In the strange and obscure world of Scottish constitutional politics, something can be utterly inevitable – until it suddenly isn’t. For most of the past ten years, and certainly for the past two, a widespread consensus has existed in Scotland regarding the inevitability of independence. That consensus has been based on the almost total dominance of Scotland’s electoral landscape by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Last month, the landscape changed.
At the UK’s snap general election on 8 June, the SNP shed 21 of its 56 Westminster seats and saw its share of the vote slump by 13 points. Angus Robertson, the party’s chief strategist, and Alex Salmond, its former leader, both lost their once rock-solid constituencies in the rural north-east. Towering nationalist majorities across Glasgow and the central belt crumbled. Even the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a modest Caledonian revival, adding three new Scottish MPs, in Edinburgh, Dunbartonshire, and Caithness, to their previous, solitary total of one.
The main consequence of these results was immediately apparent: the inevitability of Scottish independence, of the break-up of the British state, vanished.
This was confirmed by Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as SNP chief, in a statement to Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national parliament, last Tuesday, in which the first minister ditched (or delayed, depending on your interpretation) her controversial plan to stage a second referendum on independence before Britain’s Brexit negotiations conclude in the spring of 2019.
Remarkably, given the scale of its losses, the SNP hasn’t collapsed into acrimony, nor is Sturgeon’s leadership in any serious trouble. However, a debate is starting to brew within nationalist circles about the exact nature and purpose of SNP strategy – a strategy that is clearly no longer working.
The most urgent criticisms are coming from the left.
Some senior nationalists, such as Tommy Sheppard, the MP for Edinburgh East, want the party to embrace a more radical social democratic identity. They are worried that the appeal of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn runs much deeper in Scotland than anyone had initially anticipated and that, in the event of another election, the SNP could haemorrhage seats in its urban and working-class heartlands.
It’s a legitimate concern. Having faced down a 20 point deficit at the start of the election campaign, and then engineered Labour’s best election performance for a generation, Corbyn is now polling in the mid-forties. He has every chance of becoming Britain’s next prime minister. Faced with the choice between a leftwing Labour government and another span of chaotic Tory rule, there is a growing constituency of Scots that will vote Labour, even at the SNP’s expense, and even if it means postponing independence for the foreseeable future.
The flaw, though, in Sheppard’s analysis is this: Labour took six seats from the SNP on 8 June, but Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives took 12.
Davidson’s unexpected success capped the resurgence of a party that had been relegated to the fringes of Scottish political life in the late 1990s, but has now navigated its way back into the mainstream on a wave of unionist frustration. For the first time since Holyrood was created 18 years ago, the Scottish right is brimming with confidence. Davidson has cast Sturgeon’s referendum u-turn as a personal victory, and is pressing the SNP for additional concessions, notably, that any talk of independence is suspended until at least the next Scottish election in 2021, and that the nationalists get back to their “day job” of running Scotland within the constraints of the current devolutionary settlement.
To some extent, Davidson is right: Sturgeon had no choice but to temper the charge towards ‘indyref2.’ Like a lot of people, the first minister expected the Brexit crisis to prompt a massive shift in Scottish public opinion, which is largely pro-European, in favour of independence. It hasn’t. In fact, Scottish constitutional attitudes have barely changed over the past 12 months, despite the UK government’s clueless and haphazard engagement with EU negotiators.
But where Davidson’s advice should absolutely be disregarded is in the suggestion that the SNP reduce the scope of its ambition, and focus narrowly on the most banal and managerial aspects of administrative rule at Holyrood. This would be fatal for Scottish nationalism, which, under Sturgeon’s centrist leadership, has already lost its anti-establishment momentum, and is suffering badly from rising levels of apathy – or conscious abstentionism – among Scottish voters.
The numbers are stark. At the 2014 independence referendum, 1.6 million Scots voted Yes on a record-breaking turnout of 84 per cent. The following year, at the 2015 UK election, the SNP soaked-up most of that base, winning 1.4 million votes. At the 2016 Scottish devolved election, the SNP vote dipped to just over one million. In June, it dipped again, to 980,000, on a massively reduced turnout of 66 per cent.
This is obviously not a sustainable trajectory for the SNP. As participation in the Scottish political process falls, so too does the party’s authority. Sturgeon has triangulated her way through every major policy challenge, from tax and education to land reform and the environment. As a result, more and more (predominantly young and poor) Scots are withdrawing from the political sphere. Her refusal to deviate from an ideological centre ground that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, simply no longer exists, has cost the SNP its insurgent status. At the same time, Corbynism has demonstrated that it is a credible force with the potential to win a British general election.
Fortunately for Sturgeon, there is no shortage of policy proposals available to reinvigorate her flagging administration. A national investment bank, for instance, could help restructure Scotland’s ailing economy and provide long-term funding for much needed infrastructure projects. Neither is she short on time. The current Scottish parliament will run for another four years and, with the help of her pro-independence allies in the Scottish Green Party, she could introduce a tranche of new legislative reforms that breathe fresh life into the case for enhanced Scottish autonomy.
On the other hand, of course, she could just bunker down and wait for independence to become inevitable again.