Can anything halt the SNP’s advance towards Scottish independence?

With Scotland’s opposition parties in disarray, only a brave pundit would bet on the Union’s survival. 

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Keir Starmer is in the process of proving yet again that Labour wins, or at least competes, from the centre. In Scotland, that lesson remains belligerently ignored.

The UK party now leads the Conservatives in the polls, as Starmer’s reassuring presence and effective tactics take effect. Richard Leonard, who is still somehow leader of the Scottish party, is a Jeremy Corbyn knock-off who refuses to accept that both he and his brand of leftist politics are out of time. Labour will go into May’s devolved election with a repeat offer that the electorate has already refused in a European and a general election. It will lose heavily, again.

Leonard’s colleagues know this, which is why a group of Labour MSPs attempted to unseat him earlier this year. He described this as an “act of sabotage”. In truth, he is the saboteur: by remaining in post he is destroying Labour’s chances of even beginning a comeback at Holyrood, the possibility that voters will take a fresh look at the party, the chance to devise an appealing, broad offer to mainstream Scotland, and perhaps even the Union itself.

A fresh poll this week by Ipsos MORI delivered a stark if familiar message: voting intentions for the first constituency vote are at 55 per cent for the SNP, with the Tories a distant second on 22 per cent and Labour languishing in third, with just 14 per cent support. The second, list vote is only a touch closer, with the Nats on 47 per cent, the Tories on 22 per cent, and Labour on 16 per cent.

After 13 years of often underwhelming and under-ambitious government, the SNP remains dominant on policy and public services, too. Its handling of Covid-19 is rated highly, but so, too, is its management of the NHS – 66 per cent trust the party to look after the health service, with just 31 per cent expressing scepticism. It also scores strongly on tackling inequality (65-30), running the economy (59-38) and managing education (59-38). Support for Labour in each of these policy areas sits somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent, with more people expressing a lack of trust.

[See also: Gordon Brown: How to save the United Kingdom]

The alarm bells have been clanging loud and clear for so long. Labour has the wrong leader, the wrong people and the wrong policies. It is depressingly apposite that just as Jenny Marra, a capable and well-respected centrist, announced she would not stand for re-election next year, Baroness Clark of Kilwinning, a former political secretary to Corbyn, was selected to fight the Cunninghame North constituency. The Scottish Labour jalopy rarely spots a cliff without accelerating towards it.

In any properly competitive polity the SNP would by now be in trouble, certainly due to the standard, attritional wear and tear of government, but also because of their own self-created crises and scandals. They would be having to fight harder to retain office as the political cycle changed, yet their supremacy – they will undoubtedly be the government again after May – is achieved at a canter. 

Although Nicola Sturgeon is a formidable and reliable frontwoman, the SNP frontbench is hardly packed with world-class talent. Theirs has been a nervy, centralising administration, at times scared of their own shadow, at others stamping down hard on any possibility of political dissent or institutional independence. They have blamed Westminster for most of their problems (not undeserved, at times), and escaped scot-free from their own failures, particularly their lamentable husbandry of the education system, their lack of vision for the economy, and their curiously unsophisticated approach to civil liberties

Sturgeon has been a lucky general, in that her opponents, both in Scotland and at Westminster, have been of such poor quality. Since 2010, Tory governments at a UK level have made it easy for the Nats to create a series of dividing lines between north and south. They may bemoan Brexit and Boris Johnson, but the profound unpopularity of both in Scotland has pushed increasing numbers of voters towards supporting independence –  the latest poll confirms the trend, putting backing at 56 per cent.

[See also: Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame]

The Unionist parties at Holyrood are in disarray. Labour has been through a series of underperforming leaders, of which Leonard is comfortably the weakest. His policy focus has been on the working class and the fabled horny-handed sons of toil, as if he is fighting Margaret Thatcher. This is a romantic and patronising notion which has, predictably, completely failed to connect with 21st-century voters.

The Conservatives rallied under Ruth Davidson, supplanting Labour as the official opposition, but now appear to have plateaued at their current level, well off the pace. New leader Douglas Ross is fighting to establish the Scottish Tories as a distinct and gentler brand than the Westminster party, but has little time to cut through and struggles with his own lack of a Holyrood seat. The Lib Dems have all but vanished from view and consideration.

Even coronavirus has played to Sturgeon’s advantage. It has allowed her to take a place in the ranks of world leaders fighting against the virus, elevating her to a new level of authority. That she has handled the crisis in a more dignified and energised way than Boris Johnson has been to her benefit. Scots have been given a taste of what autonomy would look and feel like – despite benefiting from Westminster’s deep pockets – and many have been impressed.

For all this, there are two clear chances to stop the SNP in its tracks. The first is May’s election. If the Unionist parties can prevent Sturgeon – or Sturgeon plus the Greens – from achieving an overall majority then there will be no mandate for a second independence referendum. Given the severe discontent within the SNP, so publicly displayed at their annual conference last weekend, it seems unlikely the First Minister would stay in her job for long. The normal rules of political gravity may finally start to apply again. 

The second will come only if the first opportunity is missed. The Nats say they want to hold a referendum early in the next parliament. The signs are that Johnson will seek at least to delay it until later in the term, either in the Micawberish hope that something will turn up, or in the possibility that the sheen will begin to come off the SNP administration and the negative electoral effects of Brexit will lose some of their potency. 

It remains to be seen whether the approaching possibility of a Starmer-led Labour government in London will turn the heads of those Scottish voters who are still working through their options. And a wholesale reconstruction of the Union, as outlined in the New Statesman recently by Gordon Brown, might also have an impact.

But with Sturgeon on top form and the voters seemingly firmly behind her, it’s a brave pundit who would bet on the Union at the moment. It’s hard not to believe that when the history books come to be written, Labour – for so long Scotland’s party, the nation’s pressure valve within the UK system – will be judged particularly harshly. Now the crunch has arrived, it seems to offer only abject failure. 

[See also: The twilight of the Union]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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