A new era of Scottish politics has begun:

The Forward March of the SNP Halted?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 14th 2017

There was a UK election last week. We have the semblance of a UK Government, but underneath all this there remains little that could be called British politics.

This was a four nations UK election. Each gave a different party a conditional victory. The SNP were the most popular party in Scotland with 36.9% of the vote. The Tories were the biggest force in England with 45.6%. Labour were by far the strongest party in Wales with 48.9%, while in Northern Ireland the now famous Democratic Unionists won 36.0% of the vote.

This election showed that the concerns of England are centre-stage but, as is often the case, are assumed to be that of the wider UK. Often this comes down to a tiny slither of London with a vague concept of ‘the North’ added on occasionally. Scotland was, as is traditionally the case in Westminster elections, virtually squeezed out of the media – returned to the box marked ‘miscellaneous’ after the excitement and promise of 2014 and 2015. ‘You have had your coverage now’ the Westminster broadcasters will think if the subject ever enters their heads.

One ridiculous argument peddled by numerous pundits and politicians was that Scotland saved the Tories from the wrath of voters. This was based on simply taking the Scottish Tory tally of thirteen seats off the Tory total and hey presto noting that it made them weaker.

What this didn’t acknowledge was that the Tories won in England. They returned 297 seats to Labour’s 227, the Lib Dems eight and Greens one – giving them an overall majority in England’s 533 seats. It was the combined efforts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which produced a hung Parliament. This English dimension is going to come more to the fore in this Parliament and the future, with the likes of die hard Brexiteers and the ‘Daily Mail’ pointing out that England’s will is being continually frustrated by the Jocks and their like.

The voters in their collective wisdom seem to have got the verdict just right. The more they saw of Theresa May the more they didn’t like her and wanted to qualify any endorsement. They warmed to Jeremy Corbyn but didn’t want him in office. And in Scotland they wanted to check the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon. Secondary stories involved the Lib Dems not being allowed in from the cold yet, and the continued pantomime story of UKIP and its eventual demise.

One strange aspect of the Scottish result was SNP folk complaining about tactical voting. This seemed to be a mixture of not understanding FPTP, the history of the Scots doing this (circa anti-Toryism in the 1980s and 1990s), and the SNP becoming the incumbency party everybody else takes pot shots at.

There was comedy in the likes of John Nicolson complaining of the Tories not campaigning in East Dunbartonshire to give the Lib Dems a clear, and as it turned out successful, run against him. SNP activists, of which there are many fewer than their paper membership, seemed in some way shocked that the other parties were ganging up to defeat them. There was an element of naivety in this, and slow realisation that politics always eventually becomes about turning on those in power and kicking them.

The Tories have adapted to being insurgents. This shouldn’t be a surprise. They have been outsiders in Scottish politics for decades. That comes at a price, but also gives perspective and an edge. Labour are still adjusting and less adept at this than the Tories, but have been showing signs of life. They have continually been declared as dead and under-estimated by the Nats – and despite the chaos between the Scottish and British leaderships have shown that there is a territory for a more radical Labour message.

The Nationalists should take note because this isn’t a one-off. They still are the leading party and once voters see how tactical voting works they increasingly embrace it. Another UK election in the next year would be tough on everyone – voters, politicians, parties – but in particular, would leave numerous Nationalists in peril and vulnerable to challenge. Not one SNP MP was elected last week with a majority of the vote.

Indeed, only two seats saw a MP elected with over 50% of the vote. The first was Labour’s Ian Murray winning Edinburgh South with 54.9%. The other was Tory John Lamont in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk elected with 53.9%. The highest SNP vote in the whole country was Chris Law in Dundee West on 46.7%. Numerous SNP MPs were elected on perilously low votes and majorities: the lowest victorious vote shares being Lanark and Hamilton East with 32.6% and Fife North East with 32.9%.

What this reveals is that all Scotland’s political parties are for all their bluster and ambition, popular minorities. The SNP remain the largest but are still a minority and need to reflect that, learn humility and embrace pluralism.

Last week’s election marked the end of an era of Scottish politics. The era of the all-conquering, always advancing SNP, carrying all before it, swaggering and believing in its own self-importance and hype, no longer holds.

The SNP have given Scottish politics much that is positive and to be admired since the Hamilton breakthrough and the advent of the Scottish Parliament. But the period of ascendancy since 2007 when they were the new kids on the block and the new brush pushing out the tired, discredited Labour lot, seems years ago. The SNP have rather quickly let the sheen go off the promise. But this depends upon what telescope you view things through. Ten years is a long time in politics and office and they have had a good run. Yet, on a longer perspective, Labour ran and dominated Scotland for fifty years.

A class of entitlement politicians has arisen – think John Nicolson, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Joanna Cherry – who aren’t without qualities but seem to believe it is self-evident that they are right and don’t want any truck with criticism. They are intelligent, articulate folk but don’t seem on the evidence to possess much political intelligence and critically don’t seem to understand non-SNP Scotland – which is rather important considering that it has always been the majority of voters and is even a bigger, more emphatic one after last week.

It is a healthy development that the age of the imperial SNP is over. The SNP is going to have to take a reality check. The party’s ten years aren’t filled with social democratic achievements, but instead a rhetoric telling us how social democratic they, and by implication we, are. I think the Nationalists doubt the latter, because what else, even at Peak SNP explains their caution and inaction on any kind of progressive policy.

None of this should be that much of a surprise. This is an age of anxiety, falling living standards, and gathering political and economic storm clouds. Why would Scotland be any different from this? SNP cheerleaders dared to assume that Scotland and the Nationalists were somehow immune to turning against the current incumbents.

There was a Hegelian whiff of ‘the end of history’ in the Nationalist swagger, which believed that they somehow had mastered the determinist trends of social currents, and that the only way was up. The Labour Party used to believe this conceit in the 1940s and 1950s. It was called ‘the forward march of Labour’ and it was eventually halted and reversed. The Nationalists are experiencing that all forward marches eventually stall and become routed. The challenge is to regroup and reappraise for another battle.

We are going to have more anti-incumbency in Scotland and the UK and indeed across the West. The next decade is going to more messy, disputatious and unpredictable. The SNP aren’t finished and nor is the campaign for independence. But there isn’t any future for it as the politics of a new class, comfortable and self-assured in their seats of power, lecturing the rest of us on how progressive and enlightened they are.

The SNP thought they could pull off the trick of continuing to appear as insurgents while being more and more obviously incumbents and the new establishment insider class. This balancing act could not last forever, but it is salutary to note the goodwill and energy the SNP created in the last few months of the indyref: the voter engagement, participation, and huge rise in their membership. Much, if not quite all of this, now seems dissipated and exhausted, not aided by Nicola Sturgeon’s very cautious and overtly tactical, calculating leadership.

Scottish politics came back to earth last week, for some with a bang and a bit of a shock. Some will have some painful adjustments to do, while others will revel in the newfound more combative and competitive environment.

Here’s a final thought. The economic models which underlie Britain plc and indeed, even the 2014 independence offer are bust. It would be heartening if the next few years of Scottish politics – with more powers coming to the Parliament and Westminster-driven cuts – could reflect that.

We need to talk about the economy, economic growth and its limits, how wealth is generated and even what we define as wealth, and critically, what kind of economy we want, what kind of companies and firms, and issues of ownership. In short, we need to get into a more substantive debate – which marries genuine centre-left concerns with an element of economic nationalism and the search for a new economic and social model which doesn’t predicate all tough choices on growth. That is part of a wider conversation going on across the West, but so far it is a terrain no political party in Scotland has touched for decades, the SNP included.