Euan McColm: 59 '˜by-elections' to dictate Britain's future

THE fortunes of the nationalist candidates on 8 June may prove more significant than who occupies 10 Downing St, writes Euan McColm

Nicola Sturgeon celebrates her 2015 landslide with SNP MPs at South Queensferry in front of the Forth Bridge. Picture: Jane Barlow

From a Scottish perspective, it’s almost as if there are two elections on the horizon. Yes, on Thursday all of the UK will go to the polls but, north and south of the border, the stakes are completely different.

While the general election, of course, will result in either Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May continuing in office or Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn replacing her (spoiler alert: Jeremy doesn’t win), the battle in Scotland is less about who will occupy 10 Downing Street than it is a series of by-elections, the results of which will either prepare the ground for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s promised second independence referendum or scupper her plans entirely.

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The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2015, leaving Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats with just one Scottish MP each. This incredible performance – made possible by a re-alignment in Scottish politics which saw the vast majority of those who voted Yes to independence in 2014 lining up behind the SNP – had huge implications for the future government of the UK.

In order to form a Westminster majority, the Labour party needed those Scottish seats. For decades it had been able to depend upon swelling its numbers with dozens of MPs from Scotland. The SNP’s advance – largely at the expense of Labour – was frabjous news for the Tories. Even the most charismatic Labour leader would now find it more difficult to win a general election.

The three main opposition parties in Scotland are, as one would expect, focusing their efforts in a select few constituencies where they stand any kind of chance of unseating an SNP member. Thus, Labour has invested a huge amount of time and effort in parts of Glasgow and in East Lothian, while the Tories have been working hardest in Perthshire and the North East, and the Lib Dems have been making a concerted effort in parts of Fife as well as East Dunbartonshire, the seat currently held by former BBC journalist John Nicolson. It says something about the Nats’ spinning skills that this perfectly normal state of affairs – parties, including the Scottish Nationalists, have always concentrated resources in constituencies where they might actually win – was picked up as a new story about unionists conspiring against the SNP.

Only a fool would make predictions about the result of the election in Scotland so near to the event. So, here goes. If Labour does make any kind of advances, it will be in the wrong places, seats where SNP majorities are so large that even a reasonably healthy increase in the number of votes for Corbyn’s party won’t make a difference to the result. Labour activists would doubtless console themselves that they might be in the early days of rebuilding in, for example, Glasgow and Lanarkshire, but if they can’t win seats in these areas, then they don’t have much of a story to tell.

The revival of the Scottish Conservative Party under the leadership of the estimable Ruth Davidson saw it become the largest opposition party at Holyrood last year. Expectations are high – in no small part because those closest to Davidson have talked up the party’s chances – that the Tories will take as many as 12 seats on Thursday (I have my doubts about that).

Nationwide polls have the Scottish Tories on 30 per cent -–13 points behind the SNP – but while this tells us that the party is in ruder health than it has been for some time, it does not tell us precisely where the revival is strongest. Is the rise of the Tories a truly nationwide thing or is the number lifted by disproportionately high support in targeted areas. The first scenario might tell a dull tale about a party making progress but Davidson would prefer the victories promised by the second.

After a prolonged period during which it swished through Scottish politics without touching the sides, the SNP is having a tougher time than it is used to.

It will be the biggest Scottish winner on Thursday but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is braced for some losses. The nationalists are genuinely worried about the Moray seat, currently held by the party’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson, where the Tories seem to be making substantial advances.

The loss of Robertson from the House of Commons, where he has regularly been by far the most powerful and forensic opposition voice, would be devastating for Sturgeon.

The SNP is on the run in some parts of Scotland for the first time in recent memory. Sturgeon is no longer dictating the pace of events as she was once able to.

By the early hours of Friday morning, we will know what chance the SNP has of holding a second independence referendum.

A fistful of Scottish Tory MPs would make it difficult for the First Minister; the Conservatives would be confident that they had the authority to block indyref2 without the risk of losing support.

One general election – the one being fought in England and Wales – is about Brexit and jobs and social care. The other – the one in Scotland – is about something even bigger. It’s about the future of the United Kingdom.

Supporters and opponents alike would concede that Nicola Sturgeon is a highly skilled politician, but she is not alone in possessing considerable talent. It occurs to me that, for the first time since the birth of devolution in 1999, the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland are considerably more capable than their counterparts at Westminster.

Ruth Davidson is confident and assured, while Theresa May is awkward and skirts around the edges of weird. Kezia Dugdale, good-humoured, confident and sharp during questions to the First Minister, is easily a more credible figure than the incompetent Jeremy Corbyn. And Willie Rennie – king of the photo opportunity – is streets ahead of Tim Farron.

Anyway, something for you to argue about.