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15 March 2024

The SNP isn’t ready for an election

Humza Yousaf and his party have nothing to sell to an increasingly desperate electorate.

By Chris Deerin

For years, the SNP has been renowned for the sharpness of its election campaigns. The party is brilliant at them – always slicker and more focused than the opposition.

Like so much else around the SNP, though, the good days are gone and don’t look like they’ll be returning soon. The party is heading into a general election with an offer that is muddy, diffuse and unconvincing.

It doesn’t help that the party lacks a substantial figurehead. In previous campaigns, it had the luxury of putting either Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon centre-stage – two charismatic, compelling figures who enjoyed an unusually personal relationship with the voters. Humza Yousaf, whatever other qualities he may have, doesn’t share these gifts. If you meet him, you’ll like him well enough, but as the equally personable John Major found in 1997, you can dash around the country with your soapbox but you still can’t meet everyone.

Yousaf isn’t even most voters’ preference for first minister. A poll released yesterday found that 32 per cent would opt for Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, with 31 per cent choosing the SNP leader. Yousaf is preferred to the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross in an SNP-Tory head-to-head, but it’s surprisingly narrow – 36 per cent to 30 per cent.

So the Nats lack a deal-closer for the first time in decades. They know this, of course – Yousaf’s team are well aware of his limitations – which makes it all the more confusing that the rest of their campaign is so lacklustre.

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What is the message being sent to voters? In January, when Yousaf launched his party’s general election campaign, it was to make Scotland a “Tory-free” zone. The Conservatives’ seven Westminster seats north of the border are all a straight contest with the SNP. Nat strategists believed the urge to oust the Tories at Westminster might put all these constituencies into play. But that doesn’t look likely – indeed, Conservative politicians are confident that they will retain all seven, and possibly add one or two more. They pick up growing disaffection and even exhaustion on the doorsteps with the SNP and its independence permawar.

Even after last week’s Budget, which extended the windfall tax on North Sea oil companies and which sparked a revolt by Scottish Conservative MPs, the Tories remain relaxed and believe they will retain their seats in the north of Scotland. “It’s an uncomfortable decision, but given Labour are also committed to extending the tax, and the Nats and the Greens are seen as hostile to the oil and gas industry, the voters don’t really have anywhere else to go,” one senior Tory MSP told me.

We haven’t heard much about a Tory-free zone in recent months. What we have seen is the relentless pumping out of civil service-authored papers making the case for independence. There have now been 11 of these papers, covering everything from citizenship to migration to Scotland’s “place in the world” – barely a week seems to go by without a press release announcing the latest of them, always accompanied by a “major” speech by either the First Minister or one of his cabinet.

But as time has gone on, this work is receiving less and less coverage. Often, the papers are largely ignored. This reflects the diminishing salience of the independence question itself. A subject that had dominated Scottish politics since at least 2007 is no longer top of the agenda. There simply isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been debated to death.

There are a few probable reasons for this. One is that the SNP has, for now, had its chance – indeed, has had a number of chances – and has failed. Meanwhile, its performance running the devolved government has been demonstrably poor. Many voters have grown tired with a party that continually puts some mystical future ahead of present-day reality. They can see that the performance of schools, hospitals and the economy is nowhere near where it should be. And they can see that the SNP lacks a plan to do much about it. A party that once hummed with excitement and potential has grown stale and boring.

The hardcore remains fixated on independence, of course. But Labour is successfully attracting softer Nats who are less obsessed with independence and who accept the need for a refresh in government. The momentum it is building up ahead of this year’s general election seems likely to accelerate ahead of the 2026 Holyrood vote. It’s no longer unusual to hear Labour, Tory and even SNP politicians talking about the prospect and even probability of Sarwar entering Bute House in two years’ time.

What do Yousaf and his party have to sell to an increasingly diffident electorate? They say the commitment to independence will be the first sentence in their manifesto, but this will only serve to remind many voters that the party’s main, unchanging priority is not necessarily the same as theirs.

The Nats can gripe about the “evil Tories”, but those same Tories look likely to keep their Scottish seats. They can talk about sending SNP MPs to Westminster in order to keep Keir Starmer honest and to stand up for Scotland, but across the central belt voters seem increasingly minded to send Labour MPs south to do just that. The most recent poll puts Labour and the SNP on 34 per cent each, but this would give Labour 27 seats to just 20 for the Nats.

A defeat of this magnitude would be humiliating for Yousaf. It might even force internal critics to seek his removal as leader and First Minister in a bid to avoid an SNP collapse in the Scottish election of 2026. As it stands, Yousaf appears to be wholly at the mercy of events – a man without a plan, a compass or a map, busy doing nothing.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is already irrelevant]

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