WE are about to enter the first Holyrood election in nearly a decade that will not be fought over independence or the early prospect of it. Nicola Sturgeon seems in no hurry to call that second referendum, even though the forthcoming Europe referendum could pull Scotland out of the EU.
And the opposition parties in Scotland are not treating this as an independence election either. The chosen battleground in May is, by mutual agreement, domestic policy: education, the NHS, local government cuts and taxation, specifically income tax.
In other words, Scottish politics has become boring again. The prospect of independence, which eclipsed all other issues and engaged the entire nation – for or against – has receded into the future. We are back to bread-and-butter politics. And the conventional wisdom is that the SNP, which is the party of independence, is on much weaker ground when it comes to domestic policy.
Even Nicola Sturgeon admits that Scottish education is not in a good place, nine years after the SNP entered government. The £350 million in headline cuts to local government under the recent budget has led to claims that the Scottish Government is now the party of austerity in Scotland. The SNP’s reluctance to use the Scottish Parliament’s new taxation powers has dented Nicola Sturgeon’s claim to be a radical social democrat.
So why then is the SNP if anything increasing its lead over the other Scottish parties? Last week, the most recent poll from TNS showed support for the SNP in the forthcoming Holyrood election breaking through the 60 per cent barrier in the constituency vote, 39 points ahead of Labour on 21 per cent.
The much-hyped Conservative revival appears in this poll to have stalled, as Ruth Davidson’s party is back down to 13 per cent. The Scottish Liberal Democrats are on 4 per cent, according to TNS.
David Cameron may believe that the Tories are now the real opposition party in Scotland, as he suggested on the eve of this weekend’s Conservative gathering in Edinburgh, but the numbers don’t add up. Though his claim that Scotland is becoming a one-party state may be true to the extent that the SNP is more popular than all the other parties put together. Indeed, it is hard to identify any party as a credible opposition right now.
We’ve become so used to the SNP dominating polls that we have forgotten how extraordinary this is, nine years after they entered government. The iron rule of parliamentary politics is that governments become less popular the longer they are in power. Election promises turn sour, the economy falters, mistakes pile up and people generally become bored with their political leaders.
The Scottish Government has made plenty of mistakes, from springing the Lockerbie bomber to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds Act. After nine years, it has failed to scrap the “unfair” council tax, though last week it increased it on more expensive houses.
There has been a number of high-profile sleaze scandals involving prominent Scottish National Party MPs. The economy is not doing well in Scotland as growth lags the UK and the oil and gas sector tanks. But none of this seems to have rubbed off on the SNP.
Frustration among the opposition parties is palpable. At First Minister’s Questions every week, Kezia Dugdale seems almost beside herself at the sheer unfairness of it. How dare Nicola Sturgeon be so popular? What mysterious alchemy is at work? Has she hypnotised the Scottish voters with her cult of personality?
Well, there’s a bit of that certainly. Scotland’s love affair with Nicola Sturgeon continues even though the passion of the independence referendum has gone. She seems to embody what modern Scots like to think of themselves: smart, confident, left-wing, well turned out, Scottish without making a big deal of it.
She is also a very astute politician as even Kezia Dugdale has conceded. Without her it is difficult to imagine the SNP being as popular as it is right now. Who would take over if the First Minister wasn’t around? Difficult, isn’t it.
But this isn’t just a personality cult. The SNP is popular, in part, because it lost the independence referendum. That sounds like a paradox and it is, but it isn’t so hard to understand. In September 2014, Scots voted to remain in the Union but with little enthusiasm. There was no celebration, no dancing in the streets.
Better Together had won by making the prospect of independence seem like economic suicide. The Westminster Government refused even to discuss the prospect of Scotland remaining in a currency union with the rest of the UK. This would have damaged trade and caused businesses and banks to relocate to England to avoid currency instability.
It was a rough wooing. Scots had always felt remote from London government, but now many began to feel a little threatened by it. So it is quite natural that Scottish voters should seek an insurance policy: a party that they know will stand up unequivocally for Scottish interests.
The Tories are still beyond the pale in Scotland; Labour are not trusted because they allied with the Tories in Better Together. And the Liberal Democrats are suspect because they were in government with the Tories until 2015.
Kezia Dugdale is doing what she can to rectify this. She has made a decisive break from “London Labour” over issues like Trident, and she has relocated Labour to the left of the SNP on taxation and fracking. Last week, she called for a complete ban on fracking and unconventional gas.
She has made a radical break with the Blair/Brown era by calling for a one penny increase in income tax to pay for investment in education. This is the right thing to do to make her party relevant again. But May 2016 is too early for this to make much of an impact on the the Sturgeonator.
Hopefully, Labour realise this and won’t indulge in their usual self-defeating factionalism after the inevitable defeat in the Holyrood elections. Dugdale, despite her youth and inexperience, is the best leader Scottish Labour have had since Donald Dewar. Any attempt to stab her in the back will only set Labour back another decade.
The SNP’s popularity cannot endure indefinitely. Eventually, the normal laws of politics will assert themselves. But it could be a few years yet before they do. The SNP’s determination to fight Scotland’s corner in the negotiations over the new tax powers showed that. Scots voters cannot be sure Labour would have fought as hard.
Kezia Dugdale rightly backed John Swinney’s insistence on “no detriment” to Scottish spending. But there are too many in the UK Labour Party who have claimed that Scotland is getting away with fiscal murder, including the late Lord Barnett himself, who devised the eponymous formula. The SNP has no UK party to worry about.
Labour will continue to chip away at the SNP’s radical credibility in Holyrood, but that won’t be enough to halt another SNP victory. Nicola Sturgeon would have to do something pretty daft to lose in May – like invite Donald Trump to tea and Tunnocks in Bute House. And she ain’t gonna do that.
from Sunday Herald 6/3/16