The recent UK elections (council and mayoral in England; devolved parliaments in Wales and Scotland) have turned out to be far more interesting than such elections usually are. They also reveal a great deal about how the UK is changing and offer opportunities for the Church to reflect and speak into the culture.
The break-up of the old politics?
The most significant aspect of the election is the confirmation that there has been a seismic shift in politics – moving away from the old Left and Right views, largely based on economics, to the new Progressive v. Social Conservatives, largely based on 'identity' and 'values'. The Conservatives gained 236 councillors, and 13 new councils. Labour lost control of eight, including Durham - although Labour did better in the mayoral elections, making a couple of gains and holding on to Manchester and London.
Labour used to be able to rely on what it called it's 'red wall', but that seems to be disappearing. This was most dramatically seen in the parliamentary election for Hartlepool. In previous years it used to be said that you could have put a monkey with a red rosette in places like Hartlepool and they would be elected. No longer. The Conservative candidate received more than double the vote of the Labour challenger.
In by-elections you often see extraordinary turnarounds, but they are invariably against the party of government. The fact that the opposite happened indicates that this is a watershed moment in British politics. The rules of normal politics are being rewritten. It looks as though many working-class people have had enough of being taken for granted by their former representatives. The majority of the working class now vote Tory, the majority of the middle class Labour, Green or Lib Dem.
The danger is that 'identity' politics as espoused in much of the education system and media will turn into more permanent and damaging divisions. One BBC commentator spoke about the 'educated' and 'the uneducated' – with the obvious implication being that the more educated were more intelligent and more likely to vote the 'progressive' way.
Similar implications were made about Brexit. But this is a fundamental error. Being educated in today's world is no guarantee of free or rational thought. Education is increasingly becoming about indoctrination, and the indoctrinated tend to vote the way they are told to. It's why some progressives are arguing for the voting age to be lowered. In Scotland the voting age was lowered to 16 – and these 16-year-olds were promised free laptops (and bikes!). Throw in the teaching about 'progressive' issues such as climate change, transgender and BLM, and you can see where this leads. 'Good' educated people vote one way, 'bad' uneducated people are ignoramuses who vote the wrong way.
The break-up of the United Kingdom?
Some commentators were getting very excited about the potential break-up of the United Kingdom. There are those who made a series of forecasts of disasters if we went ahead with Brexit – with a couple of possible exceptions, none of these have yet happened. So, the possibility that one disaster scenario might happen - the break-up of the UK - is looked upon with delight and talked up by those who prophesied it.
But after these elections, the break-up of the UK is now much less likely than it appeared to be a year ago.
The Welsh nationalists had a bad election, ending up with 13 seats out of 61. Labour had some success here getting 30 seats. Wales is not going to leave the UK.
Northern Ireland is the area where there is most uncertainty, but they did not have elections at this time. A united Ireland is a possible, but not certain, outcome.
But what about Scotland? Despite the somewhat over-excited headlines, the results of the Scottish Parliamentary election mean that Scotland is now less likely to move towards independence, and there is almost no chance of that happening within the term of this new parliament.
But didn't the SNP win the election? They did. And it was a handsome victory, 64 seats (one short of a majority) in a system designed to prevent one-party majorities. Together with their allies, the Greens, they now have a clear majority, 72 seats out of 129. But is this, as the SNP claim, a mandate for another referendum? John Swinney, a Scottish Government minister, claimed that 'the UK government have to recognise what the people have decided'. But what did the people decide?
Nicola Sturgeon told those who were against another independence referendum, but liked the way she governed, to vote for her anyway. At the forefront of her campaign was the issue of recovery from the pandemic, not independence. To claim all the votes for the SNP as votes for independence is not honest (just as to deny that there are some who voted for other parties who might support independence would not be honest).
Plus, there is the awkward fact that the Conservatives did much better than expected (keeping 31 seats and gaining their highest vote ever), and that the Unionist parties combined actually received slightly more votes than the Separatist ones. For those who count votes, it is the 'will' of the Scottish people not to have a second referendum. But the reality is that Scotland is basically divided down the middle. So when you hear Nicola Sturgeon saying that she speaks for Scotland just bear in mind that she speaks for half of Scotland – at most.
For those who don't understand Scotland, it helps to grasp that although the country is divided on this issue, it is a three way, rather than a two-way divide. One third separatist, one third unionist, one third who could go either way. All recent polls show that support for the Union is in the majority – with one recent Survation poll suggesting that 58% to 42% are in favour of remaining in the UK. SNP strategists know that they need to be at around 60% in the polls to have a chance of succeeding in a referendum, because most 'don't knows' tend to go for the status quo. Opinion polls show that two thirds of Scottish voters are opposed to a referendum within the next two years so don't expect anything to happen soon.
But the most important reason why the Scottish Government does not have a mandate for an independence referendum is because the Scottish Parliament is not a sovereign parliament (we voted against that in our 'once in a generation' referendum in 2014), but rather a devolved one. As such, it is limited in what it can do. Section 29 (1) of the 1998 Scotland Act states that, "An Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outside the legislative competence of the Parliament." The Scottish Parliament cannot legally make law on reserved matters. That same section states: "1. The following aspects of the constitution are reserved matters, that is—
(a)the Crown, including succession to the Crown and a regency,
(b)the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England."
There is no question or doubt about the fact that the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a binding referendum without the agreement of the UK Parliament. The Scottish Government no more have a mandate for another referendum, than they do for removing Trident (both the SNP and Greens have that in their manifestos) or for declaring war. In theory they could hold an advisory referendum, but that would be utterly pointless as the Unionists would just boycott it and it would have no legal validity.
So why are some arguing that independence is now more likely? Sometimes it is ignorance, but often it is wilful ignorance. There are some who see this through the lens of the EU, and others who just have a hatred for the Prime Minister. In identity politics all that matters is the personalities – so people end up being in favour of anything that hurts their enemy.
There are those who suspect that this result is the best possible outcome for the SNP. They can claim a referendum which they know they are not going to get, and almost certainly would lose; and then blame Westminster and 'the Tories' for denying the will of the people of Scotland (and for anything else that goes wrong). Power without responsibility is a politician's dream – and means that you are much more likely to stay in power for a longer period.
So why does all this matter for the Church? I hope that we are concerned for our fellow citizens as well as ourselves and therefore what involves the peace and governance of the land is important to us – and should be something we pray for. And it is better to pray with knowledge.
Secondly, the UK was born on the basis not just of a united politics and economics, but also a united religion – Protestantism – what we might now call evangelicalism. That is certainly no longer true, but the question is now whether the UK can long survive without its Christian foundations? The Bible has nothing to say about whether Scotland should be independent, or whether we should be in the EU, and Christians will have different and legitimate views on these and other political subjects. But all of us should recognise that "where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18).
Every nation needs an ethos, a value system, a philosophy on which the laws of that nation are based. The UK was founded upon the basis that Christianity was its foundation. Others may claim secular liberal values have now supplanted that. But what if those values are themselves founded upon Christianity. If the root is removed, will the fruit remain – or will we descend or regress into something far different?
The nations are being shaken. But the Lord is still on the throne! Jesus is still the King of kings.
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.