2 June 2017

Can the Tories knock the SNP off their perch?


This is Scotland, we do things differently here. That’s the first thing to bear in mind when contemplating a general election in which, even more than was the case two years ago, the Scottish election is a wholly separate contest from the one raging – albeit tepidly – in England.

The second thing to note is that no one knows what will happen. Unlike elsewhere, the Scottish opinion polls have been a model of stability. In particular, there has been little evidence of a Corbyn surge in Scotland – though one recent poll, conducted by Ipsos-MORI for Scottish Television, did suggest the party might win the votes of one in four Scots. That’s little comfort for Labour, however, given that in 2015 the party won 24 per cent of the vote, and lost 41 of its 42 seats.

Instead, it is Ruth Davidson’s Tories who are on the march, with polls indicating that last year’s Holyrood election, in which the party came second, was no fluke. In 2015, the Tories won a mere 15 per cent of the votes cast in Scotland. Last year, they took 22 per cent. This time around even the “bad” polls have suggested they will harvest 25 per cent. The trend is clear, even if the extent of the Tory surge is not.

Yet how this will translate into seats remains a matter of hunch, intuition, and guesswork. Scotland might be very different from the rest of the UK in electoral terms, but even here there is no such thing as a Scotland-wide election. Instead, it is being fought as a series of by-elections: almost a third of Scotland’s 59 seats are, to one degree or another, deemed “competitive”. In those circumstances, Scotland-wide polls tell us little about the likely outcome in the seats that will determine how the election result is interpreted.

I say “interpreted” because the actual result is not in doubt: the SNP will win a thumping victory. In the worst case scenario, the Nationalists will take more than 40 seats on 40 per cent of the vote. By any reasonable estimation, that’s more than enough to claim victory.

Even so, Nationalist expectations have been downgraded. Launching the party’s manifesto in Perth this week, Nicola Sturgeon observed that just winning a majority of Scottish seats would reinforce and strengthen the SNP’s mandate to press for a second independence referendum.

Maybe so – but winning a bare majority of seats would also be a calamitous collapse for a party that all but swept the board in 2015, plundering 56 of 59 constituencies.

Just as the stars aligned to favour the Nationalists two years ago, so the ongoing realignment of Scottish politics assists their Unionist opponents now. Ms Sturgeon insists this election is about offering an alternative to the Tory party and its plans for an “extreme Brexit”. But the truth is that in this election, Brexit is a dumb, non-barking dog. The national question – the future of Scotland – remains the fulcrum upon which this election pivots.

Ms Sturgeon herself ensured this would be the case, by demanding a second independence referendum earlier this year. She accuses her opponents of being “obsessed” by constitutional matters – but, in truth, the opposition is merely responding, as is invariably the case, to the Scottish government’s priorities.

If the SNP took a referendum off the table, the election might focus on something else. To demand that, however, would be to demand the SNP deny its own identity.

Despite that, there is a widespread sense that the SNP has blundered by pressing the independence issue again at a time when there is little evidence that the people of Scotland thirst for a second referendum on the subject. Initially, Sturgeon insisted that a referendum be held by the end of 2018, by which time the general terms of Brexit would be known but it would not be “too late” for Scotland to choose a different constitutional path.

That timetable has slipped, however. Sturgeon now accepts that no referendum can take place until such time as the Brexit negotiations have been completed. That means late 2019 at the earliest.

That is, intuitively, a matter of common sense. It always seemed fanciful to suppose that a referendum sparked by Brexit – and by Scotland’s vote to Remain in the EU – could plausibly be held before the full terms and conditions of Brexit were known.

The emerging Tory line goes further still: no new referendum until Brexit has had time to work its way through the political and economic system. It must be given time to “bed in”. If that line can be held – an uncertain proposition, to be sure – there would be no referendum until after the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections. Those elections would, in turn, be fought on the question of whether or not there should be a referendum.

We are, of course, in danger of getting ahead of ourselves here. But that merely reflects the manner in which Scotland is still a disputed nation, whose future remains in the balance.

The fact that the SNP will lose seats in this election should not be confused with a sense that independence is increasingly unpopular. On the contrary. Recent polling suggests that at least 45 per cent of Scots still desire independence. The issue has not gone away – even if, for the time being, independence is once again (as has historically tended to be the case) more popular than the SNP.

That is as much a reflection of the fact that the Nationalists have been in power in Scotland for a decade. Time, not Unionism, is Nicola Sturgeon’s greatest enemy. That, in turn, helps explain why she would prefer a second independence referendum before 2021, not after the elections that year.

Questions about the performance of Scottish education and the NHS – the number of patients waiting more than 12 weeks for treatment soared by an extraordinary 500 per cent last year – cannot be avoided forever. Sturgeon has asked to be judged on her record, and an increasing number of Scots are happy to accept her invitation. This week, for the first time, her personal approval ratings slipped into negative numbers.

The Tory revival in Scotland – a revival which could see them win at least half a dozen seats – is less a Conservative revival than an expression of a newly vigorous Unionism. Davidson cheerfully accepts that her party will win votes from people who would never consider themselves Conservatives.

But that doesn’t matter, since this is neither the time nor the place for ideological purity. All that matters is persuading voters that the Tories are the party best placed to knock the SNP off their perch. Someone has to stand up to the Nationalists – and across much of rural Scotland the Tories are best-placed to do that. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the SNP needs an opposition.

As a result, the Tory campaign has been one-note: we said No to independence in 2014 and we meant what we said. Vote Tory to signal that Scotland does not want a second referendum. That’s not enough to govern – but in Scotland, the Tories are not seeking to govern.

The danger, as senior Tories allow, is that expectations have now been set too high. Could the Conservatives really win a dozen seats? I doubt it, but the notable aspect of this election is that they are playing the game of expectations at all. It is more than 20 years since they have been able to do so.

To that end, much – indeed, everything – will depend on the efficiency with which the Tory vote is concentrated. A vote in Moray or Aberdeen South or Perth and North Perthshire is worth much more than a vote in Lanarkshire or Glasgow, where the SNP’s majorities appear impregnable.

In like fashion, the Liberal Democrats are working just a handful of seats, notably Edinburgh West, East Dunbartonshire, Caithness Sutherland and Easter Ross, and Northeast Fife. Similarly, Labour’s hopes rest on Edinburgh South and, perhaps, East Lothian. And that’s it: the harsh truth is that any Corbyn-led surge in Scotland is likely to see Labour do modestly better in Glasgow seats which the party has almost no chance of winning.

Thus far, there is little sign that the stumbling Tory campaign in England has had an impact north of the border. There is still time for that – time, too, for the prospect of a Tory government in England to squeeze or otherwise depress the Tory vote in Scotland. But as of now, Scottish Tory insiders believe the damage has been contained, and that the river Tweed is proving an effective firebreak.

The Nationalists, meanwhile, have run an oddly lacklustre campaign. Only a vote for the SNP is a vote to “stand up for Scotland”; only the SNP can protect Scotland from a Tory government. These are old, familiar and, it must be admitted, popular tunes. But their popularity is not quite what it was. Two years ago, the SNP won almost half of the vote. Few people expect that to be repeated next week.

This all creates the conditions for a paradoxical result in Scotland. The SNP will win, but because they will not win as thoroughly as they did in 2015, their victory will be diminished. The three Unionist parties will take a minority of seats, but by sharing (they hope) more than 50 per cent of the vote, they will be in a position to claim a victory of sorts. Winners can be losers and losers can be winners in Scotland these days. That was one of the (first) referendum’s lessons, too.

Alex Massie is a political commentator