The rise of the Scottish National Party may well be the most significant change in British politics in a hundred years or so. It is easy for those of us who don’t live in Scotland to dismiss their success as a simple rejection of the recent failures of the two major parties. Yet is is perhaps more likely that there is something else going on; something that also affects the rest of us.
At the centre of British power, wealth and government is London.
If you don’t live in London or didn’t grow up there or on its commuter belt, then you probably don’t feel very comfortable with that statement.
I know I don’t.
London is where most of our national media is based. It’s where most of our banks and financial institutions are based. It is also where our MP’s go to make most of the big decisions that affect the lives of their country’s citizens. So most of the attention, the money and the power flows through a relatively small part of a much larger nation.
If you look at the figures, it is easy to see the economic disparity between some regions and others, and indeed within big cities like the capital.
Addressing economic inequality is a mounting problem of our age that no one expects a simple solution to and while parties like the SNP appeal to those who feel left behind there are others who will remind you that how a country makes it’s money matters just as much as how it’s spent.
Yet, for the majority of British citizens, time and again there is another unanswered question that keeps coming back:
What do a group of rich London-based journalists and politicians know about the needs and problems of people hundreds of miles away?
When you live in a particular place, surrounded by particular people, with particular views, values and opinions it is easy to lose track of your bias. The idea that other people from other places would see things differently is always there, but it’s presence is foggy, faint and only sticks around for a brief moment where the rest of the world can bring it to your attention.
Yet opportunities to puncture the ‘Westminster village bubble’ can be few and far between, and only seem to seep through from polling and, eventually, elections.
Ironically, unless you’d been living in a cave for the last five years, you wouldn’t have escaped the constant media refrain: ‘are our politicians out of touch?’
People increasingly and consistently answer in the affirmative to that question. Yet sparing is the evidence that much has been done to put our minds at ease.
Democracy, as an experiment, seems to be demonstrating that there is a limit to how many different and diverse sets of people you can address the needs of at once.
Yesterday I wrote about the trouble with globalisation. As our lives are increasingly integrated in a bigger and bigger interconnected system of trading, communication and interaction it becomes increasingly difficult to feel involved. Your voice seems fainter, your actions less meaningful, your opinions seem to count for less. So when the drop of your vote in the ocean of sixty-odd million other votes already seems so diluted, skewed by a system that limits its weight, it is difficult to be reminded that our economic future actually depends on the decisions of several billion others.
That’s where autonomy comes in and that’s why, in my view, regional, devolved governments are not just here to stay but likely to grow in power and importance.
British people do not take kindly to having their voices ignored, much less the idea that they as individuals count for less simply by living in the wrong place.
It is a peculiarly British custom to put up with things publicly and moan about them privately. Mustn’t grumble. Stiff upper lip.
But back in Scotland, people are deciding to act on this frustration by voting for a party that promises to make their values matter: local interests, local families and the specific lives of people in the place that they live. In fact, the vast majority of the SNP’s voters feel so strongly about this that they would be prepared to separate their country from the United Kingdom altogether.
It is hard to ignore the consequences or the scope of what is happening or what it means to the rest of us. To me it shows that whilst many British people feel compelled to play by the rules, when the game feels rigged against them and no one seems to be listening, they will happily vote with their feet to make themselves heard.