It was never going to be 55. When the exit poll landed at 10pm last night suggesting the SNP were going to take every Scottish seat bar four, the news rang somewhat hollow. It was little surprise when John Curtice urged caution soon after.
Everyone expected the Nats to have a good night. But the cross-currents of politics north of the border were turbulent enough to ensure no return to 2015, when they won 56 seats. The constituencies of north-east Scotland that went Tory in 2017, and where the Scottish Brexit vote was most concentrated, yesterday largely stuck with the Conservatives. The south of Scotland did the same. The only exact echo of 2015 was Labour, which lost six seats, leaving the deathless Ian Murray as its last MP standing, again.
Nevertheless, the video of Nicola Sturgeon celebrating the capture of Jo Swinson’s seat like a hat-trick hero at a cup final might stand proxy for her evening. The SNP, which has been in government in Scotland for 12 years, and which by all the usual laws of political gravity should by now be a battered, rusting husk, performed triumphantly. Taking 48 seats, and inflicting yet another near-wipeout on Labour, is a hell of a feat. The Nats won 45 per cent of the vote, eight points more than they did in 2017.
The question facing the Nat leadership this morning is this: what have Scots just voted for? Is the result a statement of intent over independence? Is it simply a “Stop Boris” mandate? Is it a rejection of hard-left Corbynism in all its forms? If it’s partly all of these things, as is likely, what should Sturgeon do?
As an SNP leadership source put it to me during the campaign: “Every election has a dominant question. This is about … asking Scots to consider whether the shithouse of the past few years is okay with them or if they want to do something different. The UK is driving down a road Scotland doesn’t want to go down. The Britain folk voted for in the 2014 referendum is disappearing.”
Wiser heads in the SNP are urging caution this morning. The simple fact is that support for independence remains stuck at around 50 per cent — one recent poll had backing for indy down at 44 per cent. It may be that the resounding Tory majority pushes more Scots towards supporting the break-up of the UK — or it may be that if Boris Johnson can deliver Brexit and reset British politics, appetite for further constitutional upheaval will wane.
Sturgeon is, obviously, hoping for the former. She will continue to demand that a second referendum be held next year, in the hope that Johnson will continue to refuse, and that this will create democratic outrage north of the border, building pressure like a kettle on the boil.
Then, if she can secure a pro-independence majority at the next Holyrood election in 2021, she will fairly be able to state that she has an unarguable mandate for another referendum. In a way, yesterday’s result is exactly what the First Minister wanted, even if it wasn’t the one she expected. Now she just has to get support for independence up to a level that indicates a healthy winning majority ahead of IndyRef2.
That is easier said than done. However one senior SNP source said this morning that there were unmistakable signs that a shift is underway. “In this election there has been a palpable sense of networks of people shifting towards the party that we’ve never touched before.”
The challenge for the party now is to continue to woo these groups, and avoid nasty tribalism. “We have to get the tone right — non-chippy, non-shouty. Labour and Liberals are still arguing about five years ago,” said an SNP source. “But the voters are looking and listening, so get the tone right, tell the truth. It won’t be easy, it won’t come free and easy, but you can see the route.”
In Sturgeon’s speech today, the tone matched this sentiment. “I acknowledge that not absolutely everyone who voted SNP yesterday is ready to support independence,” she told voters. “We will continue to work every day to earn your trust — however you voted last night — both in government at Holyrood and in opposition at Westminster. We will continue to promote the outward-looking, internationalist values that are so firmly at the heart of the SNP’s vision for Scotland.”
She also set the terms for future tension with Johnson, stressing that although she will next week request a Section 30 Order that will enable a second referendum, she wasn’t “asking for permission”. It was simply the “democratic right” of the Scottish people and the Scottish parliament to decide whether to hold one. It’s not at all certain Johnson, with his large majority, will feel under much pressure to grant one, however.
The Scottish Conservatives will be disappointed but not disheartened. They are now entrenched in a number of constituencies, where they are proving hard to shift. They seem well placed to continue as the main opposition at Holyrood in 2021, despite the departure of their popular leader Ruth Davidson. The continued focus on independence will play to the strength of their unabashed unionism.
For Scottish Labour, the picture is abject. For the second election in three they have been humiliatingly reduced to a single MP. The sense that the party has any special relationship with and claim on Scotland has all but vanished. They lack a popular agenda, persuasive leaders and an enthusiastic electorate. Only a collapse in SNP support seems likely to bring them back to prominence — they will be watching this January’s trial of Alex Salmond closely.
So in a sense, nothing has changed. Scottish politics this morning, as it was yesterday morning, is about the SNP driving towards independence, and the Conservatives trying desperately to stop them.