Scotland seemed ready to teach the SNP a lesson about accountability. We knew that. No one realised quite how ready Scotland was. The general election result was seismic in many ways in many parts of the UK, but north of the border it hit a magnitude of 10: naw to a second independence referendum, no more gravity-defying Nat heroes, a brutal response from a nation that has tired of constitutional engineering and wants someone to attend to the basics.
Alex Salmond and his close friend Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh went. Westminster leader Angus Robertson went. John Nicolson, that cocky enemy of a free press, went. The dominos tumbled and kept tumbling. The messages from Tory and Labour friends grew more excitable and more disbelieving as the night wore on. “Keep watching,” texted Ruth Davidson at 2.30am, “you might have a Tory MP in Stirling [my hometown, SNP 2015 majority 10,480]. Gordon’s getting tasty.”
Stirling, once the stamping ground of Michael Forsyth, went Conservative for the first time in 20 years. Gordon meant Alex Salmond, which seemed unthinkable even as the unthinkable continued to happen. The SNP’s greatest leader was not spared. The night of the long claymores brought down the tallest of poppies.
In the end, an astonishing 21 out of 56 SNP MPs were fired by the voters, only two years after most of them had been handed the gig in the first place. “Not up to it,” as Attlee would have put it.
Why? Well, Nicola Sturgeon won’t say it publicly, but her demand for a second independence referendum only three years after the first angered a great many voters who had asked the Nats to stand up for Scotland at Westminster rather than seek to rip it out. It was a catastrophic misjudgment by an otherwise canny leader. She and her colleagues were told, again and again, that the school-gate chat suggested a frustrated electorate felt taken for granted and had grown tired of the SNP’s one-track politics. As reports emerged showing numeracy and literacy rates falling despite ten years of Nationalist government, Scots wondered what they were getting from the deal. They have made up their minds: not enough.
As Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney said, the proposal for a second referendum played a “significant” role in the result. “We will take time and care to reflect on the outcome of this result. But we have to acknowledge that the question of a second independence referendum was a significant motivator of votes against the SNP in this election, and we have to be attentive to that point.” Bit late, but yes.
By any normal account, the SNP had a reasonable evening, winning a substantial 36.9 per cent of the vote and 35 out of a possible 59 seats. But they will be judged by their own previous high standards: this meant a loss of 21 seats and a drop of 13 percentage points since 2015. The Tories, meanwhile, doubled their share of the vote to 28.6 per cent, and even poor old Scottish Labour found itself up by 2.8 points at 27.1 per cent, going from one seat to seven. The Lib Dems leapt from one seat to four.
This was Davidson’s night, as her broad smile on the small hours TV screen made clear. Her (latest) achievement cannot be overstated: in a land where the word ‘Tory’ is still often used as a curse, she has detoxified the brand, produced a thumping success even as Theresa May fouled up across the rest of the UK, and has set up the possibility of a true electoral earthquake in the devolved elections of 2021. It is not yet clear where Davidson’s ceiling lies, if it even exists, but she has fans in interesting places. If she announced tomorrow that she had decided to lead a UK version of En Marche!, she would have the money and backing to do it.
Nicola Sturgeon has four years to save her neck – in the cold light of 9 June that doesn’t feel like an overstatement. “Indyref2 is dead. That’s what’s happened tonight,” said Davidson. She’s right. And a Unionist majority at Holyrood in 2021, which now seems inevitable, will seal the deal. Scots desire strong, effective and accountable government no less than anyone else. They have spoken, loudly and clearly.
Can the Nats deliver? Can they genuinely set aside their raison d’etre and make some enemies in the name of public service reform? Is Sturgeon a First Minister for the whole nation, with the same concerns and passions as its people, or, as someone who joined the SNP while still in school, can politics only ever be a route to the One True Goal? We are about to find out. That is the challenge that now confronts her. Game on.