Allan Massie: Too early for Nationalist jubilation

Alex Salmond, the losing leader, resigned but his party is acting like it won. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond, the losing leader, resigned but his party is acting like it won. Picture: PA
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WESTMINSTER and Holyrood elections will show true picture of how popular the SNP and Labour are, writes Allan Massie.

These are strange times in Scottish politics. The SNP had its way and a referendum on independence was held. It was given the right to choose the date and the wording of the question. This was to its advantage because it enabled it to argue for the positive. Had the question been framed the other way – “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?” – the nationalists would have been making a negative case. Then it produced its proposal for independence – the white paper titled Scotland’s Future – with the help of civil servants who belonged to the UK civil service. In the campaign, the SNP were allied with the Greens and with left-wing groups such as Radical Independence which did much to recruit and energise support, in Glasgow especially. Nevertheless, with all these advantages, it lost.

It was defeated in 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, in many of them heavily – by a margin of as much as two to one in some places. Even in Glasgow, which it won, more people voted No there than voted Yes in Edinburgh. The defeat was so complete that the party leader and First Minister, Alex Salmond, promptly and correctly resigned.

What followed was remarkable. First the SNP enjoyed a surge in membership as many Yes voters joined the party. It now has more members in Scotland than all the rival parties combined. Second, despite the failure of its campaign, there was no falling-out and no recriminations. Mr Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, inherited the crown, unopposed. Third, despite the warning it issued during the campaign that this was a ”once in a lifetime” or “once in a generation” opportunity, and despite the commitment given, according to the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, to accept and respect the result, some in the SNP immediately started talking about a second referendum in only a few years. Some of the wilder spirits in the party even suggested than if the SNP wins a Holyrood majority in the 2016 Scottish election, this should be regarded as a mandate to issue a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Finally, opinion polls show the SNP running some 20 points ahead of Labour. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.

Meanwhile, things are very different on the other side of the fence. Labour led the Better Together campaign, and provided many of the troops on the ground who canvassed voters. Yet it is Labour which is behaving as if it lost. It is Labour which is evidently in deep trouble. Johann Lamont, its Scottish leader, has resigned, abruptly and unnecessarily. But there will be no coronation, Sturgeon-style, of her successor, instead there will be an election. This may be divisive, though it will also be democratic. Whoever emerges as the new leader will have barely six months to rally the party for the general election in May, and it is likely that if that goes badly – even half as badly as many fear is possible – the new leader will get much of the blame, with only a year to go before the Scottish election.

So it’s a bizarre situation. The party that was defeated in the referendum and rejected over most of Scotland is full of confidence and behaving as if it had won, while the victorious Labour Party seems to be having a nervous breakdown, and its leader has departed as if she had been on the losing side. The defeated are triumphant, and the winners demoralised.

Now it is evident that Labour is in trouble. It may not deserve to be. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the last UK Labour government did a lot for the party’s natural supporters. Nevertheless, partly on account of Labour’s lacklustre performance at Holyrood, its support has been seeping away. Some hitherto safe seats are no longer safe. Morale is low and dissatisfaction high. Its new leader has much to do.

Likewise, the Liberal Democrats – Labour’s coalition partners in the Scottish Government from 1999 to 2007 – are also in trouble, principally because they are the Conservatives’ coalition partners in Westminster. As for the Scottish Tories, they may at last have arrested their decline and stabilised their position. They also have an able and impressive leader in Ruth Davidson – but there is no sign yet that they are on the verge of making a significant advance.

So, given the troubles of the Unionist parties, it’s not so surprising that, despite the dashing of their hopes for independence, the SNP is cock-a-hoop. And yet the outlook for the Nationalists may not be as bright as they suppose. There are three reasons for this.

First, there is the temptation to drift to the left to attract Labour voters; the temptation to listen to their allies in groups like Radical Independence who believe that Scotland is a left-wing working-class country. It isn’t. It’s an increasingly middle-class one, and the SNP’s success to date has depended on its ability to win middle-class votes. A move to the left will lose at least as many votes as it might win.

Second, the SNP has benefited from tactical voting – people voting SNP as the party most likely to get, and then keep, Labour out of power at Holyrood. But now that we have had a considerable experience of SNP government, tactical voting may be directed against the SNP.

Which brings me to the third and most cogent reason. Over much of Scotland the SNP is now deeply distrusted and resented. It may have attracted more than 50,000 new members, but the tone of its referendum campaign, followed by its evident reluctance to accept the result, has disgusted and angered many. I don’t think many in the SNP realise just how much its identification of the party with the nation and the country offended the vast majority of the two million people who voted No on 18 September. Most of them will turn out to vote against the SNP in the coming elections. Admittedly the outcome in four or five cornered constituencies is hard to guess. But if the SNP has won new adherents, it is also roundly disliked as never before.