From Herald, 20/4/17
The General Election of 2015 in Scotland was one of the most remarkable in British electoral history. In General Elections, a swing of 10 per cent is exceptional; in the “tsunami”, as it was called, the average swing to the SNP was 30 per cent and famously broke the BBC’s swingometer.
Labour lost 40 out of 41 seats, in an extraordinary revolt against the party that had dominated Scottish politics for half a century. The SNP ended up with 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, leaving the Unionist parties with only one apiece. Suddenly it wasn’t only the Tories who had fewer MPs than there are giant pandas in Edinburgh Zoo.
So, the only way is down for Nicola Sturgeon It is almost inconceivable that the SNP could repeat an election victory on that scale. Even the loss of a handful of seats would allow Theresa May to claim the nationalist tide had turned. Labour is already rehearsing the line that “peak Nat” has passed.
Nicola Sturgeon’s main job, therefore, in the coming weeks will be to manage expectations downwards. This despite the fact that, on the latest YouGov poll, the SNP’s lead over the Conservatives is almost as great as Theresa May’s over Jeremy Corbyn: 44 per cent to 26 per cent. Ms Sturgeon will have to persuade Scottish voters that the loss of a few seats, like the loss of the SNP overall majority in Holyrood last year, is just a consequence of the vagaries of electoral politics and doesn’t alter the SNP’s claim to lead Scotland.
The First Minister has insisted this election is not about a second independence referendum, the mandate for which was secured in Holyrood. And it would be wise for Ruth Davidson to avoid the temptation to portray the 2017 poll as itself a referendum on independence – as Theresa May tried to with the local elections– if only because the SNP is certain to win more than 50 per cent of the seats.
It used to be SNP policy that a majority of seats in any UK parliamentary election would itself be a mandate for independence. On any calculus Nicola Sturgeon’s party is certain to return a far greater majority, proportionately, than Theresa May’s in the UK. (2015 was a super mandate: to match the SNP’s performance, the Tories would have had to win 610 out of 650 Westminster seats. )
Of course, in a real sense peak Nat is already past. The SNP currently has only 54 seats in Westminster owing to the resignations of the MP Natalie McGarry of Glasgow East, following allegations of financial irregularities, and Michelle Thomson in Edinburgh West, over her property company’s connection with a lawyer struck off for failing to recognise evidence of fraud. I suspect neither will be standing again, though the matter is to be decided by the SNP executive this weekend.
This means the Liberal Democrats have a real chance in Edinburgh West, and a LibDem revival might be one of the stories of the night, given the party’s opposition to Brexit. The LibDems will target North East Fife, which they held for 18 years, and Charles Kennedy’s old seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. But they could face difficulties in their only current seat, Orkney and Shetland. Voters there will be reminded that the sitting MP, and former Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, lied about telling the press that Nicola Sturgeon privately wanted the Tories to win.
“Frenchgate” dominated the first week of the 2015 campaign. It seems almost incredible that anyone could have taken seriously the allegation that the First Minister had told the French ambassador that she wanted to see David Cameron in Number Ten. There will be no such confusion this time. The enmity between Ms Sturgeon and Theresa May has become only too apparent since the Prime Minister rejected the Scottish Parliament’s call for a referendum.
The Conservatives will be in no position now to accuse the SNP of forcing an unnecessary vote on an unwilling electorate, because that’s what Theresa May is doing. She said that “now is not the time” for an independence referendum because it would create “instability”, but it is apparently the time for a General Election, in defiance of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which Theresa May voted for in 2011. This may seem a minor issue, but like her refusal to agree to any TV debate and her complaints about the opposition parties doing their job in Westminster, it looks rather imperious – as if the Prime Minister thinks she’s above the rules.
The size of the Tory revival in Scotland remains to be seen. The Tories hope to regain “natural” Tory seats like Dumfries and Galloway and East Renfrewshire. However, their peg remains distinctly shoogly in their one and only seat, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, where the Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, has a majority of only 798.
That was a result of tactical voting by Scottish voters, determined to punish the Tories for opposing a Scottish parliament. Many will want to punish this right-wing Brexit Government in similar manner. The Green co-convenor, Maggie Chapman, has called on her party to stand down in David Mundell’s seat, and others, to ensure a “Tory-free Scotland”. All the other parties have an interest in maximising the anti-Tory vote, if only to curb Ruth Davidson’s momentum. As we saw over the rape clause, the Scottish parties seem to be willing to unite against her and her party’s social attitudes.
Then there’s the future of the Scotland Act. All the non-Tory parties in Holyrood are calling for powers devolved from Brussels to go directly to Scotland. Mrs May has made clear that they will go to London first. She is using this election, in part, to secure a mandate for driving through the Great Repeal Bill against the inevitable confrontation with the legislative authority of the Scottish Parliament.
This may seem legalistic, but as the campaign develops, the threat to Holyrood’s constitutional status could become a central issue, as the Conservatives are repeatedly challenged on the repatriation of powers. It would be strangely fitting if, 20 years on, the Conservative ambivalence over devolution were once again to take them back to zero.