Why Scotland will be so pivotal at the 2019 general election

The contest north of the border could determine whether Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister and whether the country moves closer to independence. 

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Not many politicians deploy withering scorn as effectively as Nicola Sturgeon. At this week’s First Minister’s Questions, challenged by a Conservative opponent on whether she was prepared to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street after the general election, she let loose: “I don't know if it will come as a shock to anybody but let me nevertheless announce this: I think the leaders of both UK parties are completely and utterly useless.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean Sturgeon won’t support “useless” Corbyn’s entry into No.10, but be in no doubt: it would be the means only to a second Scottish independence referendum, after which England would be left to lump a far-left Labour government as, she hopes, Scotland strides into the brave new world of statehood.

Now there’s an election around the corner, Scotland suddenly matters at Westminster again. If the Tories can hold on to the 13 seats they won north of the border in 2017 it could play a crucial part in giving Boris Johnson the overall majority he so desperately needs. If the SNP can wipe the Tories out — or come close to it — then a hung parliament seems more likely, a Corbyn premiership becomes a possibility, and another referendum on Scotland’s departure looms closer.

Whatever happens, 12 December is likely to be a bad night for Scottish Labour. The party’s Westminster heartbeat is already weak, and could be about to fade to the faintest whisper. Labour won seven seats in 2017 — up from just one in 2015 — but stands to lose most of them next month: Glasgow North East, Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, Rutherglen & Hamilton West, and Midlothian are all held with majorities of less than 1,000, and seem likely to fall to the SNP charge. Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill and East Lothian both look vulnerable.

Ironically, only Ian Murray, having fought off a deselection attempt by Corbynistas, appears unassailable in Edinburgh South. Labour’s London leadership appears already to have written off its Scottish wing, openly talking about doing deals with the SNP.

The departure of Ruth Davidson seemed to spell bad news for her remarkable revival of the Scottish Conservatives. But neither the SNP nor neutral observers expect the Tories to do as badly as previously predicted. They will probably lose Stirling, which has a majority of 148, to the SNP, and a few others besides. But they could well hold on to the more Brexit-friendly seats in North East Scotland that they stole from the Nats last time round. “They have dug in in these places, and they will be hard to win back,” admits a senior SNP campaign source.

The SNP is keen to play down assumptions it will come close to sweeping the board across all 59 seats. Expectation management, perhaps, but party insiders say they expect to move from their current 35 to high 30s or perhaps early 40s. Pollsters reckon they’ll do a bit better than that, and could push up to the high 40s on a good night. Whatever the outcome, it will tell us much about Scotland’s direction of travel.

The SNP are used to winning in Scotland — it is becoming hard to remember a time when they didn’t win — but party insiders say they are less interested in the absolute numbers this time round. “Every election has a dominant question,” says one, “and it feels that in Scotland it’s something more fundamental than the numbers this time. It’s not even about whether there should be an indyref or whatever immediately. This is about what the UK is — it’s asking Scots to consider whether the shithouse of the past few years is ok with them or if they want to do something different.

“The UK is driving down a road Scotland doesn’t want to go down — an extreme Labour Party under Corbyn or his successor or a more extreme version of the Tory party than we are used to. The Britain folk voted for in the 2014 referendum is disappearing. So, what do we do about it?”

There is much excitement among independence supporters that this snap election offers a chance for the SNP to claim a fresh mandate for a referendum, and that it could take place next year. Sturgeon will play along with them for a while, but she is wary of driving too hard, too fast. She did that before the 2017 election, in the wake of the Brexit vote, and was heavily punished by an electorate that felt manipulated.

Rather, for her and her colleagues December 2019 is a staging post on the way to the next devolved election in 2021. The latter is the one that will establish whether or not Scots want a referendum, and will also be something of a surrogate for that referendum itself. For all the hype, in Scotland next month the election is largely about keeping the kettle on the boil.

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