Brian Monteith: Honeymoon set to end for SNP and angry voters

LOOKS like the SNP have peaked, so it better look out as punishment by the people will follow, writes Brian Monteith

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidsons approval rating has now outstripped that of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidsons approval rating has now outstripped that of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Have we passed Peak SNP? There is something in the air that tells me we have, but worse for the First Minister is the probability we have passed Peak Nationalism too. If the latter case is true then holding a second independence referendum before 2020 would be political suicide. It would finish the SNP for a generation.

There can be no doubting that the SNP has been the most successful Scottish political party of the new millennium and, arguably, the most successful British party too.

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In the first six years of the Scottish Parliament the SNP looked all washed up, but it reinvented itself, found a new self-discipline and, having achieved minority government in 2007, it won a highly creditable overall majority in 2011. Although it lost the 2014 independence referendum it enjoyed a huge membership bonus on the back of that defeat and went on to win all but three Westminster parliamentary constituencies in the 2015 general election.

That astonishing result is unparalleled since British universal suffrage in 1928. By the end of 2015 the SNP looked set to win the coming Holyrood elections and be in a position to call a second independence referendum built upon a wave of public support, especially if the UK decided to leave the European Union but Scotland voted for it to remain.

Now, after the Holyrood elections and the EU referendum have both been held and it is possible to step back and survey the political landscape. The empirical and anecdotal evidence I’ve seen suggests to me the SNP has peaked.

For one thing, the SNP lost its overall majority in the Scottish Parliament elections and is back to where it was in 2007. This time though, its opponents fully understand the mortal threat the SNP represents to their existence and will be far less compliant.

This is important because after nine years of SNP rule the real problems surfacing in education, healthcare, policing, transport – and the public finances that underwrites all of them – are reaching crisis proportions and no longer can be blamed on past Scottish administrations or Westminster. The buck stops with the SNP and the polling shows that the public is demanding it faces up to its responsibilities.

As if to highlight a growing public frustration that the SNP is not attending to the day job that its ministers are so handsomely paid for, there was the astonishing news last week that the approval rating of the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was higher than that of SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon’s approval ratings have fallen from 55 per cent in April 2015, to 36 per cent in April 2016 and now 20 per cent in September 2016 – while Ruth Davidson’s have climbed to 21 per cent and overtaken her.

A Tory leader more popular the self-styled peoples’ favourite and Queen of Selfies? In Scotland? I cannot recall such a moment, and certainly not since the SNP came to power. It may just be a temporary aberration and normal service might be resumed soon, but that it has happened at all suggests the honeymoon with the SNP is over.

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If the public services that the SNP is completely responsible for do not begin to improve – and it could redesign the NHS or change the school system if it wanted to, but I suspect it lacks the ideas and the drive to pursue any reforms – then the patience of the public may run out. This is important because the last independence campaign – which was nearly successful – was built upon the foundation of a commonly held perception that the SNP was competent and could make an independent Scotland work.

If that perception is damaged, or worse, is changed to a consensus that the SNP is harming Scotland’s interests, then not only will it suffer but so too will the dream of independence. The runes, just recently, have not been good.

While the First Minister ran-up her air miles grandstanding in Brussels and Berlin and then launched a listening exercise with No voters designed to improve the SNP case for independence, the public has shown that it is against a second referendum by 50 per cent to 37 per cent. Only 20 per cent of SNP voters have listed independence as a priority ahead of health and the economy when given two choices!

Add to this sentiment the hard evidence provided by the SNP Government’s own figures in this year’s Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) report that independence would have delivered an economic austerity severe enough to strip the paint of government limousines, close hospitals and force pay cuts on public service workers – just ask Ireland and Greece – then it is no surprise that polling also shows the case for independence has enjoyed no post-Brexit bounce.

People can work out that if the EU is meant to be so vital to our economic interests then the Union must be too, and then some. While the majority voted for the UK to stay in the EU we have not yet left and the public does not yet know what the terms will be, the consequences really mean – and what, if any, benefits Scotland may yet be able to enjoy following Brexit such as management of its own fishing grounds and its own tailored farming support.

Anecdotally, I have found no one I know that voted No to independence who has changed his or her minds, but I have found those that voted Yes that have done so.

Indeed, I have found some that joined the SNP and voted for them in 2015 who are scunnered with the party’s behaviour in Westminster and what they now see as lies they were told – and will let their membership lapse. They are considering voting for Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

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My personal circles are undoubtedly self-selecting but YouGov polling suggests that while 12 per cent of No voters might vote Yes, 13 per cent of Yes voters might vote No – suggesting few recognise the “significant and material change” Sturgeon is looking for.

That there will be swings in political mood I have no doubt. The SNP will this year still enjoy good polls and encouraging results, but I believe the trend is now towards its decline.

The public is not stupid. In the past it has punished all unionist parties for taking it for granted and neglecting its interests – unless the SNP reinvents itself it is only a matter of time before the public punishes it too.

• Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland