If the Scottish National Party was a small anti-austerity party that had never before made a real dent in British politics and suddenly shot into contention—grabbing dozens of seats away from the traditional parties and elbowing its way into position as the third-largest party in new Parliament—the world would take notice.
Well, the Scottish National Party is a small—make that formerly small—anti-austerity party. And it just made a real dent, a huge dent, in politics with an epic electoral breakthrough. “The tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifted yesterday,” said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on Friday morning. The veteran British political commentator Andrew Marr declared as the election results came in that “Scotland has moved decisively to the left.”
That move offers an important lesson for American progressives about going big in politics—especially anti-austerity politics. It is not just possible to run against the failed conservative policies of seeking to balance budgets with cuts to public services, attacks on public employees and their unions, and crude policies of privatization that redistribute wealth upward. It is necessary.
“The vote yesterday was an overwhelming vote against continued austerity and that, the issue that we put at the top of the campaign, is the issue that we will seek to put at the top of the agenda in Westminster,” declared Sturgeon in interviews aired nationally Friday morning.
It did not used to be that what the leader of the historically small, historically marginalized Scottish National Party had to say was big news on the day after a nationwide election. But a lot has changed in recent years, and a lot more changed Thursday. Sturgeon, the First Minister in Scotland’s devolved parliament (the rough equivalent of a state legislature in the United States or a provincial assembly in Canada), put not just a party but an economic agenda on the table in the 2015.campaign. “I am not,” she declared. “going to support governments that plough ahead with austerity that damaged the poorest in society.”
That message resonated, with unprecedented force.
The big story out of Britain’s 2015 parliamentary election had two parts. Part one was, of course, that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party retained power. That’s the news that most Americans will get. But part two was at least as dramatic. The SNP—running on a fervent anti-austerity platform that rejected Cameron’s policies and promised to work with any progressive party seeking to unwind them—won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament.