A few days before the 1997 general election, I phoned Michael Forsyth, then the Conservative Scottish secretary.
“Anything doing?” I asked him. The world and its auntie knew the Tories were hours away from being kicked out of government – Forsyth knew it better than anyone – but he couldn’t resist one last piece of mischief. “If we’re re-elected, I’m going to bring back grammar schools to Scotland,” he told me.
I was young and green, and excitedly rushed in to tell the editor about my explosive scoop. He laughed. The “story” didn’t run.
There comes a time towards the end of governments when they largely cease to matter. Declarations that would once have caused shock and controversy, and perhaps have dominated the news agenda for days, vaporise on contact with fresh air. Everyone’s just waiting for change.
The SNP is not at this stage yet, but it tells us something that the Scottish government’s latest paper on independence, published yesterday (19 June) by First Minister Humza Yousaf, fell flat. Despite a pledge to hold a referendum on the monarchy within five years of Scotland separating from the rest of the UK – a significant change from the party’s long-standing pro-royal position – the whole thing felt a bit “so what?” It only made the front page of a few newspapers.
Neither did it help that Keir Starmer was north of the border on the same day, launching Labour’s ambitious plans for tackling climate change and the energy transition. If one of these announcements stands a higher chance of being delivered than the other, it’s not Yousaf’s. Where Labour appears focused on the immediate future and the uses to which power can be put, the SNP is off in dreamland.
[See also: What is the point of Humza Yousaf?]
The problem the Nats have – and it is one that will only get worse – is that of credibility. Few serious people believe that Scotland will be independent anytime soon. There are increasing doubts that the SNP will even be in government following the next Holyrood election in 2026. In this context, musings about what might happen in a theoretical independent Scotland are neither here nor there. In fact, they’re dangerously self-indulgent.
The unfortunate Yousaf faces the kind of headwinds that blow leaders off course and all the way out of office. Huff and puff as he may, he will struggle to shift an increasingly settled narrative of decline. The funding scandal surrounding his party, his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell is simply too dramatic and immediate. His government is becoming best-known for policy failure, whether in relation to ferries or bottle-return schemes or gender reform.
Meanwhile, the opinion polls and the prospect of a new administration in London – and potentially in Edinburgh – is catching the electorate’s eye. A Panelbase poll at the weekend showed Scottish Labour on course to win 26 of the nation’s 59 Westminster seats next year, compared with 21 for the SNP. Labour currently has one to the SNP’s 45. Such a shift would be seismic and indicate looming calamity for the Nats in the 2026 Scottish election. Defeat in the anticipated by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West – where MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended for breaching lockdown rules – would only reinforce this.
Yousaf must know that these independence papers – this week’s was the fourth in a limp and unenlightening series – are destined for a shelf somewhere in a Scottish government building. To be generous, perhaps it’s worth doing some of the policy work now, even if the opportunity to implement it is fading rapidly. It’s something for the increasingly disillusioned party base, at least. And support for independence isn’t dropping at the same precipitous rate as it is for the SNP.
But what it isn’t is a display of grip. It doesn’t show that the SNP understands deepening voter discontent with the party, or that it shares their current priorities. It’s just more of the same.
The hated Tories will soon be gone from Downing Street, which means another SNP crutch will go with them. The Nats risk running out of legs to stand on.