalists – and that was the launch pad for their general election campaign. Normally the SNP has done much less well in UK-wide elections than in contests for the Scottish Parliament. But last Thursday, the SNP returned the biggest separatist bloc to the Westminster Parliament since the era of the Irish Home Rulers a century ago.
The SNP managed to achieve a political energy and enthusiasm which was rare in the recent election campaign. Its leader and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, more than held her own in debates with other party leaders, coming across as confident, personable and wise. She is the daughter of an electrician who grew up in social housing in west Scotland and went to state-run schools.
The SNP is not a single-issue party. It has positioned itself to the left of Labour – demanding an end to economic austerity, an emphasis on greater equality and the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil. And the nationalist movement has the great advantage of being united. There is no important pro-independence party to rival the SNP, and inside the party, while there are some policy and political differences, few are openly critical of the leadership.
Nicola Sturgeon has been careful to insist that the SNP’s success last week is not in itself a mandate for independence. She knows that some of those who voted for her last Thursday are still nervous about a complete break with England. But many commentators believe that Scotland may well achieve full separation from the rest of Britain within the next ten years.
The style of nationalism pursued by the SNP is, compared to many other European nationalisms, inclusive rather than xenophobic. The SNP has turned its face against the anti-immigration rhetoric peddled by some other populist-style parties. Scotland’s South Asian minority, once almost entirely Labour voting, appears comfortable with the SNP. Thirty-year-old Hamza Yousaf, Scottish-born with a Pakistani father and Kenyan mother, has emerged as a rising star in the devolved Scottish government. Among the SNP MPs elected last week is Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the daughter of a Pakistani.
Across Britain, the general election saw a sharp increase in the representation of ethnic minorities in Parliament. Of the 650 MPs, 41 are non-white. There are now thirteen Muslim MPs, eight of them women. And Britain’s sizeable Kashmiri community, predominantly from Mirpur on the Pakistan side of the line of control, now has six of its number in the House of Commons.
Two newcomers have added significance to the political diversity within the British Kashmiri community. Both are British-born and in their early forties. Nusrat (she prefers to be known as Nus) Ghani has just been elected the Conservative MP for a prosperous part of southern England which has hardly any Asian population. Naseem ‘Naz’ Shah, on the other hand, is the new Labour MP for a seat in Bradford, where there’s a large Asian community. Shah managed to escape a forced marriage in Pakistan and has campaigned on behalf of her mother, who was jailed for killing her abusive husband.
The election of a growing number of Kashmiri-origin MPs is unlikely to herald a change in Britain’s stand on the Kashmir issue, but it means that when Parliament next debates Kashmir, the discussion is likely to be more impassioned and better informed.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent and the author of A Mission in Kashmir.