6 November 2019

In Scotland this election will be about much more than Brexit

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Scottish general elections used to be soporific affairs. In 2001, for instance, just one of the then 72 Scottish constituencies changed hands. In 2005 only five did and, remarkably, in 2010 every single Scottish seat was won by the same party that had taken it at the previous general election. Drama happened elsewhere in the United Kingdom; Scotland was a graveyard for news.

That was then and this is no longer then. The old rules have been torn up. Where once Scottish elections were different from those in England and Wales because nothing of very much consequence happened north of the border, now they are different because they are fought according to very different priorities.

Scotland’s recent elections have been volatile. In 2015 50 of the country’s 59 seats changed hands as an SNP tsunami swept across Scotland, destroying almost all opposition. Two years later came a correction as 21 Scottish constituencies changed hands once again. The SNP tide receded, albeit to levels that would once have been considered astonishingly high.

The story of that campaign, however, was the resurgence of Scottish Conservatism. Led by Ruth Davidson – not, pointedly, by Theresa May – the Scottish Tories increased their share of the vote by 13 points and seized a dozen constituencies from the SNP. Labour, meanwhile, recovered from the nadir of 2015 to win seven seats while the Liberal Democrats won back three of the ten seats they’d lost two years previously.

This was a Unionist recovery more than it was a Labour, Liberal or even Conservative advance. In seats across Scotland voters opposed to the SNP naturally gravitated to the Unionist party best placed to defeat the nationalists.

That produced an election packed with drama and close-run things. There are precious few safe seats left in Scotland now. No fewer than 14 of the country’s 59 MPs have majorities of less than 1,000 votes and only two (Ian Murray in Edinburgh South and John Lamont in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) have majorities of more than 10,000 votes. In theory, then, almost every seat in Scotland is in play in this election.

In practice that is not quite the case. Nevertheless, the election should be understood as a series of different contests, some of which occasionally overlap but which are more often almost entirely distinct. First, there is the SNP-Tory battle, largely centred on the north-east of Scotland. Then there is the SNP-Labour battle, chiefly fought in Glasgow and the west. Finally, there is the SNP-Liberal Democrat tussle, fought in a handful of seats all around Scotland (Northeast Fife, Edinburgh West, East Dunbartonshire, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey). The dynamics of each of these contests are distinct.

The Lib Dem-SNP arm wrestle, for instance, is a battle of the Remainers. In seats where the Liberals are competitive, Scots who voted No to independence in 2014 and Remain in 2016 have an obvious alternative to the nationalists. The Lib Dems should hold their own seats and have an excellent chance of unseating Stephen Gethins (majority 2) in Menzies Campbell’s old seat of Northeast Fife.

Similarly, the nationalists will be confident of retaking six of the seven seats presently held by Labour. Four of these are held with majorities of less than 1,000 votes and the first lesson of this campaign is that the days when Labour once argued that the road to Downing Street ran through Scotland are long gone. Notionally 18 of Labour’s top 70 target seats are in Scotland; in practice the party is unlikely to win many, if any, of them.

That helps explain why the Labour leadership has, much to the chagrin of what remains of the Scottish Labour party, been cosying up to the SNP. Lend us your votes, albeit on an issue by issue basis, Corbyn and John McDonnell say to Nicola Sturgeon, and we will grant you the Section 30 Order necessary to establish the legal basis for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Sometimes, it is true, Labour figures argue that this could not be a priority for a Labour government or that, perhaps, it would not be on the agenda in the “formative” years of a Labour ministry, but this is not a line that is designed to be defended. The reality is simpler: in exchange for the chance to advance the revolution in England, the Labour party is prepared to risk – even, perhaps, to embrace – the destruction of the United Kingdom itself. In this sense a vote for the SNP is a proxy vote for a Corbyn government.

That, at any rate, is how the Conservatives (and the Lib Dems) would like you to see it. In 2015, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party embraced Unionism to the near-total exclusion of Conservatism. Scots were asked to vote for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Unionists, not Theresa May’s Tories. We said No in 2014 and we meant it, the party said, and this proved a winning formula. There is still, I think, some juice to be extracted from this position.

Brexit, of course, complicates the Tory story. More than 60% of Scots voted Remain and Nicola Sturgeon is trusting that a hefty number of No-Remain voters are so thoroughly disenchanted with Brexit, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn that they will see a vote for the SNP as the least dangerous, least risky, least calamitous option left to them. In some parts of the country doubtless this will be the case and it is certainly true that a uniform swing to the nationalists of the sort indicated by recent polls might see the Tories lose ten of their 13 seats.

But there may not be a uniform swing of that kind. The Tory vote might, like the Lib Dem vote, prove to be more efficiently concentrated than the headline numbers indicate. Northeast seats such as Moray and Banff and Buchan were also the places in Scotland most likely to vote Leave and here, as elsewhere, voters for whom “Getting Brexit Done” is the deciding factor in this election have little alternative but to vote for Tory candidates. A million Scots, it is sometimes forgotten, did vote to Leave the EU. The question for the Conservatives, then, is whether the pull of the Union proves more powerful than the push of Brexit. It it does then the party might hold at least half a dozen of its seats.

For the SNP, meanwhile, the election comes at a fortuitous time. Brexit is a gift to the nationalists. For even if it might, in the longer-term, make winning independence more difficult as a practical matter, that frames the election in ways useful to the SNP: Scotland is having to endure a Brexit for which it did not vote.

Other matters interfere, too, making this a better moment for an election than might otherwise be the case. In the new year Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor, stands trial on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault. No-one can predict the outcome of that trial nor properly evaluate its impact on Scottish politics, save to say that it seems likely to have some impact.

Right now, however, the election allows the SNP a chance to regain some of the momentum it lost when it was stripped of 21 seats two years ago. At present the nationalists hold 35 seats in Scotland; emerging from this election with anything less than 45 would be mildly disappointing while anything over 45 would be considered a success. Above 50 and the clamour for a second independence referendum will start all over again.

In that sense, once again, the story of Scotland’s election is also an argument over the future of the United Kingdom itself. That future has been provisional since 2014 and while this election may be a matter of Brexit elsewhere, it is about things rather more important than that north of the border.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator