BY EFFIE DEANS
The next General Election could be as far away as May 2nd 2024. We have all assumed that it would be sooner, but that was before the collapse in support for the Conservatives. Two and a half years ago we knew nothing about the pandemic, but instead were stuck in a Brexit stalemate with talk of a “people’s vote” and the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. The past is not so much a foreign country as another world. Will anyone remember about parties in the Downing Street Garden two and a half years from now?
But in Scotland unless something very unforeseen happens we can be fairly certain that the fundamentals things apply. The Scottish nationalists have had first Brexit and then the pandemic to decisively change Scottish opinion, but it has barely moved. Support for independence increases and falls, or perhaps only the margin of error in polls increases and falls. It never reaches the 60-65% level where the SNP would feel that it had a good chance of winning and it never falls to the 35-40% level which might allow us to go back to how it was before 2014. Instead, the carrot in front of the nationalist donkey, continually encourages it to go for independence next year. But when next year arrives, the carrot is still stuck in front of the donkey, because it is held there by a stick.
Labour may be ahead in the polls, but the fundamental arithmetic is just the same as it has been since 2014. Labour cannot easily win an overall majority since losing nearly all its Scottish MPs. It would have to win an overall majority in England, but England at the election in 2019 was nearly all blue. That may all change because of Boris Johnson breaking lockdown rules, but is the English public really going to vote en masse for kneeling Keir Starmer?
The hope for Sturgeon is that Labour would win enough to form a majority with SNP seats. It is nearly certain that the SNP wins nearly all of the Scottish seats because its share of the vote in the high forties is as stuck as support for independence. Labour and the Conservatives are more than twenty points behind and that hasn’t changed much since 2014.
The condition for a deal with Labour would be an independence referendum, but would Sturgeon really want one in 2026, would she even still be there? The problem for the SNP is that it would be much harder to win a referendum with Labour in power. After all Scottish nationalism is as much, perhaps more, an anti-Tory movement as it is a genuine desire to put an international border between England and Scotland.
Modern Scottish nationalism got its boost because Labour and the Lib Dems decided it was unfair for Scotland to have a Tory government which Scotland didn’t vote for. But if left-wing Scotland had a Labour government propped up by the SNP, then we would have got the government we voted for. This time England would not have the government it voted for, but that would not bother Scottish nationalists. So, while a Labour victory might give the SNP another chance at independence, it would be in unfavourable circumstances. The SNP might lose again, which would be careless as that would allow any future British government to say you’ve lost twice why should we give you another go.
The SNP dilemma amounts then to this. It must hope for a Tory Prime Minister, because this will give it the best chance of winning a referendum, but this Prime Minister will say No. A Labour Prime Minister might be forced to say Yes, but he would merely be giving the SNP a referendum it might lose and which it therefore might try to avoid.
Strategically the SNP faces a number of problems. If Brexit and the pandemic could not decisively move opinion its way, what would? Sturgeon won’t want to go on for ever. By 2026 she would have been in the job a very long time and she wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. But if not Sturgeon, who?
The nationalist movement is split between Salmond and Sturgeon. It is going to need to heal that split or else go into battle divided. But how can Salmond and Sturgeon reconcile after each doing their best to destroy each other? There may be another SNP star waiting to shine, but it is not obvious at the moment who it is.
While Brexit was an initial advantage for the SNP (Scotland didn’t vote for it etc.) it fundamentally made it harder for Scottish nationalists to win the argument because it made independence a much more radical, scary proposition than it was when the UK was a member of the EU. So too the pandemic initially showed Sturgeon running Scotland, taking all the important decisions. Her popularity increased even among some Pro UK people. But the pandemic also showed how dependent Scotland is on the Treasury to provide us with furlough and vaccines. If you got your arm jabbed by someone from the British Army, you might have realised that it would be a pity to break up an organisation that is so efficiently run.
In the long run however perhaps more important than all of these things is that Sturgeon has demonstrated that an independent Scotland would be a more authoritarian place than the UK. She has shown just a little too much delight in telling us what to do. Whenever the UK government wanted to open up even just a little, Sturgeon chose for us to have less freedom. When England said that people didn’t need masks, Sturgeon said we’d have to wear them for years to come.
Young people, many of whom would have been SNP voters and supporters of independence are not obeying Sturgeon anymore. They are going down to England for a New Year party or they are having parties in each other’s homes despite Sturgeon saying they should not. They are going to football matches with banners critical of the SNP and chants that are rude about Sturgeon. This is a quite new development.
Scottish politics looks stuck. Mr Ross’s attempt to protect the Tory vote by telling Boris to resign, will not change long term Conservative support in Scotland. Scottish Labour flirting with the idea of allowing MPs and MSPs to support independence may attract a few former Labour voters back, but will lose just as many Pro UK people. Scottish Labour and Conservatives will continue in the mid-twenties a little more a little less until and unless they each provide an alternative story to Scots which we might prefer to the SNP.
Scottish Conservatives must try to win voters to the idea that free markets, low taxation, low public spending and free trade opportunities after Brexit will make us richer. If you are unwilling to make Conservative arguments better by far if Scottish Conservatives and Labour merged in the middle to form one Pro UK party that was social democratic. There is no real ideological split between Ross and Sarwar, so why split the Pro UK vote for nothing?
The Scottish stalemate might be broken by one Pro UK party, but that won’t happen. But it could still be broken by young Scots who cannot even remember when the SNP did not rule getting tired of the authoritarianism. If you don’t want to wear a mask forever, if you like being able to go to a party in England, if you sing rude songs about Sturgeon and the SNP, it might just be the time to vote for someone else, otherwise your dissent and your disobedience looks a bit like naughty schoolchildren doing what they are told again as soon as teacher comes back into the classroom.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.