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How Scotland could swing the general election

Nicola Sturgeon and Dave Doogan, SNP candidate for Angus, meets with activists and supporters on the British general election campaign trail. (Photograph by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images). - Credit: Getty Images

Filled with marginal seats and featuring factors which do not apply elsewhere in the UK, how the election plays out in Scotland will dictate what happens next. Maurice Smith reports

Scotland has emerged as a key battleground in a general election dominated by Brexit and the very future of Britain itself. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn both travelled north of the border early in the campaign, determined to make very different impressions on an electorate which might be forgiven for suffering ballot-box weariness.

The transition from sideshow to centre-stage has been long predicted. Five years on from the independence poll, Scottish politics has continued to diverge from the rest of the UK – or at least England. Apart from Scotland’s strong Remain vote – 62% in 2016 – the rise of the SNP over more than a decade means that neither the Tories nor Labour are anywhere near ‘winning’ a majority of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

Such is the dominance of the SNP – winning three successive elections to the devolved parliament at Holyrood – that its achievement of 35 seats in 2017 looked like failure. Why? Because just two years earlier the party had taken a staggering 56 of them.

The Tories, who jumped from one to 13 seats under the ebullient Ruth Davidson, claimed a ‘victory’ that defied arithmetic at the time, and may not defy gravity on December 12.

Pained by that experience, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon wants to regain some of those seats. Most pundits believe her party will do so. But just how many of those constituencies might return to SNP hands could have a significant bearing on the outcome at Westminster.

As many as 18 constituencies could change in Scotland, a relatively high percentage. That is why Johnson and Corbyn have been flying their flags so early in the campaign. The renowned psephologist Sir John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde University, points out that the winner’s majority in no less than 46 Scottish seats is less than 10 percentage points, and therefore marginal. Marginal seats are spread across the three main parties – 30 of the SNP’s 35, eight of the Tories’ 13 and six of the Labour seven – so that each has a vested interest in biting into the other. Indeed, a large proportion are three-way marginals.

The stakes are highest for Labour and Conservative. But the outcome is vital to the aspirations of the SNP. Sturgeon wants a second Scottish independence referendum in 2020, before the Holyrood election a year later. Her only chance of that is if her party holds some balance of power in the Commons.

The SNP has been setting deadlines for a second referendum each year since that Brexit vote. The party is divided on tactics, and some doubt Sturgeon’s 2020 deadline, which has been rejected outright by Johnson, who says he will never allow a second Scottish vote.

The response from Labour has been more equivocal. Initially shadow chancellor John McDonnell appeared to indicate that a Scottish poll might be sanctioned by an incoming Labour government, but more recently his leader appears to be saying that it would not happen during a first term.

Labour is betting that the SNP would back a minority Corbyn administration, if only because it could not afford to be seen to enable a Tory one. The SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics has come via a hefty shift from Labour, achieved because first Alex Salmond and now Sturgeon convinced voters mainly in the central belt that the SNP stood to the left of New Labour.

Nobody expects Labour gains north of the border and, if an incoming Corbyn government can rely on SNP support, that may not matter. The stakes are higher for Boris Johnson.

The Tory vote turned out for Theresa May in 2017 – or so she imagined. In fact, constituencies in the north-east of Scotland switched back to the party after many years, spurred by an aggressive pro-Union campaign led by Davidson. In Aberdeen, there was a protest vote concerning the loss of tens of thousands of local jobs as a result of the oil price slump in 2015.

The Tories presented as ‘the party of the Union’, to some effect. Ironically, the 12 seats gained in 2017 outnumber those held by the Democratic Unionist Party, whose support May relied upon for a majority. Without those Scottish seats, the DUP bloc would not have mattered.

But Davidson will leave Holyrood in 2021. She has been embroiled in controversy over a £50,000 lobbying job – accepted and since rejected – and now faces intense criticism for accepting a fee from ITV as a live election pundit on December 12.

One Tory elected in 2017, Ross Thomson, is standing down from his Aberdeen South seat after allegations – which he denies – of drunken groping in a Commons bar. Another candidate in Aberdeen North has been dropped over alleged anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic comments he made seven years ago. The Conservatives are on the back foot across Scotland, and that is before taking in to account the ‘Boris factor’, which concerns Scottish perceptions of the leader as a posh English buffoon.

Curtice cites a recent YouGov poll, which put the SNP on 42% – up five per cent on 2017 – and the Conservatives down seven points on 22%. The Liberal Democrats, now led by a Scottish MP with a marginal seat, were up six points to 13%, just ahead of Labour.

Some pundits believe that Corbynite politics should have more appeal in Scotland. But the truth is that the SNP has worn those clothes successfully for a long time, with little evidence of Labour being able to steal them back.

“Such an outcome would see every single marginal Conservative and Labour seat fall into the SNP’s hands, leaving the SNP with as many as 50 seats,” concluded Curtice. The actual outcome may not be so drastic for the two major parties, although those seats that change between them in England are more likely to be among Leave-voting constituencies; in Scotland, every seat voted Remain in 2016.

For many Scots, the Brexit debate and this election campaign have served to underline that UK politics is something going on in another country. The SNP leadership continues to oppose Brexit, arguing that it will damage the Scottish economy, especially if it involves leaving the single market and customs union.

Scottish ministers have even objected to the idea of Northern Ireland receiving the ‘special status’ of remaining half-in, half-out of Europe as part of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement. They argue that this may give the region an economic advantage that Scotland would welcome.

Sturgeon remains stridently opposed to Brexit. A Tory majority will set her party, and the Scottish parliament, at odds with Westminster more than at any other stage since devolution in 1999.

Although many see a second independence referendum as inevitable, technically one cannot take place without Commons approval, and a Johnson government would oppose that.

To achieve their immediate goals – winning back those seats lost two years back – the SNP needs a high turnout from motivated supporters. It also needs to hold the Scottish Remain vote, particularly high in cities like Edinburgh. But in the longer term not every Remain supporter will back Scottish independence, and that presents an additional dilemma.

The party’s best chance is to become king-maker in the event of no overall majority. That scenario works only if the SNP can reach some accommodation with a party with whom it shares a bitter distrust and dislike in Scotland, Labour. For Scots, the ensuing battle may not even have begun.

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