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20 January 2016

In Scotland’s new era, nothing can dent the SNP

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

By George Eaton

On 24 March, Non-Independence Day will fall in Scotland. It was this date that the Scottish National Party designated as the moment when the country would formally secede from the UK. Had the Yes side won the referendum, the new state would have begun life in fraught circumstances. The price of oil, forecast by the SNP’s independence white paper to be $110, has fallen to below $30 – the lowest figure in 12 years. Rather than the “second oil boom” that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, predicted in August 2014, the commodity is enduring an epic slump.

The consequences for Scotland’s public finances are grave. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that oil revenue will be just £130m this year, compared to the SNP’s estimate of up to £7.5bn. An independent Scotland would have incurred a budget deficit of about 9 per cent, almost as large as that of the UK after the financial crisis (10.2 per cent), and would also have faced higher borrowing costs. An SNP government would have struggled to avoid imposing austerity of its own. Even without independence, Scotland’s economy has slowed sharply, growing by 0.1 per cent in the most recent quarter, compared to 0.4 per cent for the UK overall.

The oil-price collapse is not the only woe that has afflicted the SNP in recent times. The Forth Road Bridge was closed for nearly three weeks after the administration failed to perform necessary repairs. Two of its MPs – Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry – have had the whip suspended over police investigations. The number of college students has fallen by 152,000 since the SNP entered office, following cuts to further education. In normal times, some say, the nationalists would struggle to secure a third term this May – but, they emphasise, these are not normal times.

“The poll numbers aren’t shifting, because we’re in post-referendum politics,” Ian Murray, the shadow Scotland secretary and Labour’s last surviving MP north of the border, told me. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. As the only major party that advocates independence, the SNP has a hegemony that will endure. A Survation poll published on 14 January suggested that 52 per cent would vote for it in the forthcoming Holyrood election, while just 21 per cent would vote Labour.

Nationalist logic says there is no reason why Scotland’s worsening fiscal position should shift opinion. Sovereignty, rather than prosperity, is the preoccupation. For others, the diminishing value of oil only intensifies their resentment of Westminster. It was the Thatcher government that squandered the black gold on tax cuts and unemployment benefits, rather than investing in a sovereign wealth fund.

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When Jeremy Corbyn was elected, some supporters argued that his anti-austerity, anti-Trident politics would allow Labour to begin recovery in Scotland. But no bounce resulted and the party’s poll ratings have actually fallen. This is not for want of trying: Corbyn has visited Scotland four times since becoming leader and will soon return.

Nor are Labour’s divisions and his recalcitrant MPs to blame. Corbyn’s ratings are parlous. A YouGov poll in October found just 15 per cent of Scots were more likely to vote for Labour following his election, and 17 per cent were less likely. Corbyn’s biggest problem is insoluble: he is not a nationalist. Polling by the British Election Study showed that it is those on the far left, the Labour leader’s natural constituency, who were most aggrieved by the referendum result. William Bain, the former MP for Glasgow North-East, told me the SNP had persuaded working-class voters that independence was not merely “the route to social justice”, but “more socially just in itself”.

The realignment of Scottish politics around the national question has led Labour to adopt an increasingly ambiguous stance. Kezia Dugdale, the party’s leader in Holyrood, has said that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for independence in a second referendum. “The Labour Party has lost its identity as a core part of the unionist furniture but it hasn’t yet become a party of independence,” Adam Tomkins, the Glasgow public law professor and Conservative candidate, told me. “Sitting out the independence question is basically saying to the whole of Scotland . . . ‘We’re irrelevant.’”

An increasingly common assertion is that the Conservatives’ more robust defence of the Union will allow them to supplant Labour as the second party. Yet, though this shift is far from unthinkable, few believe that it will occur in May.

Two events are often cited as having the potential to transform Scottish politics. The first is a UK-wide Labour recovery that puts it on course for a comfortable majority. At this juncture, some say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. The path to recovery in Scotland runs through England. The second event is another independence referendum. It was after two failed attempts to secede from Canada (in 1980 and 1995) that the hitherto dominant Parti Québécois began to decline. When it pledged yet another referendum in the 2007 Quebec general election, it was pushed into third place for the first time since 1973. Unionists draw consolation from polls showing no significant rise in support for Scottish independence (backed by 45 per cent in the most recent survey).

“The scary thing” for Labour, Bain says, is that it took the Canadian Liberals 35 years to regain a federal majority in Quebec. “When politics becomes aligned across a constitutional question, that’s how long the emotional bridge takes to cross.” For now, like the emblematic Forth Road Bridge in December, it is closed. 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war