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29 December 2023

The SNP will have nowhere to hide in 2024

Scottish politics is finally competitive again and voters will punish an exhausted ruling party.

By Chris Deerin

If 2023 was an annus horribilis for the SNP, 2024 hardly looks like it will be much better.

Scotland’s governing party has laboured under 12 months of scandal, policy failure and police investigation. Its poll ratings have plummeted, and after 16 years in office its political dominance appears to be ending.

If much of the damage has been self-inflicted, through a mixture of arrogance, complacency and incompetence, the Nats are also suffering from a reality that confronts all parties that remain in power beyond a sensible time span – the voters have grown tired of them and their particular obsessions, the party has run out of dynamic and interesting ideas, and the quality of its front-line personnel has sharply diminished. 

Humza Yousaf enters his second year as First Minister facing a UK general election that threatens to cement this narrative of decline. Most polls show Scottish Labour is on course to win as many as half the seats currently held by the SNP (43). Anas Sarwar is proving to be Labour’s first effective leader north of the border in more than a decade and is benefiting from Keir Starmer’s growing proximity to No 10.

For many years, elections north and south have run on different lines – independence has been the dominant issue in Scotland. In Scotland, though, as in England, for most voters this election will be about getting the Tories out. But it will also be about punishing the SNP for its loss of grip and lack of effectiveness.

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Yousaf has to a degree been the victim of events – that blue police tent in Nicola Sturgeon’s garden, widening splits on the SNP benches and across the wider independence movement in the face of failure, and the inevitable weight of time.

He has shifted his ground a little in an attempt to regain momentum. Rhetorically, at least, the First Minister is now focusing on the private sector and economic growth, his Education Secretary has vowed to address the embarrassing decline in Scotland’s school performance, and the government has finally committed to a “national conversation” on NHS reform.

Yousaf has scrapped various problematic policies planned by his predecessor and, after defeat in the Court of Session, has decided not to appeal the Westminster veto of Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. This last decision will at least allow his government – and the country – to begin to move on from a tortured and angry debate that overshadowed Scottish politics for much of the past year.

[See also: The maverick of Fleet Street]

But in practice, the SNP has arguably not moved far enough. It continues to tinker with and complicate the income tax system so that there are now six separate rates faced by Scots. 

Anyone earning over £28,000 a year pays more than they would elsewhere in the UK, and the direction of travel under the SNP has been relentlessly towards higher taxation. 

The message being sent is an uncomfortable one for employers and investors. The sense is of a government greedily grabbing as much of the public’s money as it can get away with, in order to fund its big-state priorities. While this has helped ease the burden on the poorest, there is undoubtedly a huge amount of unaddressed waste in the system, and Middle Scotland can fairly feel like something of a milch cow for the SNP. The free stuff, born of a belief in universalism over targeted support – prescriptions, higher education, social care, baby boxes – continues unabated, despite the economic pressures. 

For all Yousaf’s talk of enterprise and economic growth, there is little indication that his heart is really in this, or that he knows how to boost the economy. The politics of his cabinet remain heavily weighted towards the public sector. There is truth in Labour’s charge that tax is being “used as a substitute for economic growth”.

The SNP still seeks to blame Westminster for its problems, an excuse that wears ever thinner. The Conservative government might be unpopular in Scotland, and its choices and priorities not those that most voters would support, but the Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved institutions on the planet. The idea that Holyrood is using its powers to maximum effect is laughable – and it is convenient for the Nats to be able to throw blame southwards.

At some point in 2024, though, Yousaf won’t have the Tories to kick around any more. A Labour government is likely to have an electoral mandate from Scotland as well as England. Starmer and his shadow cabinet visit regularly, and talk often about the path to Downing Street running through Scotland.

The SNP hasn’t yet worked out how to handle this change in circumstances. Yousaf accepts that Labour “have a spring in their step” on both sides of the border. “Labour will have a message that will resonate with a lot of people, that doesn’t have to be too complex,” he told me when I interviewed him in October. “It’s basically, ‘We’re not them. Get the Tories out.’ And the SNP will have to come up with a convincing message… We haven’t crafted it yet.” If he loses heavily, it’s not unthinkable that the SNP could look for another new leader.

For Labour’s part, winning will not be enough. Scots will expect to see a difference in their relationship with Westminster. A London parliament and government that have come to seem remote, very English and at times unnecessarily cruel will have to find ways to reconnect. More Scots on the front bench would help, as would a positive reset of the relationship between ministers and civil servants in London and Edinburgh. Policies that more closely accord with Scottish values will be expected – and if Labour can’t deliver those, then what’s the point of it? Frankly, some early bribes sent northwards would help too.

The SNP is thinking hard about the limitations that Starmer will face in office – fiscal and political. The need to play to the separate English narratives on immigration and Brexit means the Labour leader has already alienated some Scots voters. He will need to show movement in a progressive direction on both issues.

The general election, which still seems most likely to be held in the second half of 2024, will only be the beginning of an 18-month campaign in Scotland leading up to the 2026 Holyrood vote. 

Labour hopes that a sense of unstoppable SNP decline coincides with a period of goodwill in the early months of a Starmer government. The SNP would very much like Starmer to continue the hardline policies that have defined this era of Conservative hegemony.

It all promises to be a vintage contest. Scottish politics, after more than a decade of seemingly effortless Nationalist dominance, is finally competitive again. In that light, 2024 should be a good year for democracy and the clash of ideas – which means that it will be a better year for Scots, if not for the SNP.

[See also: The Tory right will strike back in 2024]

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