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A Message for the British Labour Party: Don't Ally With Separatists

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In the wake of Thursday’s British election, the Labour Party was trounced by the Conservatives in England and nearly extinguished in Scotland by a mass defection of voters to the Scottish National Party (SNP). The Quebec separatist party, the Block Quebecois (BQ), saw this as good news, sending a congratulatory shout-out to the SNP. 

The Bloc Quebecois’s trans-Atlantic fistbump was more than a matter of secessionist solidarity. Canada’s parliamentary system was inherited from the United Kingdom, and the SNP plays the same role in British politics that the BQ has in Canada for over two decades. In both places, the rise of a regional separatist party has weakened the political left and turned the nationalist majority decisively to the right. 

The BQ emerged in 1991 after Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s failed attempt to integrate Quebec into the Constitution. Angered by what they saw as English Canada’s betrayal of a promised recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, the BQ argued that Quebecers needed a voice arguing for separation in the national parliament (as a counterpart to the already existing voice of provincial separatist, the Parti Quebecois). Initially, the BQ splintered the right more than the left, taking seats away from Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party.

But with the rise of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in 2002, the BQ became a bigger problem for the left than for the right. With its roots in Alberta, Harper’s Conservative Party was willing to risk losing the Quebec vote by tarring anyone who consorted with the BQ as a traitor to Canada. In 2008, Harper’s Conservatives held on to power in a precarious minority government. The three opposition parties—the Liberals, the NDP, and the BQ—came together in a coalition to overthrow the Conservatives and install the Liberals and NDP into the government; the BQ pledged to support the new government but not join in governing. Harper used the coalition as a chance to play the nationalist card, accusing the Liberals and NDP of making common cause with the enemies of Canada. He charged the Liberals and NDP with entering into "unholy alliance" with "a party that is here in Ottawa for no other reason than to destroy the country we all love." Jim Prentice, the de facto deputy Prime Minister in Harper’s government, echoed this sentiment: “This is an attempt to impose an alternative government upon Canadians, a government that was not elected barely six weeks ago, and a government—a coalition—that is supported by separatists, people who would break up our country,” he said. 

By painting the Liberals and NDP as the allies of separatists, Harper played a dangerous but ultimately successful game. Harper’s gambit weakened the Conservative brand in Quebec, since he was now seen as trying to deny the democratic legitimacy of a party that had wide support in the province. But in linking the Liberals and NDP with the BQ, Harper also made himself the champion of English Canada. The majority government that Harper won in 2011 was based on his ability to present himself as the true defender of Canadian unity.

A similar dynamic has played out in the United Kingdom. In the run-up to the election, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon raised the possibility of a SNP-Labour pact. “If we work together we can lock David Cameron out of Downing Street,” she said.In response, Tory leader Cameron made a canny decision to play up the dangers of this proposed pact, saying “This would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country would be involved in altering the direction of our country, and I think that is a frightening prospect.” These fears became a staple of election hysteria in the right-wing press. 

The rise of the SNP eroded support for the Labour party on two fronts. In Scotland it collapsed, reduced to a single seat in Parliament. But the dire warnings of a SNP-Labour pact also seem to have cost Labour in England, with voters rallying to the Tories as the party of national unity. The perversity: A Tory majority government is only likely to deepen Scottish alienation, since Cameron's party is widely seen by Scots as being inimical to the region's aspirations. 

In Quebec, the distorting effect of a regional party in a national Parliament resolved itself, at least for the near term, with the collapse of the BQ in 2011; in that election, the NDP rose to the fore in Quebec, while the BQ lost 90% of its presence in Parliament. Today, four years later, it only holds two seats. 

In the UK, it will take an equally dramatic political shift to solve Labour’s problems. As long as the SNP is the dominant voice of Scotland in Westminster, Labour faces bleak electoral prospects while the United Kingdom as a whole remains entangled in constitutional wranglings that will prevent the nation from dealing with other pressing concerns. The rise of the SNP bodes ill not just for the Labour Party but for the United Kingdom as a whole.