Insight: Wake-up call for Nicola Sturgeon’s indyref2 dreamers

The pre-election independence march in George Square. Picture: Robert Perry/PA
The pre-election independence march in George Square. Picture: Robert Perry/PA
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In the end there was no real Portillo moment: the claiming of one high-profile scalp – such as Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster – that symbolised the much-touted blue surge.

Rather, a seismic shudder in the form of the exit poll, which forecast a minority Conservative government 
and extensive SNP losses, was followed by a whole series of aftershocks as leading figures, including Eilidh Whiteford, John Nicolson, Alex Salmond, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and, of course, Robertson, were toppled, not only by the Tories, but – much less predictably – by the Liberal Democrats and Labour too.

Gradually, patches of blue, red and orange started appearing on the electoral map which had turned yellow just two years previously. Gordon no more; Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross no more; Edinburgh West no more; Moray no more. Even the Yes stronghold of Glasgow suffered a loss with Labour’s Paul Sweeney taking Glasgow North East from SNP MP Anne McLaughlin, while the other seats were held with vastly reduced majorities. Meanwhile, Stephen Gethins clung on to North East Fife by just two votes.

READ MORE: Alex Neil: SNP focus on indyref2 hurt party at election

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Forty-eight hours later, it is possible to put these losses into some kind of context. The near SNP wipe-out in 2015 was an aberration possible only because the party was still charged with a surfeit of indyref energy, and because so many people bought into a shared delusion: that losing the vote in 2014 could represent a kind of victory.

“This is the first election since 2014 that the loss of the indyref has actually been felt by the losers,” says political commentator Andrew Tickell. “More and more I think the 2015 result was a kind of fantasy which prevented Scottish Nationalists from recognising the fundamental point, which was that they lost; and now they need to psychologically accept that has happened.”

On Thursday night, the SNP won 35 seats – an achievement that would once have been unthinkable. It gained a respectable 36.9 per cent of the vote (though this was down 13 per cent and the Tories doubled theirs to 28.6 per cent). Yet no-one within the party is pretending it is anything other than a crushing disappointment which leaves the Westminster cohort diminished and rudderless and raises tough questions about the party’s general election strategy.

On Friday, Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, both admitted indyref2 had been a factor in the SNP’s poor performance at the polls, along with Brexit, a late surge for Corbyn and tactical voting. They promised to take time to reflect on the outcome.

But others within the SNP were forthright in their criticism. Some lamented the “woeful” election campaign (run by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay) and the wider management of the party. “The campaign was terrible,” says one insider. “We know positivity wins votes – look at Jeremy Corbyn – and yet it was downbeat and there was no coherent message.”

Though few believe Sturgeon’s position has been jeopardised by the result, some claim her over-reliance on an inner circle, which often extends no further than her husband – SNP chief executive Peter Murrell – and Swinney, means she is cut off from wider opinion. Others hint the party’s leading figures prefer surrounding themselves with Yes men and women to bringing on board independent-minded allies who might offer honest criticism. “I don’t think the SNP internally cultivates people who are critical of the orthodoxy,” says one observer. “I am not sure how possible that would be in a situation where you have a husband and wife at the top of a political party.”

There seems to be a particular unease over the way in which Sturgeon dominated the campaign despite it being a Westminster election (to the point of flying round Scotland in a helicopter) and over the couple’s relationship which, by its very nature, makes Murrell “untouchable”. “It is not ideal because it keeps everything very insular,” adds another insider. “There are those who think Peter needs to change his style. They want him to be more inclusive and to bring in the National Executive a bit more, and Nicola needs to listen to a wider range of voices.”

There are also rumours that the press team is struggling without former spin doctor Kevin Pringle and that the party needs to develop a more coherent strategy linking the Westminster group and the Scottish Government.

Anyone who spent time talking to voters in the run-up to the general election, however, knows the SNP’s biggest problem is that a sizable proportion of them – even those who voted Yes in 2014 and SNP in 2015 – were dead set against a second indyref, at least in the short term.

To a certain extent Sturgeon was hemmed into a corner by Brexit; having insisted Scotland must be given a place at the negotiating table – and having been repeatedly dismissed – she had little choice but to demand another vote, although whether or not it was necessary to insist on it being held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 is debatable.

With the majority of Scotland voting Remain, Sturgeon was doubtless convinced there was widespread support for such a move; but Theresa May set a trap by promising to block it and then calling a snap election, which all the unionist parties – but particularly the Tories – were able to exploit to their advantage.

By standing on an anti-indyref ticket, Ruth Davidson turned the general election in Scotland into a de facto plebiscite on a second indyref (allowing other issues to be swept under the carpet). By the time the SNP realised how unpopular this policy was proving, and began to play down the link, it was too late. It didn’t help that the wider Yes movement staged a pro-independence rally in Glasgow just a few days before the country went to the polls.

“In the wake of Brexit, Sturgeon made a series of decisions,” says Tickell. “She calculated: first, that Scots would interpret Brexit in fairly nationalistic terms as a deprivation of their decision-making within the Union; second, that they’d care enough to think again about independence; and lastly that the Westminster government wouldn’t block a second vote. All of these assumptions have proven false and, because they have proven false, the party is having to deal with the fall-out.”

However, a former special adviser believes that if Sturgeon had been better at managing expectations, she could still have passed off the election results as an endorsement. “Had she said a victory of half the seats is a mandate to have Section 30 powers transferred to Holyrood, they’d be looking at a clear win from this election,” he says. “Instead they blurred the message to offend no-one so are left with the loss of seats and no clear gain.”

The misjudgment over a second indyref was the most significant, but far from the only weakness in the campaign. According to Tickell, the party failed to come up with an effective strategy for neutralising the Corbyn effect. “The SNP’s campaign was predicated as much as Theresa May’s, if not more so, on the idea that Corbyn is a loser, because that’s the only way the SNP could say: ‘This man is right about everything, but don’t vote for him.’ So we had this ridiculous spectacle late on of the party saying, ‘If you agree with Corbyn, vote for us.’ I mean that’s a bit of a heidbanger idea.”

As the SNP realised it was losing ground, there was also a series of atypical missteps, such as MP Joanna Cherry’s post-TV debate criticism of a nurse who complained she was forced to use food banks and Sturgeon’s decision to accuse Kezia Dugdale of having said Scottish Labour might change tack and back a second independence referendum in a private phone call – a move that saw her branded a liar and a clype.

To these problems, you can add a growing perception – ably promulgated by Davidson – that the party is failing on domestic issues. That health and education are devolved, and therefore irrelevant to a Westminster election, mattered not a whit. Fears over “crisis-hit” maternity units and declining literacy and numeracy standards fed into growing public disaffection with the party.

Though close analysis of voting patterns within individual constituencies is still to be carried out, behaviour seems to have been influenced by location, with those in rural areas like the Borders and the northeast defecting to the Tories (anticipated) and those in the cities moving back to Labour (largely unanticipated). Given that many of the new members who flocked to join the SNP from areas of urban deprivation in 2014 were attracted by its message of change and hope, it is not surprising the lure of Corbyn’s almost identical message proved irresistible, especially since their lives haven’t improved much in the interim.

The SNP has also suffered as a result of its shapeshifting tendencies. One of the dangers of trying to please everybody all the time is that, when the bubble bursts, you risk pleasing nobody ever. And so where, in 2014, the SNP successfully passed itself off as fiscally cautious to the business community and progressive to the grassroots/London commentariat, different factions now accuse it of being both too radical and not radical enough.

“I think there will be a clash between the left and right of the party and between those who represent rural and urban constituencies over the right direction to take,” an insider says.

An immediate logistical challenge is finding an effective replacement for Robertson as SNP leader in Westminster, which is more easily said than done. Few of the remaining MPs have much experience. Stewart Hosie is probably the most obvious candidate; badly damaged by his extra-marital affair, he may be pliable and eager to rehabilitate his reputation, but Sturgeon may feel too great a debt of loyalty to his wife (and her friend) Shona Robison. Tommy Sheppard and Joanne Cherry are also said to be contenders, but both have enemies within the party, and are said to dislike each other. Stephen Gethins’ name has been mentioned, but with a two-vote majority he’s likely to be seen as too vulnerable should another general election be held within the year.

There is a question too of what will happen to Robertson and Salmond: will they be brought in to add strategic heft? The potential damage that could be done to the party by a frustrated Salmond left to his own devices will have escaped no-one.

Beyond the structural issues, the most important question is what will happen now with indyref2. After the results, Davidson said it was “dead in the water”, and there are those within the SNP who believe it ought to be cast aside for several years, allowing the party to concentrate on proving it can govern effectively.

“We need to get serious about domestic policy,” says one insider. “We need to sort out education and health, which are shambolic, and set out what we plan to do on income tax.”

However, these are long-term challenges that can’t be solved overnight: the problems with education are complex and entrenched and some claim Swinney is making heavy weather of his role as Education Secretary. The attainment gap is proving intractable and there are no quick fixes for poverty. The reason the party has previously shied away from tax hikes is because they are notoriously difficult to sell.

Moreover, there are fundamentalists and others within the party who insist the SNP has an enduring mandate for indyref 2 and don’t want to see it abandoned, especially given the likely outcome of political machinations down south.

“I was never a fan of indyref2,” says one insider. “I always felt a decent period of waiting and a bit more information about Brexit to firm up the argument would have been better. But to say, ‘That’s it – independence is off the table’? We have an extreme right government with the DUP in it heading for a brutally hard Brexit and you’re saying, ‘Independence is off the table’?”

The former special adviser, meanwhile, insists it is ludicrous for a party of independence to get upset by other people pegging them as such. “But of course, like all successful parties, the SNP has grown accustomed to office and power.”

Still he insists there are still positives to be drawn from last week’s results. “Theresa May is stuffed – but Nicola can go into work tomorrow and do things which change her fate,” he says.

“Plus she has the power and wealth of 35 MPs. If she concentrates on transforming Scotland, she may yet triumph.”