Scotland’s European elections results show the SNP continue to defy gravity – and Labour is in deep, deep trouble

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Britain is a country divided, the national results of the European elections tell us. Scotland, not so much. 

Add together the votes for the Remain-supporting parties in Scotland and you get 70.9 per cent (or 61.6 if you exclude Labour voters, which, given the ambiguity of the party’s position, might be advisable).

So, like the UK as a whole, if from a different standpoint, Scotland has reaffirmed what it said in 2016, when 62 per cent voted to Remain. Nothing has changed. Positions have if anything hardened – while the SNP romped home with 38 per cent and three of the six seats, the Brexit Party came second with 14.8 per cent and one seat. The Lib Dems, who did so well on a UK-wide scale, came third with 13.8 per cent and a single seat – the continuing popularity of the Remain-supporting SNP was always going to restrain their resurgence north of the Border. 

The final seat went to Ruth Davidson’s Tories, which meant Labour staggered over the line in fifth place, without a single MEP. In Edinburgh and Stirling, where Labour has often done well in the past, it did even worse, coming sixth behind the Greens.

The Nats’ defiance of electoral gravity, 12 years into government, continues, though they are lucky both in circumstance and in the challenges facing their opponents. Nicola Sturgeon was able to crow that the party had secured its best ever result in an EU election, indeed securing the highest percentage of the vote of any UK party; that it won in 30 of 32 Scottish local authority areas; and that its tally had increased by nine percentage points since the last EU vote in 2014.

“If all Westminster has to offer is more chaos and confusion – potentially under the premiership of an extreme Tory Brexiteer – then more and more people will come to the conclusion that Scotland’s future is best served as an independent country,” said the First Minister.

But the truth is that an EU poll is no barometer of opinion on independence. The SNP will undoubtedly have scooped up the votes of some unionists who saw a united anti-Brexit statement from Scotland as the imperative in this election. That does not mean those same people will support a party that goes into the 2021 election promising to hold a second independence referendum if it wins. 

It may also be the case that some of the “soft” unionists that the SNP have recently begun to target – those who voted No to indy in 2014, but are no longer so certain of their position – voted SNP for the first time, and having crossed the line will decide to stay there.

What is clear is that Scottish Labour is in big, big trouble. The party has put in yet another miserable performance – its 9.3 per cent of the vote was a drop from 26 per cent in 2014. Under leader Richard Leonard it has failed to recover any real foothold in the national debate, where the SNP versus the Conservatives is the main show.

The lack of clarity on Brexit from Labour’s Westminster leadership is doubly punishing in a Scotland that is so heavily Remain. With the Lib Dems appearing to be back in the game for centrist voters, the SNP continuing to dominate the centre-left, and Davidson controlling the centre-right, Scottish Labour may yet have further to fall.

For her part, Sturgeon will now be looking hungrily towards the forthcoming selection of a new Conservative leader and Prime Minister. The EU elections show a radical difference of opinion between Scotland and England on the biggest issue facing the country. If the Tories now elect an unrepentant No Dealer as leader, that should only exacerbate the split. It is also far from clear that Boris Johnson’s “popularity” south of the Border is mirrored in the north. Or, indeed, that any of the proposed candidates will be able to build bridges.

Whether this helps Sturgeon secure another independence referendum, or whether the continued chaos scares off Scots from a further roll of the dice, remains to be seen. But with the 2021 election now on the horizon, the fact both Labour and the Tories have their problems is one more reason to put a smile on the First Minister’s face. 

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

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