It’s not a question of whether SNP will do badly in election, but how badly and what that will mean – Joyce McMillan

The desire to get rid of the Conservative government, coupled with SNP’s weak position, should see the nationalist vote fall, but it may be a mistake to view this as a defeat for independence

There are moments, in politics, when it seems as though the gods are just having a laugh, at some hapless leader whose fortunes are on the slide. There was the Theresa May conference speech where she developed an uncontrollable cough, while the letters of the Tory slogan behind her began to fall silently off the wall. There was the Four Seasons incident of 2020, when Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani inadvertently booked a desperate post-election press conference not at the de luxe hotel of that name, but at a humble Philadelphia garden centre, whence he had to speak from an upturned crate.

And then there was Rishi Sunak’s great general election announcement of 2024, when, in defiance of terrible weather forecasts, Sunak spoke alone, at a lectern in Downing Street, while rain poured down over his head, shoulders, and dripping suit. Nearby, a well-known Westminster protester played Labour’s 1997 anthem Things Can Only Get Better so loudly that it almost drowned out the speech. The Prime Minister had little to say that made any sense to the vast majority of people in Britain; worse, many Tory MPs agreed, and within hours were briefing that if they could, they would try to get the election called off.

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And in the final historic irony, he called the election for July 4; not only bang in the middle of Scotland’s busiest holiday week, but also the first July election in the UK since the colossal and legendary Labour landslide of July 5, 1945. The karma, in other words, was terrible; and the results, for the Conservatives, are likely to be worse.

The SNP are facing a tough election but their fortunes may not be as bleak as they appear (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)The SNP are facing a tough election but their fortunes may not be as bleak as they appear (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The SNP are facing a tough election but their fortunes may not be as bleak as they appear (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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What voters don’t want

For if there is one thing that should be understood about the UK general election of 2024, it’s that it will take the form of a massive national protest vote against the chaotic, discredited and often shameful government Sunak now leads; an election that will reveal with great clarity what people do not want from Westminster government, but will tell us very little about what they do want, at any level. And nowhere will that be more true than in Scotland, where non-Tory voters are being passionately urged, by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar among others, to vote for Keir Starmer’s Labour, as the only other party than can form a government at Westminster.

All the signs are that that strategy is working, so far; not only because a large majority of Scots cannot wait to see the back of the Tory years that gave us Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Brexit and austerity, but because the SNP is in a desperately weak position, exhausted by 17 years in government, facing an ongoing police investigation, strapped for cash, battered by all the pitfalls of incumbency, visibly divided, apparently determined to further shoot itself in the foot (as John Swinney did yesterday over the proposed sanctions on former minister Michael Matheson), and as vulnerable as the Westminster Tories to the idea – always both vacuous and appealing – that it is, democratically speaking, time for a change.

SNP to lose half its seats?

The question in Scotland, therefore, is not whether the SNP will take a fierce battering in the forthcoming election – they will, for all of the above reasons – but how severe that battering will be, and what it will mean for the future of Scottish politics. As the UK’s chief election guru Sir John Curtice is fond of pointing out, uniform national swings cannot be relied on; but nonetheless, it seems likely that the SNP will lose at least half of its current 43 Westminster seats; and a defeat on that scale, filtered through UK political media, will tend to be read – at least at Westminster – as the end of SNP dominance in Scotland, and a humiliating defeat for the idea of independence itself.

The truth, though, will of course be much more complex. First, many of those who vote Labour in this election – both north and south of the Border – will be doing so more in a spirit of wishful thinking, than out of any sense that Starmer’s Labour have a convincing plan to reverse the UK’s recent drift into relative poverty, stagnation and isolation. Scottish voters who are used to seeing two major left-of-centre parties on their ballot paper will therefore be keeping a beady eye on whether Labour in government is doing less, or more, than the SNP at Holyrood to mitigate or reverse the worst impacts of Conservative policy; and their judgment may be harsh.

Independence support still strong

Then secondly, despite an impressive ten per cent Labour poll lead over the SNP in Westminster voting intentions, there is little sign that Holyrood voting intentions, or support for independence itself, are following exactly the same path. Even at this dire point in the SNP’s fortunes, support for independence is still at its 2014 level of 45 per cent, and Labour and the SNP are level pegging in the Holyrood polls.

All the signs, in fact, are that Scottish voters are becoming ever more accustomed to differing dynamics of central and devolved government, and are well capable of using different polls – or different parts of the same poll – to send different signals. By 2026, the centre-left majority in Scotland will either be impressed with what Labour under Starmer has achieved, and ready to give the party a crack at government in Holyrood; or they will be unpersuaded, and increasingly determined to keep voting SNP, both to defend the substantial gains delivered by Holyrood government so far, and to pursue the idea of Scottish independence, as a more effective route to a better future.

And the only certainty, as we navigate these tumultuous times, is that electoral punishment and disappointment will wait for whichever party dares to take that critical mass of Scottish voters for granted; or to assume that, having once moved into the red corner, or the Saltire blue one, they will necessarily remain there for ever.



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