When I started my time at Glasgow, back in 2013, Alex Salmond had sounded the starting bell for the first Scottish Referendum. Polls showed only 25% of Scots wanted independence, whilst few people outside the Conservative Party and Ukip cared about leaving the EU. Across the Atlantic, Trump was a rambling outsider. What a difference 4 years make.
During my time studying politics at Glasgow, I have struggled with nearly all political predictions and models. Those who said we voted for the SNP and the Conservatives based on policies also admit to only a fraction of people actually reading any party’s manifesto. Whilst I do not claim that no one cares about policy, surely the main narrative underpinning this change is of the establishment vs. the anti-establishment, the elites vs. the people. This phenomenon stretches the term known as economic voting (where you vote based on the current government’s performance rather than on any policies offered by either side), to the point where the political system itself is judged inadequate.
In 2014, the SNP blamed all Scotland’s woes on being lorded over by the Westminster elite. Whilst on Buchanan Street during the referendum campaigning, I was accused of being a member of this exclusive club and that it was time for Scotland to ‘lose its chains’. Never mind the fact I was born in Newcastle, or that the SNP had been in power for 7 years, failing to deal with rising child illiteracy rates amongst other problems within their control, everything was the fault of the elites down south, and they needed a kicking. This narrative was incredibly successful and that 25% turned to 45% on polling day.
Fast forward to 2015, and Miliband being told by pollsters he was rivalling Cameron (obviously a bigger lie than Cameron claiming to have never touched bacon). Instead, he lost out to the Tories who cruised to victory without needing a single seat in Scotland. After 5 years of shiny-faced D Cams spouting ‘and it’s Labour’s fault we’re in this mess,’ many voters linked their plight to the last group of political elites in power, and chose to stay with the new regime. In one brilliant stroke George Osborne had negated responsibility for failing to deal with the deficit, and for rising food poverty and stagnant living standards – the rhetoric was that these problems rested solely on Labour’s shoulders. With Miliband unable to challenge, and failing to gain any positive media, the Tories stayed in by controlling a narrative which saw them as the cure to years of Labour ineptitude in government. The rest of the nation’s woes were blamed on a European Union who was, according to the original Brexiteers, the real establishment. Labour’s response to this? Elect a man who both looked and sounded nothing like the current party elites, and hope he could lead the mob against the establishment.
More obviously, Brexit teetered over the line (by 1.9%) largely thanks to an overwhelming feeling of anger towards this establishment. Built off the successful narrative of blamelessness for poverty and declining living standards, the Leave camp fabricated the EU as the new boogeyman. The calls to ‘Take Back Control’ drowned out the other side, who spouted statistics touting how places like North East England got more from the EU than they paid in. Instead people were not to be fear-mongered into remaining, and voted to give the European overlords a kicking. Interestingly, people voted in their swathes across Scotland, as well as England and Wales, for Brexit. In Glasgow, a bastion for Scottish Independence, only 56% of Parkhead, Easterhouse and Shettleston voted remain aside from the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods. Clearly, many felt the need to protest the EU establishment who were now responsible for years of long-term socioeconomic hardship, and the changing face of communities experiencing new amounts of immigration.
Aside from all this, it is clear that anti-establishment parties are on the rise in the West. If populism merely means voting for what is popular, then it is the anti-elite/power-to-the-people narrative offered by parties like Front Nationale which can rally people to join those who tell them we need to overthrow the status quo.
Over the past 4 years, voters have consistently been told to blame the wrong groups for the troubles facing them. Whether you hold Westminster accountable for the SNP’s poor record in government, the EU for the Tories’ awful policies, or a centre-left Labour Party for the entire 2008 crash, you are in fact sticking it to the wrong man. So in this coming election, read the policies and block out the blame-game narratives. Responsibility must not be shirked by those who actually manage the polices that truly make a difference to individuals and communities.