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All to play for as the cracks start to show

Scotland’s three biggest parties have all experienced sudden jolts in recent weeks. MAURICE SMITH reports on the tectonic plates shifting once again north of the border

The three leading women of Scottish politics have discovered, of late, a variation of the old adage that a week is a long time in politics. Several can seem like an eternity.

First was the short, sharp shock delivered to Nicola Sturgeon, who had seemed virtually invincible after massive victories at the 2015 UK and 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, and was much-lauded for her initial response to last year’s Brexit vote. Then, in June, the SNP lost 21 of its 45 Westminster seats and now desperately needs to make its third term at Holyrood count if it is to revive the independence dream.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale – who seemed to have stemmed the SNP tide, and halted her party’s Scottish collapse (six seats at the General Election, compared with just one in 2015) – resigned with immediate effect, signalling that, aged just 36 and after only two years, she had had enough. Sources deny persistent rumours that Dugdale was being undermined by the left in her party or those in charge of the UK body, but she had backed Corbyn’s challenger Owen Smith in last year’s leadership contest, an unforgivable offence for many Corbynistas, now in the ascendant.

And then there is Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader. Her party had enjoyed even greater success in June making her a darling of the right-wing press, mooted by some as a potential future replacement for Theresa May. The media-savvy Davidson established the Tories firmly in second place, with 13 UK seats won in June, and had made ‘positioning’ speeches that give all the impression of a woman carefully placing her bets in case Downing Street becomes vacant. Now she too is embroiled in difficulties, criticised for giving less-than-convincing explanations of how she may – or may not – have disciplined colleagues who had posted intolerant remarks on social media.

The fact that Scotland’s three biggest parties were led by women has been seen as symbolic of devolution’s modernising influence. But their experiences this late summer smack much of old-style politics.

Sturgeon appears to have opted to burnish her left-of-centre credentials in response to Corbynism. Her programme for the new Parliamentary session is interventionist, with a heavy hint of more tax for the middle classes in an attempt to maintain spending on public services. She has been under pressure to ‘get on with the day job’ of running the Scottish Government. The opposition parties criticised her threat of a second referendum during Brexit negotiations. They gambled that – having visited the polls six times in three years – Scottish electors did not relish yet another vote, or at least not now.

Having lost those 21 seats, Sturgeon had no choice but to back down. The SNP needs to restore its reputation for competence. There has been growing unrest about its handling of domestic issues such as education, and some criticism hit home.

This year the SNP lost numerous seats in the north and north east of Scotland, areas which the party had spent many years nurturing under Alex Salmond. His successor is more at home in the urban central belt.

That oft-quoted 68% vote to Remain in the EU came mainly from the Scottish cities and that central belt.

‘Nicola’s instinctive concern is whether Yes voters start to think a vote for Jeremy Corbyn has more appeal than the SNP. She wants to secure that vote above all else but the real concern has to be the seats we lost, such as Moray (previously held by Angus Robertson) and Alex Salmond’s own seat,’ says one former minister. ‘People are going to be monitoring everything she says on policy very closely. Until now the party faithful just went along with what the leadership said.’

Dugdale’s decision to stand down came out of the blue. She was popular with the media without being seen as necessarily effective. Some on her own side suspected that she may be personally soft on independence. It emerged recently that she is in a new relationship with an SNP backbench MSP, Jenny Gilruth.

Her replacement will be male. Labour’s choice is between Anas Sarwar, son of a multi-millionaire former politician, and Richard Leonard, a left-leaning former trade union official.

Sarwar, a former MP who was elected in Edinburgh soon after losing his Westminster seat in 2015, is the son of Mohammad Sarwar, himself a former Glasgow MP, who went on to become Governor of the Punjab in his native Pakistan. The Sarwar dynasty is synonymous with money and machine politics. The putative Scottish Labour leader has been criticised already for sending his child to one of Scotland’s most expensive private schools, his own alma mater.

The left is coalescing behind his opponent. Leonard’s analysis is that Labour has concentrated too heavily on the SNP’s referendum position, instead of attacking the Tories. A prime example was the affluent Renfrewshire East seat, held by Labour for two decades until the SNP took it in 2015. Labour put up a local candidate, the man who had run the anti-independence Better Together campaign, Blair McDougall, but he was pushed into third place as the Tories seized the seat.

Ruth Davidson’s hesitant handling of two recent incidents involving prominent party representatives has drawn sharp criticism. Firstly, two councillors elected last May were revealed to have posted racist and religiously intolerant remarks on social media.

Councillor Alastair Majury had tweeted an anti-Catholic joke, while his colleague Robert Davies had made two racist ones, both prior to being elected to Stirling Council.

The two were suspended quickly, but in August it emerged they had been reinstated to the party. Davidson was reluctant to address the matter publicly before finally being interviewed by the BBC. She claimed that both men had repented, and volunteered to attend awareness sessions organised by a charity. The charity denied that contact had been made in the way described.

Then Douglas Ross MP made a fresh gaffe in an interview that went viral on social media. Asked what his priority would be if he were Prime Minister for a day, he replied that it would be in ‘tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers’. Once again, challenged about her colleague’s controversial response, Davidson was less than sure-footed.

The combative Tory has enjoyed very positive media coverage since bursting on to the UK stage during the EU referendum. Her critique of Brexit appealed to Tory moderates. Her attack on the SNP has boosted her reputation as well as her party.

But the SNP’s shelving of a second referendum removes a useful weapon from Davidson’s arsenal. Some commentators question whether she will ever find another that she can use so effectively.

Politics is a bruising business. Scotland’s three leading parties have shared a tumultuous three years that began with the fall-out of the Scottish independence campaign, taking them through major wins and losses, and through a Brexit vote that may yet determine the future make up of Britain, and whether or not it holds together. This autumn’s developments witness the start of political change that may signal what happens next, north of the border.

Maurice Smith is a journalist and award-winning documentary producer. Follow him on Twitter @mauricesmithtvi

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