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SNP collapse may have killed the independence dream

John Swinney doesn't excite the nationalist base. Credit: Getty

July 5, 2024 - 2:30pm

The 2024 general election will be remembered as the sobering moment when the Scottish National Party’s seemingly unstoppable electoral juggernaut came to a crashing stop.

The results speak for themselves. The SNP has lost 38 seats, and its share of the Scottish vote has fallen from 45% in 2019 to an estimated less than 30% today. Among the big beasts to fall were the outspoken gender-critical MP Joanna Cherry in Edinburgh South West and former MEP Alyn Smith while others, such as SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, barely clung on in Aberdeen South. Only the embarrassment of Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross — who ran a campaign almost as shambolic as the nationalists’ and lost his seat — and the rise of Reform UK spared the SNP from the abject humiliation of total wipeout.

Meanwhile, the Lazurus-like Scottish Labour Party has enjoyed an extraordinary resurgence, winning 37 seats across Scotland’s urban central belt and beyond. Its most symbolic victories came in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow — a former Labour heartland that was also one of only two local authority areas to back independence at the 2014 referendum.

Quaich-half-full Scottish nationalists might optimistically hope that this result is an aberration, a small setback that can be reversed. After all, the SNP lost 21 seats in the 2017 general election and went on to win them back in 2019, before triumphing at the Scottish Parliament election in 2021. But such wishful thinking would be misplaced: this general election has shown that the factors which previously propelled the SNP to power — and helped it bounce back in defeat — have rapidly vanished.

The SNP’s golden years under Alex Salmond were founded on his ability to appeal across the political divide and ally rural, socially-conservative Tartan Tories with urban, former Labour voters who felt disgruntled with Tony Blair and the failures of limited devolution. Salmond’s nationalism was nationwide, as popular in Balmedie as it was in Bargeddie. But, under his successor Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish nationalism then turned its back on its rural, conservative vote and focused on the progressive shibboleths of the major cities.

Swept from Scotland’s Central Belt by a resurgent Scottish Labour, the SNP is no longer a political movement that enjoys support across the country. It can no longer appeal across the urban-rural divide. It is no longer the party of the urban and suburban middle class, who have grown weary of high taxes, identity politics and failing public services.

Equally, the constitution has increasingly receded as an issue that motivates voters. SNP strategists had hoped the fact that around half of voters still notionally support independence would help strengthen their position. But these results show increasing numbers of pro-independence supporters are happy to vote for Unionist parties, with independence rarely ranked as a priority even among supporters of separation.

The loss of these twin factors is particularly dangerous for the nationalists as they will have little time to rebuild their voter base. The next Holyrood election is barely more than 18 months away and, on the basis of this general election result, many SNP seats in the Central Belt will be vulnerable to the Labour Party then too. The idea of fighting for the national interest can be assumed in Holyrood, making the SNP MSPs less important than the MPs supposedly holding Westminster to account.

The Nats will hope that their new(ish) leader John Swinney, and his impressive deputy Kate Forbes, can help distance the party from Operation Branchform, the ongoing police investigation into SNP finances. They have already indicated they will pursue a more pro-business approach than the former SNP first minister, Humza Yousaf, and the general election result will only further encourage them to ditch the party’s recent unpopular focus on gender and identity politics.

Yet, it seems unlikely that even a return to normalcy at the top of the SNP will be enough to save the nationalists now. It’s worth remembering that Swinney led the SNP to five seats in 2001 — he has never excited the nationalist base like Salmond or Sturgeon. After more than a decade of seeming invincibility, the SNP’s great electoral machine has finally broken down.


Andrew Liddle is a political commentator and historian based in Edinburgh.

ABTLiddle

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hercules J
hercules J
13 days ago

Through the sheer feelings of despair at a Labour government, the one thing that made my day was the wipeout of the SNP. Silver lining.

william langdale
william langdale
13 days ago

Every member of the incoming Labour government should be made to watch Nicola Sturgeon’s car crash Isla Bryson interview at the start of every working day to remind them what happens when political parties imbibe the poison of identity politics,heed that warning or go the same way,up to them.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
13 days ago

The SNP as the ruling body at Holyrood were an absolute disaster at the prime job of maintaining and enhancing public services. Best summed-up by ‘you judge a society by how it treats minorities’. Well, newsflash to SNP; you don’t. For all their years in office, the people who create the wealth and provide the stability of a functioning society, were just taken for granted and ignored. Just look where the resources went in education; always to the least able. The fabulously named ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ just produces a zombie population with entitlement expectations. For all my loathing of modern Tories like Cameron and his successors, they do at least, some of them, sort of, still believe in merit.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
13 days ago

Given that they were in power for ten years and Scotland still isn’t independent, you have to wonder what the point of them is.

charlie martell
charlie martell
11 days ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

The point, so far as most of them are concerned, is to mop up public money at levels they could never command in the real world.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
11 days ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

The anti-English section of the population gathers around them like flies to a cow t**d. That’s their raison d’etre.

Josef Ć vejk
Josef Ć vejk
13 days ago

The promotion of identity as a political norm has been the cause of the SNP’s fall. And fall it is. Who will forget the promotion of Transgender ideology? And this to Scots! To paraphrase Clinton W. ” Its about Scotland, stupid “.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
12 days ago

The near obliteration of the SNP is quite satisfying. However I sadly suspect they’ll be back after 5 years of Labour fails to make significant improvements thanks to all the entrenched interests which seem to make governing impossible.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
12 days ago
Reply to  Steven Targett

Holyrood will still be saying it is all Westminster’s fault no matter if the red team are in ascendance and not the blues for a few years.

Martin M
Martin M
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Targett

Yes, I confess to a fair bit of schadenfreude at the SNP’s travails.

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
12 days ago

Can the author give us any idea of what the Starmer government might do in respect of what appears to be more and more devolution as envisaged by Gordon Brown in his recent report to the new P M ?

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
13 days ago

“impressive deputy Kate Forbes”

I always thought that she was but a young girl still, but seemed eloquent and able to speak *some* sense. Then she decided to become deputy first minister and then she was phagocytized in no time. How are we supposed to believe what will come out of her mouth now? (Mind you, I am not sure I ever fully believed her)

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
13 days ago

what does ‘phagocytized’ mean?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
12 days ago

Phagocytes are large hunter-killer cells of the immune system that trundle round your body hoovering up smaller toxic bacteria and pathogens.

Martin M
Martin M
11 days ago

Good word! I will try to use it myself, but I feel I will struggle to be sable to do so in context!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

Another End of History assessment
. In reality, with the passage of time, Labour will fall out of favour and, in Scotland, the SNP (or another independence-supporting party) will recover to eclipse them again in Scottish and U.K. General Elections. As will happen in England with a recovery of the Tories in due course.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
12 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

When you constabtly slag off Westminster as being the reason for all your woes, the SNP didnt make sure they were squeaky clean. People in Scotland put up with the SNP blaming everything on a corrupt Boris Johnson, then discoved Sturgeon et al were just as bad. Once the wool lifted, it was the beginning of the ebd. If the SNP are not honest about their internal politics/fiscal management why would people trust them to “run a menage” never mind an independent country. There are many adults in Scotland who are intelligent enough to know we are better together than apart.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
12 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

There are many possible scenarios. Here is another: the tories disappear in a whirlpool of recrimination and backstabbing, labour implodes because they find they can’t fix anything whilst not spending and taxing, reform win majority at next GE and introduce PR the quid pro quo for which is the dissolution of the regional assemblies.

Will K
Will K
12 days ago

Our leaders may have failed. The People remain. And still think as they did before.

Martin M
Martin M
11 days ago
Reply to  Will K

The last time they expressed their thoughts by way of the ballot box, they voted against independence.