Politics & Policy

The Strange Death of Scottish Nationalism

Scottish First Minister Sturgeon delivers the SNP event election manifesto in May. (Reuters photo: Russell Cheyne)
Ascendant just two years ago, the SNP got shellacked last night. Where did things go wrong?

The main story from yesterday’s general election in the United Kingdom, splashed across front pages all over the world, is that of Theresa May’s colossal mistake. Having called an unanticipated snap election with the expectation of winning a landslide majority, she’s lost her dreams in the dust; her Conservative party has surrendered its slim majority and now must enter a fragile coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party in order to govern.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, though, the result looks quite different. There, the story is again one of a colossal political miscalculation, this one made by Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, which saw its support in Scotland seriously dented.

Some background is in order here. The SNP — which seeks a Scotland independent of the United Kingdom, and thus the severance of the Act of Union of 1707 — has maintained a perennial presence in Scottish politics for decades, but only in the last ten years or so has it ascended to dominance of the Scottish political landscape. In 2007, it became the largest party in the devolved Scottish Assembly at Holyrood. In 2011, it won an absolute majority of seats there, which is no mean feat in a system that uses a form of proportional representation. It then used the political capital from these victories to force a referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014, which it lost by a relatively narrow margin.

The SNP’s greatest coup came in the following year, when it capitalized on the momentum gained from the referendum to nearly sweep all parliamentary constituencies in Scotland. SNP yellow replaced Labour red. It was a momentous event in the history of British politics: Outside of Northern Ireland’s unique confines, never had a regionalist party achieved such a victory, and without Scotland, Labour’s path to an absolute majority at Westminster is tricky, if not outright impossible.

Contemporary center-left convention views nationalism as a feverish right-wing project: an ideology of blood and soil, predicated on exclusion, xenophobia, and racism. The SNP has no place in that classification. Rather, theirs is a liberal sort of nationalism, one that seeks to transform Scotland into an oil-rich, social-democratic republic along the lines of Norway or Sweden. (The abolition of university-tuition fees, for instance, was one of the SNP’s first actions when it came into office at Holyrood in 2007.) The Scottish nation, in the SNP’s conception, would be an outward-facing, tolerant one, sneering at parochialism south of the border and marching stridently into the cosmopolitan future. It’s a vision that allowed the party to outflank Labour as the dominant left-wing alternative to the Tories, making the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson the primary voice of opposition country-wide.

In last year’s Brexit referendum, the Scottish people spoke emphatically, voting by a margin of 62–38 to stay in the European Union. The margin of Leave’s victory in England overwhelmed Scotland’s voice, though, and the country found itself pulled in a direction it had no desire to go. The possibility of a second referendum on independence was repeatedly raised: Perhaps, through independence, Scotland could remain in the EU. In March, Sturgeon announced her plans for such a referendum; it would, she said, occur after negotiations for the Brexit deal ended but before the result went into effect, thus giving the Scottish people the chance to vote on two versions of the future. Downing Street disagreed, saying the referendum should take place only after the entire U.K. had left the EU. The stage was set for a political showdown after the election; more importantly, Sturgeon had placed the issue of a second referendum on the table for the campaign to come.

In a sense, the lesson is much the same as it is south of the border: Don’t call elections when you don’t need to, and especially not as a cynical means of outflanking your opponents.

The result of all this was that the United Kingdom essentially saw two separate campaigns and elections: One south of the border, fought between Labour and Conservatives over Brexit and two contrasting visions of a statist future; and one north of the border, fought between the SNP and the Conservatives mostly over the issue of independence.

The Scottish Conservatives, as Alex Massie writes in the Spectator, based their campaign on the notion that the result of the 2014 independence referendum was definitive. The party is fortunate to have as its leader the inimitable Ruth Davidson — a particularly gifted, charismatic, and popular politician who shines especially bright when pitted against her manifestly flawed English counterpart. Defending the union was Davidson’s primary task, and she set out to give a voice to those Scots who have grown tired with the SNP’s endless talk of referendums on a question that has already been litigated. (Lest the actual act of governance be forgotten, the Scottish Tories also repeatedly called the SNP’s record into question, pushing Sturgeon on the state of public services, especially schools and universities, in the country.)

Now the SNP and the Scottish independence movement have been dealt a heavy blow. In the 2015 election, the SNP won a full 50 percent of the vote and 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. Only two years later, its share of the vote has fallen to 37 percent, and its number of seats to 35. The Tories have nearly doubled their vote-share, to 28.6 percent, and now hold 13 seats; nearly all parts of Scotland saw a shift toward Davidson’s party. Labour gained six seats, bringing their count to seven. Even the Lib Dems, utterly beleaguered and hapless in national politics, made gains. Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson — the former first minister of the SNP and its current leader of in the House of Commons, respectively — lost their seats.

This is a cataclysmic result for Sturgeon, one almost as surprising and consequential as the SNP’s near-total sweep in 2015. If she could once claim that a second referendum embodied the democratic will of the Scottish people, she can do so no longer. For the Scottish people have spoken, and the unmatched enthusiasm they showed for Scottish nationalism in 2015 has markedly ebbed. In her speech this morning, Sturgeon did not explicitly rule out fighting for another referendum, but certainly indicated that she is now leaning against it. The once-in-a-generation opportunity for Scottish independence seems to have disappeared as quickly as it came.

In a sense, the lesson is much the same as it is south of the border: Don’t call elections when you don’t need to, and especially not as a cynical means of outflanking your opponents. It was this folly that led to embarrassing quasi-defeat for May, who believed she could annihilate the Labour party at its polling nadir. It was the same folly to which David Cameron succumbed last summer, after having called the Brexit referendum for the purposes of gaining the upper hand against UKIPpers who threatened to claw away at Conservative majorities across the country and Euroskeptic Tories who threatened to restrict his latitude in relations with Europe. And it is the same folly that Nicola Sturgeon must now be regretting, having believed that she could use the issue of independence as a wedge with which to cement her own authority.

This has been said to be an election over Brexit. To a large extent it was — though Labour has embraced some version of an exit, it is hard to read rampant youth enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn as anything but an expression of frustration with the hard-Brexit tack the Tories have adopted. But in another respect it was also an election about the future of a political arrangement far more ancient than the European Union: the United Kingdom. An SNP victory on the scale of 2015 would have eased the path toward dissolution. The performance of the Scottish Conservatives has effectively forestalled it. In the long run, that may prove a far more significant victory than any Conservative majority at Westminster ever could be.

— Noah Daponte-Smith is a student of modern history and politics at Yale University and an editorial intern at National Review.

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