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28 June 2024

Is the SNP prepared to change again?

To defeat Scottish Labour, the party needs to end its constitutional obsession.

By Chris Deerin

With a week to go, if I were a betting man – which, unlike the entire political establishment, it seems, I’m not – I’d go for something like this: Scottish Labour, 30 seats, up from two, the SNP, 20, down from 43. The traditional polls, as opposed to the wildly swinging, often baffling MRPs, suggest the election result will be in this region.

A bad night for the Nats, and a transformative night for Labour. Still, it could be worse for the SNP (and, of course, perhaps it will be). The campaign has suggested that all is not yet lost for John Swinney and his team. The First Minister has so far failed to make his party popular again, or as popular as it once was, but that is a big and probably impossible task. He does seem, however, to have managed to halt its nosedive. 

Whether this is because the SNP has hit the seabed – its core vote of around 30 per cent – or whether that stubborn support for independence is keeping it just about afloat, or whether Keir Starmer has failed to convert quite enough Scots with his cautious pitch for power, is a matter for post-election analysis. Suffice to say that, unless the bottom falls out in the next week, the nationalists will still have a pulse.

It is certainly true that Scotland’s governing party feels like a different beast to the one it was a few short months ago. It is bloodied and down, but not out. There will be bodies strewn across the battlefield on election night, but just about enough left to retain a standing army. If the SNP is in no position to look ahead to Holyrood 2026 with confidence, it at least still has a chance. It remains in the fight. That’s not nothing, given the two horrendous years it has suffered.

But it will have to change again in the coming months. The daily madness of a campaign, especially this unhinged one, is not the moment to judge longer-term prospects, and certainly not in the Scottish cycle: important choices have still to be made, and the Nats have a small bit of time in which to make them. We can see that Swinney and Kate Forbes, his deputy, are an improvement on what preceded them, and a potentially intriguing combination. Swinney is loved by his party, which brings a degree of unity, while Forbes gives it dynamism, rigour and intellectual energy. The question they will soon confront is: how does this translate into action at Holyrood?

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If Westminster matters to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has come to matter double. For all the whingeing from nationalists about decisions taken in London, the fate of our schools, hospitals, roads, justice system and much of our environmental and economic prospects lie in devolved hands and the choices made, or not made, by devolved ministers. Once attention shifts to that Holyrood election, as it will quite quickly after 4 July, voters will be looking for answers, policies, solutions to the grave crises that have come to afflict each of these areas.

When the Scottish Parliament reconvenes after the summer, Swinney will set out his first programme for government (he would have done so already, had Rishi Sunak not sprung the election on us). In recent years, these have been underwhelming, unambitious affairs, as the Nats have coasted on their apparently unassailable electoral supremacy. The focus has been on self-indulgent social engineering, while the rest has been, to put it more kindly than is deserved, a bit limp.

Will we finally see some courage? Will Swinney give his education secretary Jenny Gilruth permission to follow her teacher’s instincts and start to tackle the system’s decline, even in the face of left-wing, protectionist union grumbling? If tackling poverty is his main focus, a thriving, aspirational state education system is the closest we have to a panacea. Will he demand more grip and faster delivery from Neil Gray, his health secretary, as voters put the NHS at the top of their agenda? Does Gray have the capacity to succeed? Will he give Forbes, who also holds the economy brief and is a rare pro-business, growth-obsessed voice in her party, her head? He surely has to do each of these things – the SNP will continue to bang on about independence up to 2026, but if this crowds out real, demonstrable progress in government, it is set for failure.

If the general election result does not wake the SNP up, then the party will deserve to snooze its way to oblivion. When the times change, you must change with them. This is not the Scotland of 2014, or 2015, or the nation of lockdown, pathetically grateful for empathy and the putting in of long hours. The glow has well and truly come off the nationalists: they are broke, at the centre of a funding scandal, and facing a policy charge sheet awash with data that illustrates their astonishing record of underachievement and neglect despite such a long period in office.

My hope – it may well be, and probably is, a forlorn one – is that Scottish politics can move on from two things: its endless constitutional obsession, a distraction that has dragged our national performance down and denied us competence as a measure of success; and our persistent complaint that there is simply not enough money to make anything better than it currently is. Scotland has been subject to a counsel of despair, been denied any real, worthwhile vision of hope, for too long. We must return to the real world, to the art of the possible – it is possible to shift our educational performance, to reform aspects of the NHS, and grow the economy, to make improvements in each without billions and billions more in public spending. Not easy, but possible. That’s what government is for. We can’t simply tax our way to making things better – economic growth and tough choices are the keys, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Swinney needs to offer a deal to Scotland as a whole, rather than a narrower one to the roiling nationalist movement. If he fixates on independence and the apparent evils of Westminster, he might appeal to that base but nothing wider. The temptation will be there, as Alex Salmond’s Alba and the soured Greens blast out their siren message to the indy-ultras. If, however, the First Minister can be Honest John, if the Nats stop cherry-picking the one decent stat amid a morass of flashing red lights to pretend all is well, if they can turn the dial even a little on public services, then they will go into 2026 with a pitch worth hearing and that might even be heard.

Scottish Labour knows all this, and would prefer the First Minister choose the same, well-trodden, muddy old path to nowhere. Labour wants to talk seriously about public services and the economy, and to avoid being dragged down the independence rabbit hole as much as it can. It knows that the purse strings will be gripped tightly, at least at first, by the Treasury. Progress therefore lies in smart, systemic change – something Scotland hasn’t really tried yet. For now, that is the game. The ultimate winner will be the party that most clearly understands this.

[See also: This is the long Brexit election]

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