Scots Wha Hae! SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, pumps the air alongside her elated Scottish National Party followers as the scale of their victory over Labour becomes clear.
“I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Margaret Thatcher 1981
WALK INTO the Opposition Leader’s Office with ideas about changing the heart and soul of the nation and see how long you last. Andrew Little’s advisers don’t really do souls. And the average punter’s heart doesn’t exactly lend itself to metrical capture. Try to run either of them through a computer and things are liable to get messy. No, Little’s advisers prefer polls and focus groups, and the joys of regressive analysis. They’re much more fun.
Much more fun, but, apparently, not much use – as the events of 7 May in the United Kingdom have just proved. South of the River Tweed, metrics proved to be one of the UK Election Day’s biggest losers. The pollsters, statisticians and data-crunchers, in which the British Labour Party had invested so much, got it wrong. Turns out that the heart and soul of a nation can’t be measured – it can only be felt.
North of the River Tweed, the politics of hearts and souls (as opposed to stats and polls) had triumphed in truly historic fashion. As the results were posted, it soon became clear that the Scottish National Party (SNP) had wiped the Labour Party off Scotland’s electoral map.
Throughout the campaign, Labour had equated the national fervour stirred up by the SNP with the worst kind of nationalism. Former Labour supporters were accused of succumbing to the SNP’s “rapture” – as if they were a bunch of slack-jawed American fundamentalists. It didn’t work. No matter how many times Labour demonstrated that the SNP’s promises could not possibly be paid for, the voters blithely ignored them. Their hearts and their souls were elsewhere.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the right-wing parties were only too happy to present themselves as the staunch defenders of England’s heart and soul. The UK Independence Party, UKIP, implored voters to stop the EU, and the mass influx of foreigners its rules continued to sanction, from destroying what it meant to be British. It was a message that resonated just as loudly on the Left as it did on the Right. UKIP wasn’t a threat to the Tories alone; in Labour’s heartland UKIP candidates were moving, ominously, into second place.
The Tories themselves needed no lessons in the politics of hearts and souls. England, they warned, was about to be squeezed. Labour, that great defender of the EU, was about to enter into an unholy alliance with the SNP. The English people risked being caught between Labour’s socialist internationalism and the demands of the independence-seeking Scots. The country was in danger!
Against these nationalistic battering-rams, the gates of Labour could not hold. It had asked the voters to stand with the poor and the underpaid; it had asked them to make the wealthiest 1 percent pay their fair share of tax; and it had pledged to defend the NHS. But, what it had not been able to do was convince those who were neither very poor, nor very rich, that Labour had the faintest idea what was going on in their hearts, or cared very much at all about what was happening to their souls.
Margaret Thatcher knew that true political success would only come when the Conservatives’ explanation of what it meant to be British proved to be more compelling than Labour’s.
“What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years”, she told The Sunday Times on 3 May 1981, “is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter?”
Thatcher’s emphatic answer was: “Yes – you do!” To all those hundreds-of-thousands of “personal societies”, inhabited by the families and friends of the individual voter, the Conservative Party proclaimed the unequivocal message: “You do count! You do matter!”
You do count! You do matter! Margaret Thatcher campaigning in 1979.
Browbeaten by the boss; burdened by mortgages they could only just afford; resentful of strikers in the factories; frightened by unemployed youngsters on the streets: these Britons turned gratefully towards the one party that reassured them they were, and always had been, the heart and soul of the nation.
The great irony, of course, was that just 36 years earlier, in 1945, exactly the same message had been taken into every home by Labour. After 10 years of economic depression, and six years of war: when it had grown easier and easier to believe that individuals were no more than the dust ground out between the massive cogs and wheels of the economic machine; or, nameless soldier-ants, fighting in defence of the nest; Labour came into the lives of millions of fragile families and said: “You do count! You do matter!” And their hearts were warmed, and their souls soothed, and for more than 30 years the Tories dared not dismantle what the socialists had built in England’s green and pleasant land.
Scottish Labour may scorn its former supporters for succumbing to the rapture of the SNP, but New Zealand Labour could learn a lot from the Scottish experience. The amazing collapse of Labour’s vote in Scotland was about much more than the SNP. Somehow, out of the thwarted referendum and its aftermath, a majority of Scots came to the collective conclusion that the heart and soul of their nation, for so long forsworn, was theirs to save.
As with the British people in 1945 (and the New Zealand people in 1935) such historically charged moments are capable of transforming a political party into a vehicle for both national salvation and cultural renewal. And the reason why so many voters are willing to climb on board is that from some place deep within, unreachable by polls, focus groups or data crunchers, the conviction arises that, together, they and their party have come to represent, if only for one brief breath of history, the heart and soul of the nation.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 May 2015.