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The humbling of the SNP

After nearly two decades, the age of nationalist hegemony may be over.

By New Statesman

At the start of this year, the Scottish National Party appeared impregnable. It had an average poll lead of 20 points even midway through its fourth term in office. The campaign for Scottish independence had stalled, but few doubted that the SNP would remain the natural party of devolved government.

But all is changed, changed utterly. The fraught leadership contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon following her sudden resignation as first minister exposed the SNP’s internal divides and resulted in the election of Humza Yousaf. Despite having the backing of the party machine, and the opprobrium heaped on his rival, Kate Forbes, because of her socially conservative views, Mr Yousaf won the contest in the second round with only 52 per cent to Ms Forbes’ 48 per cent. His poll ratings are poor and he struggles to convince even many inside his own party.

During the leadership contest the SNP was revealed to have misled the media over its membership numbers: they were much lower than claimed. This revelation led to the resignation of its long-time chief executive, Peter Murrell, who happens to be Ms Sturgeon’s husband. Then, on 5 April, Mr Murrell was arrested in connection with an investigation into the SNP’s finances (before being released without charge). Police subsequently raided the party’s headquarters in Edinburgh, and its auditors were revealed to have resigned last October.

Political bankruptcy, like its financial equivalent, occurs gradually then suddenly. The SNP is a broad coalition, of left and right, economic liberals and socialists, and its quest for a second independence referendum disguised its fragilities and deep divisions.

For too long, the party benefited by directing Scottish voters’ animus towards Westminster. But when the UK Supreme Court declared that Holyrood had no legal right to hold a second referendum without agreement in London, the SNP’s forward march was halted. Ms Sturgeon’s incoherent proposal to treat the next general election as a “de facto independence referendum” split her party; the divide was exacerbated by the Gender Recognition Bill, which Mr Yousaf supported and Ms Forbes did not.

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[See also: Will the SNP ever stop blaming Westminster for its own failures]

After the SNP’s 16 years in power, the party’s domestic record is finally attracting the attention it deserves. Since entering office the party has been indulged in two respects. English left-liberals have sporadically hailed the SNP as a potential ally in a putative “progressive coalition”. Conservatives, meanwhile, have too often ignored or insulted the party and complacently dismissed the aspiration for self-determination among Scottish voters. What neither has done is expose the SNP to necessary scrutiny.

Scotland has serious problems: its life expectancy is the lowest of any western European country, its drug-death rate is the worst in Europe and its schools have fallen to record lows in international league tables. The Scottish health service – which is devolved – is in permanent crisis.

The SNP differentiated itself from Westminster by pursuing a form of social democratic welfarism: free university education, free adult social care, free NHS prescriptions and a more progressive tax system. But it never truly grappled with the fundamentals of independence. During the 2014 campaign, Alex Salmond, then first minister, championed a form of unionist-nationalism. He favoured a monarchical, social, currency and military union with England.

That the SNP is tearing itself apart is one of the perils of one-party rule. The SNP believes that its interests and those of the Scottish people are coterminous. They are not. Contemptuous of opposition and media scrutiny, the SNP high command enjoyed something too close to absolute power. Which other governing party in the democratic world would have allowed itself to be run by a husband-and-wife team?

After nearly two decades, the age of SNP hegemony may be over. But it would be delusional to believe that the unionist status quo can be restored. The desire of many in Scotland for greater autonomy, if not full independence, will endure.

Scottish Labour, a party long derided as moribund, could yet enjoy a strange rebirth. But it must reckon with Westminster’s failures as well as those of the SNP.

[See also: Where did it go wrong for Nicola Sturgeon?]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue