The SNP have seen membership numbers surge and polls hit new heights even though they were on the losing end of the Scottish independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon takes the reins of a party on the rise, but the challenge of convincing a majority of Scots of the case for independence remains, writes Neil McGarvey.
Some 80 years after being founded in 1934 the SNP recently looked to be on the verge of its raisin d’etre – Scottish independence. Polls, less than two weeks before polling day on 18th September were showing majority support in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote. Two months later, after a 55-45% defeat at the polls one would expect some deflation, recrimination and inquest into that ‘defeat’ within the losing side. Instead we have a party with a new leader, riding high in the polls and membership booming (almost quadrupling to 85,000 plus at the last count). The question that is being asked is not, where did it all go wrong? But rather, the complete opposite. The SNP actually appears to be in a very good place, despite the referendum defeat.
Nicola Sturgeon (Scotland’s first female First Minister) has taken over the leadership of a party that appears to be riding the crest of a wave. Polls suggest (albeit rather unrealistically, as poll projections tend to be) that the party could reduce all opposition to not much more than a handful of Scotland’s 59 seats after the 2015 Westminster elections. The challenge for Nicola Sturgeon is not one of review and re-build after defeat, but rather harnessing the UK’s only mass membership political party and working to retain its place as Scotland’s new dominant party.
She has a lot to think about in terms of strategy. How will it utilize and harness the exuberance and energy of 60,000 plus new members? What will holding the three main Westminster parties’ ‘feet to the fire’ in terms of delivering the vow of more devolution actually involve? What would the party do in the event of it holding the balance of power after the 2015 UK General Election in a hung House of Commons? Should it seek to extract ‘devo-max’ Home Rule from what nationalists like to refer to as ‘the Westminster Establishment’? And is campaigning for another referendum realistic so soon after defeat?
All of these questions are more pressing right now than how to deal with its main opposition. Scottish Labour is presently going through a good old-fashioned Left (Neil Findlay) versus Right (Jim Murphy) leadership debate and election that will define its future direction. The 2015 Westminster Election campaign in Scotland is looking like a no-holds barred repeat of the referendum campaign. The bitter tribal politics of the SNP versus Labour will dominate. The UK governing coalition parties (the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives) are an inconsequential side-show in Scotland – they will gain two or three seats at most each. Scottish constitutional politics are likely to dominate the UK General Election campaign in Scotland, with the SNP continuing to dictate the agenda.
However, Sturgeon must anticipate a more robust rival than what Scottish Labour has offered in recent years. The SNP has benefited from competing with a series of ineffectual leaders (Alexander, Gray, Lamont) since 2007, hampered by what the latter referred to as the UK party treating its Scottish part as a ‘branch office’. The Scottish Labour Party is likely to emerge from the leadership contest with a stronger, focused and most importantly, autonomous leader willing to go toe-to-toe with the SNP to claim the mantle of Scotland’s most progressive party. One of the myths of Scottish politics is its ‘left wing’ nature. The weakness of the Conservative Party and the one-eyed Keynesian nature of the 1999 devolution settlement results in the politics of social expenditure dominating the agenda. However, this is likely to change with income tax becoming fully devolved. In any case the left-wing credentials of Scottish politics are very debatable, any examination of the beneficiaries of Scottish policymaking post-devolution is likely to reveal that the middle class have benefited more than the poor.
Nicola Sturgeon has had a long time to think about her leadership of the SNP. She has been the anointed heir ever since she stood aside to let Alex Salmond reclaim the leadership in 2003. She is likely to push her party towards a Nordic vision of social democracy. This, coupled with enhanced autonomy, will form part of the effort to further differentiate Scottish political culture from that of Westminster and the UK. However, for all the talk of Scottish social democracy she is faced with a Scottish society with a very neoliberal look about it. In terms of rates of poverty, multiple deprivation, inequality in health, education and a whole host of public policy outcomes, Scotland remains of the most unequal societies in the western world. The alignment of the socio-economic and constitutional politics of Scotland is the message Sturgeon will seek to project. The nationalist message in the forthcoming campaign is likely to be unionist parties alleged portrayal of the ‘vow’ of enhanced devolution (the unionist majority on the all-party Smith Commission are likely to recommend something far short of the SNP vision of Home Rule). Rather than focus on further devolution, Scottish Labour are more likely to seek to prioritize the ‘real’ bread and butter politics of employment, wages, public services and economic growth emphasizing the high opportunity cost of SNP pre-occupation and ‘obsession’ with constitutional politics and the prospect of ‘neverendums’.
The prospect of another referendum is probably more realistic than anyone would have thought possible so soon after the relatively decisive 55-45 percent ‘No’ victory. The potential circumstance of the whole of the UK opting to leave the EU in a 2017 referendum, while Scotland votes to stay in has already been raised by Sturgeon as a potential trigger that re-opens the independence debate. Such a scenario in 2017 is not altogether unrealistic.
However, whatever the medium to longer-term future holds, Sturgeon and the SNP would still face the challenge of convincing a majority of Scots of the case for independence. To do this she and the party must look outward rather than inward. Its 85,000 party members – and the 1,617,989 Scots who voted Yes – are unlikely to need convincing of the case for Scottish independence. Rather, she and the party will be focused on a strategy that reaches out to the 2,001,926 who voted ‘No’ and trying to convince at least one tenth of them to switch sides.
Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Ewan McIntosh CC BY NC