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Nicola vs. Ruth: Get set for biggest face off in politics

Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson - Credit: Archant

The seemingly sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon may have misjudged the post-Brexit mood.

Since assuming the leadership of the SNP from Alex Salmond after the 2014 referendum defeat, the position of Nicola Sturgeon has seemed unassailable. Party membership increased more than five-fold to 120,000. Sturgeon addressed party rallies that resembled raucous pop concerts, and the SNP won a sensational 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2015, and secured its third successive term at Holyrood a year later.

All that ended last week, though, as her party lost well over a third of those House of Commons’ seats in a general election fought in parallel lines to the British campaign. Even though the SNP continues to dominate Scottish politics – retaining more Westminster seats than all the other parties – victory tastes like defeat to many nationalists. There is speculation that Scottish politics has passed ‘peak 

The First Minister conceded that she would ‘take time to reflect’. She has been urged by some leading party figures, such as Alex Neil MSP, to shelve the demand for a second independence referendum meantime.

It is a far cry from last June, when Sturgeon seemed the only politician with a plan in response to that Brexit vote. As the Tories entered the turmoil of a leadership election, Sturgeon’s setting-out of demands in response to Scotland’s contrary 62-38 Remain vote seemed logical and looked like statesmanship.

Her problems today may be rooted in that response. ‘She was far too quick to produce the ‘big gun’ of a second independence referendum after Brexit,’ confided one senior nationalist.

‘People have felt they were being pushed into something too quickly after 2014. The Brexit vote has really unsettled folk in many ways and they may see indy as a step too far right now.’

This is the central criticism of Sturgeon’s position. Anticipating a big rise in support for independence as a response to Brexit, the First Minister raised the prospect of a second referendum campaign. Her reasoning was that Brexit represented a ‘material change’ to the status of Scotland within the EU; the UK parties had told Scottish voters in 2014 that only support for the UK would guarantee continued EU membership.

But politics is not so simple, and the equation that Yes plus Remain equals Scottish independence has not computed for SNP strategists. A significant number of SNP supporters – estimated at 25 to 30% by some pollsters – actually supported Leave. Significantly for the SNP, these included many living in the fishing communities of erstwhile party strongholds of north-east Scotland, where Alex Salmond and others lost their seats last week.

The Scottish Conservatives aimed to turn the Westminster election in Scotland into a debate about independence, focusing on the SNP record in charge of the devolved government. Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused Sturgeon of neglecting her duties in pursuit of an ‘obsession’ with independence. That blunt, simplistic message resonated with No voters, and the Tories returned 13 MPs – an increase of 12 and the party’s best result in Scotland since 1983.

The SNP found itself squeezed between that targeted Tory campaign, and the general surge towards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Corbyn’s anti-austerity message appealed to Yes voters in urban Scotland, especially the young and people who had switched to the SNP during recent elections. Opinion polls show independence to be more popular than the SNP, although still not with an overall majority.

Scottish politics has diverged far enough from those of England to mean that, even while Corbyn was enjoying that unexpected surge, his party in Scotland was running a very different campaign. Scottish Labour – led by two anti-Corbyn figures, Kezia Dugdale MSP and Ian Murray MP – urged voters to tell Sturgeon to ‘get on with the day job’.

The approach resembled Labour’s unpopular siding with the Conservatives in the 2014 ‘Better Together’ campaign, and it appears to have helped Davidson’s case rather than its own. Labour only gained six seats in Scotland, in areas which were once party heartlands.

One prime example of Labour back-firing was the middle class suburban seat of East Renfrewshire, near Glasgow. Seized from the Tories by Labour’s Jim Murphy in 1997, it moved to the SNP only in 2015. This time around, Labour candidate and local man Blair McDougall – director of 2014’s Better Together campaign and certainly no Corbynista – was pushed into third place 
as the Tories regained the seat after 20 years.

The SNP position remains under greatest scrutiny, however. The party escaped additional losses by the narrowest of margins last week. In North East Fife, Stephen Gethins held on by just two votes. Half a dozen other SNP MPs had their majorities slashed to three-figures.

The diminished SNP group at Westminster will be less confident as they return to the Commons; even as they watch the Tories in chaos across the gangway.

Sturgeon cannot escape scrutiny during the inevitable post-mortem. By adopting the presidential style favoured by other leaders – including Theresa May – she remains answerable in the eyes of some critics. She has been criticised for relying too much on a tiny group of advisers, led by husband Peter Murrell, who is also chief executive of the party.

Her insistence that, whatever the shape of Brexit, Scotland somehow be exempted and remain within the single market, stretched credulity. There was no explanation of how that might happen, if the UK does indeed leave the EU. Why would the EU agree to such a plan? Why would Britain?

An assiduous television debater, and a combative figure in the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon has been admired as a sure-footed player since the Brexit vote pushed her to the British stage. Last week’s result came as a bolt from the blue to those around her, including the party faithful, many of whom continue to point to the party’s ‘winning’ in Scotland last week.

The problem is that the loss of 21 seats and a fall in voting share to just 36% hardly feels like a triumph.

Only last October, the First Minister told a delirious party conference that there would be a second independence referendum and soon, perhaps even in 2017. Her party launched a ‘listening exercise’ on independence, and despite claims that it had reached 1.7m Scots, nothing was published.

A ‘growth commission’ chaired by lobbyist Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP, was expected to produce recommendations on independence months ago, but remains virtually silent.

Sturgeon fell into a common trap for politicians; the compulsive need to ‘do something’ in response to events. For her that meant a flurry of actions and demands about Scotland and its place in Europe. Her assumption that Scots would turn to independence as a response to Brexit may be proved right, ultimately, but it has been undermined by last week’s results.

‘We have to build confidence in independence, and be more sure of winning a referendum. We are not there yet,’ said Alex Neil. He believes now that a second vote will not take place for at least two or three years.

Tories say it should not happen at least until after the next Scottish elections in 2021.

Long term, her hope for independence will depend on the terms of Brexit negotiated with the EU, and how it is viewed in Scotland. Short-term, she is in the unusual position of being on the back foot, her strategy questioned and her tactics exposed after a poor campaign and embarrassing result.

Maurice Smith is a journalist and awardwinning documentary producer. Follow him on Twitter @mauricesmithtvi

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