The SNP has mastered the art of defying gravity so utterly that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been bought up by Elon Musk. The ship of state may rattle and judder these days, jerry-rigged with screws and bolts, but the SS Nicola Sturgeon is still the biggest, fastest and most impressive vessel out there.
On Thursday 5 May Scots went to the polls once more — in what has come to feel like an annual, if sometimes pointless, event. There’s nothing to suggest the voters yet fancy a change of captain or crew. The SNP will again be the largest party, with the biggest vote share and the highest number of councillors nationwide. For all her flaws, Sturgeon sails on.
But in the dark depths of space something is moving. Scottish Labour, which once ruled this realm, has shifted up a gear and looks ready — possibly, finally — to rejoin battle. It will be a long fight, and the odds for now remain on the SNP’s side, but no one reasonable should argue that Scotland wouldn’t benefit from a bit more political competition, a muscular opposition that can pose a tougher challenge to what is now visibly a tired and arrogant administration.
There’s no point in overstating it. Labour’s battle in these local government elections is not with the Nats, but with the Conservatives for second place. It’s a sign of how far Labour has fallen that this must be, for now, the scale of its ambitions. There is little love for Boris Johnson’s shabby, ailing mob north of the border, yet it has taken something of an implosion by the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross to put Labour back in the race. Ross is a weaker and less appealing specimen than Ruth Davidson was, and his wavering judgement on whether Johnson should stay on as Prime Minister is a self-inflicted wound that threatens to turn gangrenous. This has given Labour its opportunity.
The few polls that have been taken before these elections suggest that Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, will cruise past Ross. Labour is desperate for momentum, for polling data and a media narrative that show it is on the way back, and for the electorate to take the party seriously again. First, scalp the Tories; second, begin the long process of winding in that SNP lead.
The latter challenge remains one of epic proportions. Sturgeon has been on a horrible run: her government has repeatedly been exposed as incompetent, secretive, obstinate and at times verging on corrupt. The row over the ferry contract for the Ferguson Marine shipyard, with said ferries wildly overdue and over-budget, and vital pieces of paperwork somehow gone missing, has run for months. An Audit Scotland report outlined a “multitude of failings” in the project, and criticised “a lack of transparent decision-making, a lack of project oversight and no clear understanding of what significant sums of public money have achieved”. This week Jim McColl, who owned Ferguson Marine before it went bust and was nationalised in 2019 and was once an ally of Sturgeon’s, accused the First Minister of lying about the affair. Meanwhile, islanders wait in vain for the new vessels, struggling on with an ageing service that is prone to breaking down.
The SNP has also had problems with BiFab, a Fife-based steel fabricator from whom the government withdrew a £30m guarantee. The nationalised Prestwick airport has for a decade been making annual losses of £2m. The latest crisis involves the Gupta family’s Liberty Steel company, which bought an aluminium smelter in the Highlands on the back of state guarantees that amount to more than £500m. The company is now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. This year the chief executive of Sturgeon’s much-feted Scottish National Investment Bank resigned only a year after its launch, with ministers simply refusing to explain why. In each case the SNP has been accused of trying to cover up its role or avoid transparency around its actions.
In a normal political climate, all this would be denting voter confidence in the administration. This government is old and it is weary, and its basic competence is at the very least a matter for debate. Its record on public services is nothing to crow about, and local authorities are squealing about the financial hand dealt to them by the centre. It is not that Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid, but that the SNP seems to view meaningful reform as too hard, too expensive and too complex. The traditional “time for a change” argument should be having some traction.
But this is not how modern Scottish nationalism operates. The question “couldn’t we do better?” is simply answered with “yes, if we were independent”. Every election, regardless of its purpose, seems to be a rerun of the 2014 referendum, with voters choosing a side based on their constitutional stance. On social media Yes voters continue to passionately defend the SNP, regardless of its performance. This gives the opposition parties little room to make the case for change or to win a hearing for their policies.
Still, Sarwar will be hoping for a happy weekend, with Labour emerging as the leading competitor to the SNP once more. Keir Starmer’s Westminster party is expected to announce its plan for a restructure of the UK constitution in the coming weeks, which it hopes will show Scots that it is willing to shake up the existing settlement, shy of full independence. For most independence supporters, however, that can never be enough. Even the prospect of a Labour government in London applying social democratic measures to tackling the cost-of-living crisis doesn’t cut it.
It is one thing for Labour to surpass an unpopular, error-prone Conservative Party, which at least seems to be bound by the normal rules of political science. It will be much, much harder to rein in an SNP that makes every election about independence, that has persuaded enough of the electorate that this and only this matters, and that seems sustained by magic dust. Only Labour could ever replace the Nationalists in power in Edinburgh, and they are so incredibly far off that point.
As a result, Scotland feels adrift in a sea of mediocrity, its fuel spent, its sails torn and its oars broken. Our present inertia is storing up heavy weather for the future, but until voters wise up to the value of political competition, policy debate, good governance, clear and moral decision making, and effective outcomes, it is hard to argue that the nation deserves anything better.