Why the SNP shouldn’t assume success at the next Scottish election

The party’s mixed domestic record could yet deny it the seats it needs for a second independence referendum.

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Tuesday, 3 December, should, by all accounts, be a decisive moment in Scottish politics. It is then that the OECD will publish its latest international comparison of educational performance in reading, maths and science.

More than half a million 15-year-olds from 80 countries and economies, from Albania to Vietnam, take the test every three years, under the auspices of PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment). The results, in Scotland at least, are eagerly awaited.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the SNP has controversially withdrawn Scotland from other international analyses, meaning there is less independent external assessment and performance comparison than there once was.

The second is that on the last occasion the study took place, in 2016, the data was more than a little worrying. It showed then that the nation’s scores across all three categories had declined and, for the first time since the tests began in 2000, none of the three was given an “above average” rating.

Critics said the results were evidence that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), the new national curriculum championed by the SNP government, was failing. John Swinney, the education secretary, promised to pursue reforms that would address this. Three years on, if the new survey results released this December show an ongoing decline, there will be very little wriggle room left for the SNP. They have been in power for 12 years and CfE should have bedded down by now, with its benefits starting to show. In the absence of such, political opponents will justifiably pounce.

The performance of the nationalist administration is a subject of great debate in Scotland. Its supporters say it has pursued a progressive agenda over the past decade or so, as witnessed by its commitment to “fairer” income taxes and benefits, gender equality and support for families.

But critics say the party, due to its fixation on securing independence, has swerved the hard decisions necessary to properly reform public services, bowing to powerful trade unions and vested interests. Education – which Nicola Sturgeon said upon taking office would be her main priority – is a key point of contention.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Nats have indeed pulled their punches on tackling stagnancy in the public sector, but it could be argued that the previous Labour/Lib Dem administration was much the same, and that Ruth Davidson’s Tories wouldn’t necessarily take a more aggressive tack. 

Whatever the truth – and after 12 years all governments show signs of failure and decay – it is not clear that any of it will matter. By 2021, the year of the next devolved election, it is increasingly likely that two factors will overshadow issues of good governance and reform: the first is the unending battle over Scottish independence, and the second is the fall-out from Brexit.

SNP tails are up at the moment, just as Davidson’s Tories are looking distinctly downcast. Sturgeon and her colleagues are energised by a recent poll suggesting 52 per cent are now in favour of Scotland leaving the UK, and by the perceived unpopularity of Boris Johnson north of the border. They are working with other opposition parties at Westminster to block no deal and humiliate the new PM if possible.

The decision to prorogue parliament has only given Sturgeon added pep – stopping Johnson was now a priority, she said today. “It’s absolutely outrageous. Shutting down parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit which will do untold and lasting damage to the country against the wishes of MPs is not democracy. It’s a dictatorship and if MPs don’t come together next week to stop Boris Johnson in his tracks then I think today will go down in history as the day UK democracy died,” she added.

The current momentum does suggest a fair wind for the nationalists as 2021 approaches. But it’s also worth examining an alternative scenario. If Johnson manages to secure a deal from the EU that can then pass parliament, opinions about his character and competence are likely to receive a boost, whether Remainers like it or not. If, upon Brexit, the most drastic fears about its consequences are not borne out, it may be that voters are ready to move on, and seek a return to something like politics-as-normal.

If Johnson can edge back towards his liberal Tory roots, and if Sajid Javid manages to fire up the economy through tax cuts and cleverly-targeted public spending, Scots may not be immune to these attractions. It might at least give those considering shifting their vote towards independence pause for thought. And if Scotland’s competitiveness, through its progressive tax system, is seen to lag that of a vibrant UK economy under the Conservatives, it will leave the Nats in a tough strategic spot.

Further, if Johnson is able to refocus his government on energetic public service reform, the relative stasis in Scotland will come under the spotlight. Again, Sturgeon’s administration may be found wanting.

This is what Ruth Davidson wanted to fight the 2021 election on – the SNP’s record in government. Perhaps such an outcome is not unthinkable after all. And were voters to decide the Nats have had their chance in power, and have not made enough of it, it would be relatively simple for them to deny the next Scottish parliament a pro-independence majority. In the current parliament, only informal co-operation with the Greens gives the SNP a majority with which to pass laws. Without the same next time round, there would be no chance of a second independence referendum, and Sturgeon would be unlikely to last long. Perhaps even the cause of independence would start to recede as a public priority.

Of course, it’s more likely that Westminster will stumble from calamity to chaos, and that the Tories and Labour will continue to rip themselves apart. And Scotland feels little more than an afterthought – perhaps not even that. Up till now, in comparison, Sturgeon has seemed a rock of stability.

But politics is in a strange, unmoored zone at the moment. Who knows what could happen – perhaps, eventually, failing schools will start to matter after all. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).