This is the third blog in the series ‘What next for…’ following the UK General Election 2017. The author was SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, 2011-16 and served as Minister for Local Government and Communities, 2014-16. He is currently completing a political science PhD at Yale University.
In any other election 35 MPs would have been a magnificent result for the Scottish National Party. Until two years their greatest haul of seats been 11 – and that was in 1974, to which only the longer political memories stretch. It is the unprecedented, unexpected success of 2015’s landslide that makes this victory – for a victory it still was – so bittersweet. SNP leaders and strategists will now turn their minds to ensuring that this is result is a setback and not a turning-point – especially with the likelihood of a UK minority government giving way to another early election.
One concern for the SNP would be that June’s result is a return to starkly multi-level politics. From the advent of devolution until the 2015 UK elections a significant portion of the Scottish electorate showed a marked tendency to vote for the SNP for Holyrood and other parties – principally Labour – for Westminster. Having gained a prominent place in the UK Parliament as well as Holyrood the party will be loath to surrender their new-found status.
Another concern is the connection with their support base. The nationalists lack the class loyalty of traditional social democratic and conservative parties, even if modern politics is marked by a greater volatility of support than in the heyday of party loyalty in the 1960s and 1970s. Partisan dealignment giveth and partisan dealignment taketh away. The greater weakness of attachment to political parties allowed the SNP to rise by drawing supporters from other parties – at its zenith the 2015 landslide – but also means these supporters may not put down roots in their new political home. The closeness of the SNP’s social democratic position and Labour’s also means these voters do not have far to jump.
Positioning on the three key political dimensions – left-right, Brexit, independence – will therefore be crucially important. A rightward shift to regain the lost rural constituencies would be implausible given the inclinations of the party membership, who are taking to social media en masse to demand a shift in the opposite direction. Yet the question is open as to whether a leftward shift will be a net benefit in regaining voters who returned to Labour, since Labour too are now further to the left than they have been in decades.
On the issue du jour of Brexit, the SNP are the most vocally opposed to implementation – despite one-third of their support base voting to Leave. The question of whether this group disproportionately departed the party in the election remains to be answered conclusively, but that they did so would seem to be a very strong hypothesis. In their hearts SNP elites are far more pro-European than their voters as a whole – changing this stance is unlikely, so a new way of presenting it must be found.
Even more sensitive is the question of independence, the cause around which the party is founded. Support for the second referendum announced by the First Minister in March has stayed markedly tepid among the general public while opposition is emotive. Blocking a vote was the sole clear policy position of the Scottish Conservative party as they surged to an almost doubling of their share of the vote. What to do here is easily the biggest strategic question for the SNP. Is it though as much of a trade-off as the others? Openly delaying the desired referendum is one option, but the opposite is unclear. Does Holyrood have the power to hold a referendum without Westminster authorisation? This has never been conclusively answered. If so the SNP could choose to go ahead all guns blazing, or to seek to test the question in court. If not there is no other option, and indeed delaying becomes the only way forward.
Elections are not won purely on the basis of policy however. Leaders are generally thought to matter too. Nicola Sturgeon polled personal approval ratings as First Minister higher than any of the other Scottish or UK leaders during the campaign – but her disapproval ratings have also grown markedly. Pre-eminent in her government and loved by the rank-and-file her position is safe, but she will seek to address this Marmite image, as her often similarly-viewed predecessor Alex Salmond several times successfully achieved when political situations demanded. Doing so may involve an attempt to reinvent and revivify the SNP Government at Holyrood. Whether that can be done if all of the political oxygen of media airtime and public attention is being monopolised by the question of a second independence referendum remains to be seen.