Lesley Riddoch: Peak SNP? I dinnae think so

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives with SNP Councillor Susan Aitken at the Emirates Stadium in Glasgow. Picture: John Linton/PA Wire

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives with SNP Councillor Susan Aitken at the Emirates Stadium in Glasgow. Picture: John Linton/PA Wire

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Do the council elections prove Scotland has reached peak SNP? asks Lesley Riddoch

It’s just as easy to argue they produced peak Scottish Tory. Of course, that’s not the fashionable view.

Critics insist the SNP and the case for a second indyref faltered last week because the party notionally lost seven seats through boundary changes (despite actually gaining six on their 2012 showing) and failed to win outright control of every council. That’s a bit rich.

The single transferable vote (STV) system is designed to produce coalitions, not single party rule. But since the SNP “broke” the system at Holyrood and scooped 56 of 59 seats at the last general election, everyone expects the SNP to do the impossible. Indeed, such is the sheer improbability of their continuing domination of Scottish politics despite losing the indyref that critics feel justified in applying a higher threshold of achievement for “the Nats,” confident their “bubble” is about to burst and allow the resumption of politics as usual.

In truth, that isn’t going to happen for one reason: about half the population is convinced Scotland can only flourish by becoming independent and will keep voting SNP until that is achieved, regardless of reservations. Witness the reception that greeted news of Patrick Harvie’s intention to stand in the general election in Glasgow North. In normal circumstances, many left-of-centre folk, including SNP supporters, might welcome the chance to have an articulate, thoughtful MP like the Scottish Green co-convener – already MSP for the area – even if they’re puzzled about his reasons for wanting to ditch Holyrood and enter a world of futile opposition at Westminster. But these are not normal times. So Harvie stands accused of splitting the pro-independence vote on 8 June – even by some Green supporters.

That’s not fair but, with polls backing Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to call a second indyref, there’s only one political game in town, and parties standing in the way (especially in first-past-the-post elections) will find themselves steamrolled. Likewise, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems cannot get traction in a political culture whose main cleavage point is the constitution, not class or urban-rural divides – except where they reflect different positions on Brexit and thus independence in Europe. The parties thriving are those with strong leaders and a strong stance on independence, namely the SNP and the Tories. That’s quite a turnaround – and it’s all down to the SNP and wider independence movement.

Of course it would be churlish not to accept that Ruth Davidson made a considerable advance last week mostly, though not exclusively, at the expense of Labour. But that novelty has been allowed to overshadow an equally important reality. The SNP has become the dominant force in every tier of Scottish governance. Any other party in power at Holyrood for a decade would be applauded for achieving top spot in local elections – usually the ideal platform for anti-government protest. Yet Glasgow looks set to have an SNP-Green coalition while, in the overlooked contest for Edinburgh, the incumbent SNP was returned as the largest party after years of coalition with Labour.

Indeed, there’s an argument to say the council election results have made the case for a second indyref stronger, not weaker. Despite making no attempt to run a genuinely local election campaign but instead delivering a mass-produced double sided leaflet aimed only at stopping the second indyref, Davidson didn’t win. She threw everything at the anti-referendum argument but it hardly dented the SNP. So if questions are raised over the SNP’s performance, it would be fair to ask what Davidson has got left in the barrel apart from son of Project Fear, which may be less effective second time around conducted against a backdrop of shambolic Brexit negotiations or a huffy no-deal walkout.

Furthermore, despite all her best efforts, Davidson’s taunts haven’t provoked the SNP into campaigning on the second referendum or making it the mainstay of the #GE17 campaign. The SNP doesn’t intend to be huckled into speeding up its own internal planning processes just because May wants an opportunistic power-grabbing snap election.

The Scottish Government hasn’t yet published its Growth Commission report dealing with key issues like currency, the economy and borders and may delay further. Why not – in circumstances of constant flux, timing is all.

Once the inevitable May victory demonstrates that Britain is set for decades of hard-right Conservatism, and once 
Brexit-related instability becomes impossible to conceal, the backdrop for indyref2 will have changed completely from 2014. At that point, Scots will be at their most receptive to the case for independence. So Sturgeon will play her cards carefully – and not prematurely.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of other parties, especially those who oppose independence, the case for indyref2 will only grow. It’s not at all clear the Tories sincerely do want a focus on issues like education and social care since that would draw attention to their own market-driven policies and risk alienating newly acquired ex-Labour voters. But if they do, the only way is to have a second referendum and clear down the constitutional argument. If Scots again reject self-government despite the adverse circumstances surrounding continued UK membership, the independence case will not be reopened again for a while.

Meanwhile, predicted Tory breakthroughs in seats like Angus, Gordon and the Borders will be harder to achieve than council successes.

Support from the Orange Order, polarisation over independence and the return of “tartan Tories” to their natural home all aided Davidson last week.

But the reason this political realignment found expression at the ballot box was the STV, a system the Conservatives continue to oppose and which will therefore not be used in next month’s general election. So the SNP will probably clean up north of the Border, no matter how closely the Tories snap at their heels, and will remain Britain’s third largest political party.

Not my view, but that of Professor John Curtice.

And of course on 8 June, 20 Tory candidates should hear if they face prosecution over alleged expenses irregularities in 2015.

So peak SNP? I dinnae think so.

Peak indy? Definitely not.

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