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2 May 2024

The SNP’s contradictory coalition is fracturing

As Scottish independence falls down the agenda, progressives and conservatives are being pitted against each other.

By David Gauke

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a lecture at a university about populism. I focused on the rise of right-wing populism throughout much of the West and argued that the left’s increasing focus on cultural issues rather than economic ones had alienated some of its traditional supporters.

These voters – culturally conservative but economically interventionist – drifted away from social-democratic parties. In the UK, they voted for Ukip, Brexit and – in 2019 – Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. In the US, they voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 and will do so again in November. In France they back Marine Le Pen, in Germany Alternative for Germany. The European parliamentary elections next month will see parties of the populist right flourish in most EU member states.

The pattern varies: in some countries the populists take over the existing centre-right party (most obviously in the case of the US Republicans but also – at least at times – the UK Conservatives) or new populist parties emerge and achieve electoral success. Either way, large numbers of voters are supporting parties standing on an agenda of being tough on crime, immigration, “wokery” and the “liberal elite”.

All of this is true and not exactly an original observation. But I realised that this account would not reflect the experience of most of my audience. My host was the University of Stirling – for their annual Williamson Lecture – and while it is certainly true that right-wing populism has become a major force in most Western countries (including England and Wales), it is a very different story in Scotland.

In 2007, one centre-left party (the SNP) succeeded another, Labour, as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. In 2016 and 2021, the Scottish Tories took second place but on both occasions were a more liberal force than their UK counterpart. Of the smaller parties, the Greens and Liberal Democrats saw MSPs elected, Ukip never did. Reform UK polls third in British opinion polls but is sixth in Scotland. On the face of it, right-wing populism is absent from Scottish politics.

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What explains the disparity between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and, for that matter, most Western countries?

For some Scots, especially but not exclusively nationalists, this is evidence that Scotland is a fundamentally more progressive and liberal nation than England. Scotland, it is argued, is inherently pro-immigration, pro-EU, pro-net zero and pro-transgender rights. The very policies that outrage large parts of the English electorate supposedly appeal to the Scottish one.

Up to a point, there may be something in this, but an explanation based purely on Scottish exceptionalism seems unlikely. After all, countries long held up as exemplars of progressivism – such as Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands – all have powerful populist parties of the right.

Scotland, like everywhere else, will have its share of voters who are culturally conservative, worried about threats to national identity, and suspicious of distant elites. The difference is that in Scotland many of these voters have supported the SNP and Scottish independence. Fifteen per cent of the Scottish electorate, according to the British Election Study, voted for both Scottish independence and Brexit.

As Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford argue in their excellent analysis of our realigning politics, Brexitland, the SNP’s political narrative “married together ethnocentric resentments of the English with centre-left economic ideology and promises of a liberal, multicultural Scotland freed from the shackles of English intolerance”. They go on to argue that, “Negative views of migrants and minorities were (and are) roughly as widely held in Scotland as in England and Wales, but they were ignored by the SNP, who directed ethnocentric voters’ resentments towards London and the Tories.”

In other words, Scotland is not that different from England. But the SNP had adept politicians – in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon – and a cause – in Scottish independence – that allowed a centre-left party to retain right-wing populists.

Those conditions no longer apply. Salmond and Sturgeon have gone, and the issue of independence has lost salience. The UK government simply refused to entertain the prospect of another referendum, to which the Scottish people responded not with outrage but indifference.

Salmond’s advice to his former party is to reaffirm the case for independence and downplay progressive identity politics. This makes sense if the SNP wants to keep hold of its more culturally conservative voters. But campaigning on independence is easier said than done (as long as the UK government does not open the door to the possibility of a second referendum) and abandoning progressive identity politics will be unpopular with the Scottish Greens (who the SNP still rely on at Holyrood) and many SNP activists. Keeping the Greens and the activists happy appears to be the SNP’s priority (even after the end of the Bute House Agreement).

This will cause problems. An agenda of pursuing undeliverable environmental targets, an ideological approach to transgender rights, and of ignoring cultural moderates (let alone cultural conservatives) will further narrow the SNP’s support.

Scotland’s recent political history is very different to that of most Western democracies but if the SNP continues to define itself as a party principally for progressive activists, it will soon be testing the limits of Scottish exceptionalism.

Like the Conservatives in 2019, the SNP built a broad but contradictory coalition, united on an issue that is of diminished relevance. Whoever is to lead the party in future, holding that coalition together may prove beyond them.

[See also: The rise of playlist politics]

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