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Where stands Scottish politics? It's a question with significant implications for next year's UK general election and for the dynamics of British politics thereafter.
The departure of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's first minister earlier this year marks the end of a long and intense phase of constitutional drama. It also casts doubt on the durability of the SNP's electoral hegemony, one of the cardinal achievements of Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond. A new special issue of Political Quarterly reflects on what has changed in Scottish politics over the last decade and examines the dilemmas that the upheavals of these years now pose for both sides of Scotland's constitutional debate.
According to the London-based media, the story seems clear enough: the SNP is on the back foot for the first time since its impressive victory at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, with scandal, policy mistakes, internal divisions and an unpopular new leader opening the way for a Scottish Labour revival. This is certainly one plausible interpretation of events. The result of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election confirmed that Labour has serious electoral traction in Scotland for the first time since 2010. Both the Conservatives and Labour have made clear that they will not grant a second independence referendum, thus closing off any legal route to a new Scottish state for at least the duration of the next Parliament and probably longer.
But there is more to say than that. Despite the political dramas of the last six months, the SNP is slightly ahead or at worst tied with Labour in recent voting intention polls for Westminster and Holyrood. The gap between Labour and the SNP has certainly shrunk considerably and on these figures it looks likely that Labour will pick up many seats in Scotland next year. However, it still faces a difficult task to reinstate itself as the dominant Scottish party at Westminster, let alone at Holyrood. Opinion polling on Scottish independence remains finely balanced, with ‘no’ slightly ahead, although there have been two periods of ‘yes’ leads: one during the height of the Covid pandemic in March to April 2021 and the other in the wake of Liz Truss's brief period as prime minister, from November to December 2022.
The assumption of much metropolitan commentary is that the SNP is, as the Sex Pistols might have sung, just another party: the costs of governing will eventually catch up with it. On this view, the SNP will lose office as voters naturally tire of the mistakes of its leaders and the party is held accountable for its policy record. But this underestimates two distinctive features of the SNP, as James Foley, Tom Montgomery and Ewan Kerr discuss in this issue. First, while the SNP is a party of government at Holyrood, it is also a permanent party of opposition to the UK government. SNP leaders can always mobilise support by highlighting UK state decisions that are unpopular in Scotland, thus displacing unhelpful discussion of the detail of the party's own record at Holyrood. Hannah Graham's contribution to this issue draws on the first minister's official diary to identify the policy areas that Nicola Sturgeon spent little time on, such as transport, rural affairs and drugs, the handling of which have generated serious criticism of the Scottish government.
But the SNP has skilfully deflected some of this by focussing attention on the Conservative government in London, a target-rich environment for Scottish nationalists. The return of a Labour government in 2024 will not automatically close off this avenue for the SNP. As Iain Docherty argues in this issue, a Starmer government will face the daunting task of addressing fundamental structural weakness in the British economy, particularly the regional inequalities in economic performance that have shot up the political agenda since the Brexit referendum. There will inevitably be opportunities for the SNP to criticise it for not going far enough or allowing itself to be hogtied by the City or the right-wing press. It is pleasant to imagine that a Starmer government might substantially reduce regional inequality in Britain, but it is probably not going to happen and it definitely won't happen in the space of one parliamentary term. Welcome incremental improvements to the status quo under Labour will still leave space for the SNP to depict life in Britain as continuing in much the same vein as under the Conservatives, notably at the 2026 Scottish Parliament election. Happily for the SNP, this will coincide with the likely mid-term slump in support for Starmer. Lesley Riddoch's contribution to this issue indicates the lines of attack on Labour that will be taken up by independence supporters after 2024.
The second distinctive feature of the SNP is that it exists to further a fundamental ideological objective, Scottish independence, the achievement of which transcends the workaday detail of public policy for party supporters. For much of the party's history, the objective of independence has been an unpopular one, so the SNP received little electoral benefit from its central doctrinal commitment. But, as Lindsay Paterson, Malcolm Petrie, Lesley Riddoch and James Foley and his colleagues all point out in this issue, the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence caused a structural realignment among voters in Scotland. By placing the issue of independence on the table with a straight yes or no choice, the SNP built itself a new, and much higher, core vote among younger and more left-leaning parts of the electorate. As Paterson points out, the younger profile of this support means that, as one generation replaces another, there will on present trends be a slow increase in the underlying support for independence among the Scottish electorate.
Paterson and Petrie both note that support for independence has remained relatively stable in recent months, even though voter intention polls show slippage in the SNP vote. Both interpret this as showing that the SNP's branding as the party of independence is, as Petrie puts it, ‘conditional’ and that, should the SNP ultimately be found wanting in its commitment to independence by these voters, they will drift away to other parties or into abstentionism. Many of these independence supporters are undoubtedly frustrated that the SNP has failed to come up with a new strategy that might move the ball forward in the face of implacable opposition to another referendum from London. Some would likely agree with Gerry Hassan in his contribution to this issue, who argues that the style of leadership offered by the SNP in recent years has been too centralising, has failed to tap into the democratic energies of the wider independence movement and has now run out of ideas. But, for the moment at least, the SNP still has a reliable core vote that can be assembled on the basis of a nationalist appeal and which provides some protection from the standard downward spiral of parties with a long record of incumbency.
None of this is to deny that the SNP now faces its toughest political times for over a decade. It's just that the SNP has such a strong base and was so far ahead of its rivals that, even if it falls back, it still has a good chance of remaining the largest party at Holyrood and to have a reasonable chance of being the largest party in Scotland at Westminster. That is the scale of the challenge that still faces Scottish Labour. As Coree Swan Brown writes in this issue, while there is an opening for Labour in Scotland, it still faces the basic strategic dilemma that has flummoxed the party since 2014: how to build an electoral coalition between older unionist voters and Labour's ‘natural’ supporters among the young, the working class and the left-leaning middle class, demographics which all now back independence. A message focussed on removing the Conservatives from government in London will provide a bridge between these groups in the forthcoming British general election. But it is questionable whether a programme offering more competent centre-left devolved government and constitutional quietism will cut the mustard in the heat of the 2026 Scottish Parliament election.
One conclusion that we can draw from the special issue is that contestation around the question of Scottish independence has been deferred rather than defeated. Although there is space now in which Labour may insert some reforming energy into the British constitutional system and economic model, the next five to ten years will provide supporters of independence with further opportunities to build popular support. It is significant that independence has taken a lead in the opinion polls at precisely the times when the UK political class has looked at its most discombobulated and incompetent. Given the demographic tailwinds now enjoyed by Scottish nationalism, the upper echelon of the Labour Party should consider what those polls will look like if a Labour government is torn apart in office by the sheer scale of Britain's economic predicament, and an emboldened Conservative Party returns to office surfing on right-wing media outrage. Independence does not currently command broad majority support among the Scottish electorate, but the Anglo-Scottish Union is not out of the woods yet.