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The SNP: losing and winning at the same time

Scottish voters are switching from the SNP to Labour – but support for independence is holding up

Image: The New European

Not much more than a year ago, Fortress SNP still seemed impregnable. Nicola Sturgeon’s great achievement had been to place herself at the head of a broad, energetic, grassroots, alliance in which the cause of Scottish independence was allied to climate justice, trans rights and environmentalism. Sturgeon’s Scotland would, many in the SNP believed, look increasingly like the open, inclusive social-democratic governments that we associate with Scandinavia: this coalition would be the latest staging post on the way to independence.

Sturgeon, backed by the Greens, pursued a legislative programme designed to make Scotland the most progressive country in Europe.

What’s striking is how quickly it all unravelled. There is a widespread perception now that for three years the Green tail has been wagging the SNP dog, prioritising causes to which public opinion is far less committed, and certainly less radical, than the leadership at Holyrood.

The sinking of the Gender Recognition Reform Act should have sounded the alarm. The Scottish Greens were committed to this reform with a puritanical zeal. It was designed to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify, and to lower the age at which this could be done from 18 to 16. The UK government intervened in effect to veto it, on the grounds that it compromised the rights at the heart of the UK-wide Equalities Act of 2010. This was the first time that a UK government had used this power since the devolved bodies were established twenty-five years ago. It was a risky move for a UK government that is already deeply unpopular in Scotland.

The SNP accused Westminster of a brazen attack on the founding principles of devolution itself. Alarmingly for the independence cause, the Scottish public didn’t agree: polls suggest at least half the Scottish people supported the UK’s intervention. In other words, a general public that the SNP hopes one day will vote for independence appeared to trust Westminster rather than their own elected leaders.

The coalition announced plans to make Scotland one of the greenest countries in Europe. A million household boilers would be replaced at a cost of more than £30 billion; Scotland would cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030. Little progress was made and the targets were abandoned last month.

And when the Scottish Parliament passed its controversial Hate Crime Bill into law, police switch boards were lit up by thousands of spurious complaints in the first 48 hours. The Act lent itself to public ridicule. Worse, even committed supporters of independence and admirers of Nicola Sturgeon voiced concerns that the new law amounted to an attack on freedom of speech.

The respected veteran commentator Iain MacWhirter (a robust critic of both Sturgeon and Yousaf) has accused the Scottish government of what he calls “progressive authoritarianism”. The new leader John Swinney should, he said, “be quick to cut the whole ‘woke crap’.”

But can John Swinney, who was deputy first minister until a year ago and whose fingerprints are all over what critics call the SNP-Green “woke agenda”, persuade an increasingly sceptical Scottish electorate that he can be a force for change? It will require some deft self-reinvention.

At an event to launch his campaign for the leadership, Swinney was asked whether he agreed with his former Green partners that “a trans woman is a woman”. He batted the question away without answering, and said he wanted to get back to issues that mattered to most people: the health service, schools, the economy, housing.

He is putting clear blue water between himself and the Greens and has explicitly appealed to the Unionist parties across the aisle to work collaboratively to solve Scotland’s problems. It’s hard to see what’s in it for them, especially for the resurgent Labour Party. They’ve now overtaken the SNP in the opinion polls and are enjoying their biggest poll lead in a decade. It will pay them no dividends to help make John Swinney’s leadership a success.

But Swinney’s tack back to the centre ground chimes with some new thinking in the SNP itself. There is a growing willingness to accept that the independence cause has, for now at least, stalled. Younger MSPs, like the former welfare minister Ben MacPherson, have argued that the movement should abandon its demand for a second referendum immediately and instead look to the longer term. They urge the leadership to seek a positive relationship with an incoming Labour government at Westminster, and try to reform the UK constitution as a whole. 

This would have the effect, as MacPherson wrote during last year’s leadership election, of “building up state capacity in Scotland”, creating the institutions of Scottish statehood within the UK, in the hope that, in a future referendum, the leap to independence will not seem so radical or risky.

For intriguingly, while support for the SNP has fallen, support for independence has not: it has proved remarkably sticky at just under 50 per cent, roughly where it was at the 2014 independence referendum.

Labour is leading in the polls only because enough people who continue to back independence are now willing to lend the party their vote at a UK General Election. It used to be a truism in Scottish politics that if you voted for the SNP you did not necessarily support independence. That has now been inverted: if you vote Labour this year, it doesn’t automatically follow that you are a committed Unionist. Independence and the SNP are decoupling: the cause is no longer a wholly owned subsidiary of the SNP.

There’s now little doubt that Scotland will return a phalanx of Labour MPs to Westminster. But most of those MPs will know that their chances of being re-elected will depend on their ability to find a way to engage with the independence aspiration that goes beyond simply dismissing it as “narrow nationalism”.

For nationalism’s electoral success in Scotland has been built on aligning the cause of independence with the cause of social justice – Labour’s traditional territory. And drill into the age demographics of those opinion polls and the big picture hasn’t changed: the Union has majority support among the old, while the young stack up for independence almost 3 to 1. Even deep into middle age, there are consistent majorities for independence. The Union is sitting on a demographic time-bomb.

The SNP’s wounds are deep and self-inflicted. But if and when the shine comes off a Starmer government, where will Scots voters turn, in a country that hasn’t produced a Conservative election victory since the mid-1950s?

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