This weekend, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) meets in Glasgow for its annual conference.
After more than a decade in power at Holyrood – Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh – the party continues to defy all the established rules of mainstream politics.
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.
Not that long ago, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon was the most exciting social democrat in European politics.
She took charge of the SNP – and with it an absolute majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature – in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The SNP lost that referendum, but left-leaning Scots, many of them former Labour voters, flocked to her side.
Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Seanad yesterday was the first any foreign leader has given to the upper chamber of the Irish parliament. The Seanad is tucked away in a far corner of Leinster House, a complex of austere 18th century buildings on Kildare Street, just off St. Stephen’s Green, in central Dublin. Its antiquated press gallery can accommodate a grand total nine reporters, so, having travelled down from Belfast, I decamped to a small annex room with a wall-mounted TV and a failing internet connection.
The speech itself didn’t generate much advance coverage in the Irish media. The Irish Times dedicated a few short paragraphs on page five to Sturgeon’s meeting on Monday with Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs. They should have paid more attention.
During Scotland’s independence referendum, George Robertson, the former Labour defence secretary and Hamilton South MP, told a joke about his Scottish National Party opponents. “The Italian Mafia might make you an offer you can’t refuse,” Robertson sneered. “But the nationalists will make you an offer you can’t understand.”
As the dust from the 18 September poll begins to settle, Scottish Yes campaigners are trying to work out what went wrong. The dominant theory is that the SNP mangled its pitch. On one hand, Alex Salmond said independence would transform the Scottish economy. On the other, he conceded that monetary union would restrict the country’s fiscal autonomy. Salmond regularly hinted at post-independence increases in public expenditure but ruled out tax rises to fund them. He said Scotland could borrow more to end austerity but dismissed claims that this would increase the deficit.