Leader: Scotland must go beyond insular politics to play part in uncertain world

Nicola Sturgeon listens as her Bexit Minister Michael Russell speaks during the Scottish Parliament debate on the triggering of Article 50 (Photo: PA)
Nicola Sturgeon listens as her Bexit Minister Michael Russell speaks during the Scottish Parliament debate on the triggering of Article 50 (Photo: PA)
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AS WE ushered in 2015, few would have predicted the tumultuous year that was to follow. The past 12 months have left Scotland politically transformed.

The SNP might have failed in its objective of leading the Yes Scotland campaign to victory in 2014’s independence referendum, but under the leadership of Alex Salmond’s successor, Nicola Sturgeon, the party has become the dominant force in our national politics.

For many years, the joke ran that Labour could stick a rosette on a monkey and it would be elected in Scotland, but in May, all but one of the party’s MPs was defeated by the SNP. The nationalists took 56 of 59 seats, leaving Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats with just one apiece.

Opinion polls now suggest that more than half of Scots will vote SNP in the Scottish Parliament election in May. It appears likely that the nationalists could take control of all 73 Holyrood constituencies, leaving other parties to settle for election through the regional lists.

For a very long time indeed Scottish Labour succeeded in vilifying the Conservative Party. Labour politicians played significant roles in making the Tory brand a toxic one.

Now SNP MPs and MSPs use the same tactics against Labour, which has fallen from its perch and now struggles to make itself appear relevant. The insult “red Tories” has passed into the political lexicon. The SNP has usurped Labour as the protector of Scotland’s interests at Westminster.

Cold, hard facts appear to make no difference to the SNP’s success. An unambitious government programme, police investigations into two MPs, and the continuing low oil price – less than half that predicted in the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence – seem irrelevant to voters.

Had Scotland voted Yes in 2014, then those low oil prices would have plunged Scotland into a financial crisis, yet the SNP continues to soar.

Some of the SNP’s success, of course, is down to the First Minister. Sturgeon enjoys the sort of popularity ratings that would make her opponents despair. Sturgeon has emerged from Alex Salmond’s shadow and become the pre-eminent Scottish politician of our time.

More rounded and empathetic than her predecessor, she is the SNP’s greatest asset and, while Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and the Scottish Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson are both impressive figures, the First Minister looks simply unstoppable at the moment.

But Sturgeon cannot take all of the credit for the SNP’s current surge. The independence referendum changed the terms of our political debate, moving the focus away from policies and on to identity.

Scottish politics is now more tribal than ever before. Unionists and nationalists are unable to get past constitutional matters. The issue of where one stands on the future of the United Kingdom is now of paramount importance.

This reality brings with it challenges that Sturgeon must address in the year ahead. The level of support for the SNP does not reflect increased backing for the break-up of the UK. If there were to be a second independence referendum in the near future then the No campaign would be expected to win, again.

The First Minister is resigned to the fact that a second referendum will not be possible for five or more years, and that means her government must refocus on the domestic agenda.

Holyrood has new powers over taxes and greater devolution is on the way. The SNP has done well out of grievance for some time. Now it’s up to the government to take action on what matters to Scots, such as education.

This May, the SNP looks certain to win its third Holyrood election in succession. Should the party then go on to put complaining before governing, it may find that its sheen starts to come off.

In the year ahead, we will hear much about another referendum, expected in 2017. The argument over whether the UK should leave the EU promises to be as fraught as the one over Scottish independence and the implications of the result could be a renewed attempt to end the union. The SNP has said that should the UK as a whole vote to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in, there would be grounds for a second independence referendum.

We can expect, then, parts of the independence referendum to be replayed during the debate over EU membership.

Domestic politics in 2015 has, latterly, been overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis we have witnessed as hundreds of thousands of people flee Syria. The UK is playing its part in welcoming 20,000 refugees but we may have to be prepared to do more and to allow greater numbers to come here.

Scotland has its part to play, however small. The first of those fleeing have arrived in Scotland. We need to keep an open mind on this situation, and not be satisfied that we have done our bit. How we react to those who seek refuge here will define us. We may have responsibilities of which we are not yet aware. We are dealing with a situation that’s out of control and could escalate, at any time, with further consequences.

We hope, as challenges present themselves, that Scots are confirmed to be the compassionate people we so often tell ourselves we are.

We are now involved in military action against Isis in Syria. The repercussions of this action are not yet clear but, regardless of whether UK forces had become involved or not, the threat of Islamist terrorism would have remained great.

Attacks in Paris this year – in the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, and at a number of locations, including the Bataclan theatre, in November – left dozens of people dead. These atrocities could just as easily have taken place in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

When it comes to further Islamist terrorist attacks on UK soil, it really is a matter of when, rather than if, they take place.

The coming year will be a big one for us, here in Scotland. The Holyrood election will dominate much of the new agenda. But the biggest concern for us lies further afield. We hope that current initiatives against Isis in Iraq and Syria have the desired effect, but we should brace ourselves for more difficult times ahead.