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Why the SNP is staring down the barrel of electoral disaster

SNP
First Minister Humza Yousaf and his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon

Last week was more difficult than usual for Humza Yousaf. Even as his political woes multiplied, his personal familial relationships were being dragged into the media glare.

News outlets breathlessly reported that the first minister’s brother-in-law, Ramsay El-Nakla, had appeared in court, charged with abduction and extortion following an incident where a man fell from a block of flats and later died.

Yousaf is not the first politician to be embarrassed by coverage of the troubles faced by a close relative.

The SNP leader is accountable only for his own actions. Nevertheless, the publicity would have been an unwelcome complication in a week when a new opinion poll seemed to spell the doom of the independence project, and the tensions within the broader political family of the Yes movement reached breaking point in a very public manner.

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While the Tories’ polling woes have been headline news for months, they are not the only party staring down the barrel of electoral disaster. The SNP is facing a crisis of its own.

A toxic mix of poor political decisions, an increasing scrutiny of the SNP’s record in government, a constitutional debate that is leading the party into a blind alley, threats to its coalition agreement with the Greens, and growing discontent with Yousaf’s leadership threaten to make the 10th anniversary of the independence referendum a cause for angry recriminations rather than celebration.

The last time a YouGov survey revealed a Labour lead in Scotland was in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in September 2014. But last week, in the polling organisation’s latest snapshot, Labour had finally overtaken the SNP in popularity.

A general election that accurately reflected this poll would leave Labour in Scotland with 28 seats – up from its current tally of one – 10 seats ahead of the SNP, which won 48 constituencies at the 2019 general election.

The poll arrived on news desks a day after an unseemly – and extremely rare – public fracas between the SNP and their Scottish Green partners in government. In a newspaper interview, Yousaf had suggested that a vote for the Greens in Scotland at the forthcoming general election would be “wasted”, given that last time round they failed even to secure their deposits in a single seat.

The Greens were not about to take this lying down. One of their most prominent MSPs, Ross Greer, pointedly asserted that every vote for his party would send “the strongest possible message to Westminster that Scotland demands urgent action on the climate and nature emergencies. The world is burning around us and sadly all other parties have proven unwilling to step up when needed to protect our common future”.

That may sound like the usual politicking one would expect to hear from all the parties as the election draws nearer.

But in Scotland, such a public row between the two main nationalist parties points to an unprecedented fracturing of an informal political agreement that has been maintained for more than a decade. It even puts pressure on the rather more formal agreement that brought the Scottish Greens into government in the first place.

Signs of stress

The Greens have benefited at successive Scottish Parliament elections – which are run on a hybrid system of first-past-the-post and the d’Hondt proportional list system – by appealing to SNP supporters to give their party the second vote.

With the SNP performing well at constituency level, they are unlikely to gain more than a few seats on the party lists that are intended to balance representation at Holyrood. The Greens’ enthusiasm for independence has in the past made them a comfortable alternative for nationalist voters.

But that alliance was already showing signs of stress even before this latest unedifying war of words. Senior SNP politicians – particularly the veteran ex-minister Fergus Ewing, a scion of the famous Ewing dynasty – have consistently demanded the end of the agreement that ceded two junior ministers’ posts to the Greens’ co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater.

He renewed his attack this week, stating: “The co-operation agreement with the Greens stipulates that its cornerstone is ‘mutual trust and good faith’. It’s clear from recent blistering attacks by Green MSPs … upon the SNP government that this trust has broken down and good faith, if it ever existed, is no longer.”

The formal agreement with the Greens has indeed been at the root of some – though by no means all – of the SNP’s difficulties in government.

Part of the so-called Bute House Agreement signed by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon agreed to progress one of the policies closest to the Greens’ hearts – self-identification for trans people.

But despite enjoying cross-party support, including that of Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill became the subject of much anger, division and controversy as it made its way through Holyrood, with women’s rights groups raising concerns about the impact of the legislation on the hard-won rights of women to same-sex spaces and sports.

Ultimately, the Bill was never granted Royal Assent after the UK government took an unprecedented decision to veto it.

Scottish public support for Scottish Secretary Alister Jack’s decision took many at Holyrood by surprise – and within the SNP group, anger turned towards the Greens.

Similarly, the new Hate Crime and Public Disorder (Scotland) Act, which passed three years ago but only came into force last week, has subjected all the parties, but particularly the SNP government, to some of the worst publicity they have yet received.

Police Scotland promised to investigate every complaint made to it under the act, just a few weeks after announcing that in order to save scarce resources certain other crimes would not be investigated – including some involving theft and criminal damage.

The act was piloted through the Scottish Parliament by Humza Yousaf himself when he was justice secretary, meaning he will find it difficult to escape responsibility if – as early indications suggest – it proves to be no more than an incentive to activists to make vexatious complaints.

Indyref2

Whatever its ultimate effect, the act merely confirms that when the SNP seeks to address political issues other than independence itself, it quickly finds itself directionless and out of depth.

Nationalist activists are growing ever more impatient at the lack of progress the administration has made towards securing a second independence referendum, despite a working majority at Holyrood, a large SNP majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster, and a Brexit that was opposed by a clear majority of Scots.

Yet in nearly nine years as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s most significant constitutional achievement was eliciting from the Supreme Court a definitive ruling that the Scottish Parliament has no legal authority to hold a second referendum without Westminster’s approval.

Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister came just a few weeks later – and a few days before she and her husband, the SNP’s former chief executive, Peter Murrell, were arrested (and subsequently released without charge) by detectives as part of Operation Branchform, the investigation into the whereabouts of £600,000 of donations to the party originally intended to fight a second independence referendum. Both have denied wrongdoing.

Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell
Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, who served as the SNP's chief executive - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

That investigation trundles on, casting a cloud over the party and allowing unhelpful speculation to undermine activists’ morale.

Meanwhile, Yousaf, who presented himself as the “continuity candidate” when he stood to succeed his former boss, has grappled – so far unsuccessfully – to succeed where she failed, and come up with a new plan to secure the only thing his party members are interested in: another independence referendum.

His current plan, to claim a mandate to open independence negotiations if his party wins more seats at the general election than any other one, is generally ridiculed and has failed to convince even his own supporters. If the party were to win a plurality of Scottish seats, it could end up demanding the right to negotiations even if it suffered a net loss of seats since 2019.

The likelihood that no incoming UK government, whether Labour or Conservative, would indulge the SNP on its demand for negotiations only adds to the pressure on Yousaf.

Perhaps if the SNP had made a competent job of governing on other matters, its inability to move the dial on independence might be forgiven by its supporters. Unfortunately for Yousaf, the Scottish government’s report card does little to offer the first minister comfort.

A country in decline

In devolved areas for which Yousaf and his ministers have full responsibility, the results are not encouraging.

One in seven Scots currently languishes on an NHS waiting list. In education, where Sturgeon once asked to be judged on her government’s success in closing the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, the gulf has only become wider. The Scottish government has dropped that particular target.

Even by international standards, an education system that was once feted as the best in the developed world (not least by Scots themselves) has fallen upon hard times under the stewardship of the SNP.

The latest survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) was published in December and made for worrying reading for Scottish parents.

Pupils’ results in science and maths have continued to decline: the drop in achievement since 2006 is the equivalent of missing 21 months of science lessons and more than 18 months of maths, according to analysis.

Further and higher education in Scotland has its own challenges. The much-vaunted policy of offering “free” university tuition to Scottish students – a policy inherited from the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat administration – has had the unintended consequence of making it harder for pupils from poorer backgrounds to get a place at university, thanks to the cap on the number of “funded” places available at Scotland’s universities.

The SNP has come under particular criticism from all sides on the issue of preventable deaths caused by illegal drug use. The number of fatalities continues to outstrip not only every nation of the UK but every country in Europe.

Attempts by SNP ministers to blame UK-wide drug legislation has persuaded few, since England, Wales and Northern Ireland operate under the same laws but suffer far fewer deaths per head.

And then there’s the ongoing catastrophe of the SNP government’s attempt to commission and build two new ferries to serve Scotland’s island communities.

The launch last week of the Glen Rosa from Port Glasgow shipyard should have offered Yousaf and his ministerial colleagues some much-needed respite from their other difficulties.

Instead, it is likely only to highlight the ongoing problems the yard has had in fulfilling the contract. The Glen Rosa itself is far from ready to go into service, a point that remains about 18 months in the future. In the meantime, the original £97m cost for the two ships is likely to be exceeded by a factor of four.

Glen Rosa ferry
The Glen Rosa has become a political sore point for the SNP - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Accused of pandering to a woke minority, of seeking to restrict or silence freedom of speech through its Hate Crime Act, responsible for overseeing a drastic loss of faith in the NHS in Scotland, offering little or no hope of improvement in Scotland’s schools, overseeing unprecedented levels of misery for the families of drug users, and demonstrating an inability to procure vital infrastructure for isolated communities, the SNP might have hoped for better circumstances in which to approach a general election.

Yet whatever date Rishi Sunak chooses for polling day, it’s unlikely that things can get better for Humza Yousaf between now and then. Operation Branchform may or may not conclude in that period, with consequences no one can predict.

More importantly from a political point of view, the memory of a referendum that happened 10 years ago and the divisions that campaign fostered have at last started to fade.

With the prospects of a second referendum also disappearing, at least in the medium term, Scots are finally starting to consider other issues that will be the subject of debate at the election.

The lure of Labour

Labour’s offer in Scotland – to be part of the change that will sweep the hated Tories from government – is proving an attractive one, even to those who deserted the party after the independence referendum and who still hold out hope for the end of the Union.

For Scottish Labour, these voters are key. Winning back those former supporters who lost faith in a party that they, their parents and their grandparents had supported for decades would utterly transform the political landscape in Scotland, almost as much as the SNP transformed it in 2015.

But there are two major obstacles to achieving that goal. The first is how to attract “soft” independence supporters to back a party that still opposes independence. The second is how to hold on to that support while shaping a manifesto that appeals, on a UK-wide basis, to former Conservative voters in England.

The polls suggest that Keir Starmer has made significant progress in both strategies. The problem for the SNP is that it recognises the desire among most of its own supporters to see the back of Rishi Sunak and his party from government.

And so far it has failed to find a convincing counter-argument to the growing perception that only a vote for Scottish Labour can bring that about.

Yousaf has, in recent weeks, sought to play down the threat from Labour and instead tried to convince his audience that his party’s main opponents are the Conservatives. This is true in a handful of seats, particularly in the north east of Scotland. But the general election will be fought and won in Scotland’s west central belt, the same area that once elected scores of Labour MPs and where Labour is mounting its fiercest challenge.

The second of Yousaf’s tactics is to try to claim that Labour, in its efforts to appeal to middle England, is now no different from the Conservatives and therefore unworthy of Scots’ support. Again, the polls would suggest that this argument too is falling on deaf ears.

Third, Yousaf has suggested that sending a large contingent of nationalist MPs to Westminster will help keep Labour “honest”. Since Starmer is going to win anyway, the argument goes, there is no need to bloat his ranks with more unnecessary Scottish Labour MPs.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and MP-elect Michael Shanks
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer celebrates Michael Shanks' by-election victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West last year - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

All of this will inevitably be exploited by the Conservatives, who hope to hold on to and perhaps even increase their representation of seven Scottish MPs. In the 2015 campaign, the party successfully exploited the fears of English voters that a minority government led by Ed Miliband would be in Alex Salmond’s pocket.

Expect the same arguments to be made again in 2024, and expect Labour to deny vehemently any prospect that the nationalists might leverage concessions on the constitutional issue.

Yousaf’s argument is, in fact, self-defeating and contradictory: SNP MPs can only exert influence on Labour if it fails to win a majority on its own. That being the case, the argument to vote Labour in Scotland and give Starmer the majority he needs is even more persuasive.

A hard political lesson

But such details are of less importance than the wider national mood, depending on whether that mood is optimistic or pessimistic. An awful lot needs to go right for the SNP between now and the start of the official short campaign.

Yousaf’s problem is that there is nothing in the “grid” of political events that is likely to shift the political narrative in Scotland.

The troubled coalition agreement with the Greens will continue, meaning that Green ministers will continue to announce unpopular initiatives and SNP MSPs will continue to challenge them.

The latest of these was a ban on wood-burning stoves in new-build homes in Scotland, which has provided Kate Forbes, the former finance secretary and Yousaf’s chief rival in last year’s leadership contest, with an opportunity to rally discontented party members and parliamentarians.

Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf
Kate Forbes lost the SNP leadership vote to Mr Yousaf by just 2,142 votes - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Forbes has repeatedly refused to concede that she has given up on her ambitions to lead the party. She lost in 2023 by 52pc to 48pc and would be a favourite to succeed Yousaf were he to step aside or even be forced out.

Whether that happens will depend on the general election result and, perhaps, the 2026 Scottish parliament elections. There are those who suggest that even if the SNP loses badly in 2024, Yousaf may still be given a chance to redeem himself by leading the party into the crucial Holyrood contest.

But there are probably more who believe that while the loss of a few dozen MPs is tolerable for the party, the prize of Bute House, the official residence of the first minister, is too great to be risked by sending a wounded politician into battle for them.

And if in the aftermath of the loss of the general election in Scotland and the evaporation of such hopes of independence negotiations of which the party dreamed, Yousaf were persuaded to resign, Kate Forbes presents a very different prospect for the nationalist cause.

As a devout Christian and member of the Free Presbyterian Church, she is socially conservative and does not subscribe to the trans ideology of either Sturgeon or Yousaf, having stated that “a rapist cannot be a woman” and defining a trans woman as “a biological man who identifies as a woman”.

Such views seem not to have dented her popularity among the activists who would decide a future leadership contest, but her accession to the job of first minister would almost certainly mean the departure of the Scottish Greens from government, given their unswerving support for trans ideology.

That would leave the SNP administration without a working majority at Holyrood for at least the last 18 months or so of this parliament, but it might offer her party a degree of intellectual cohesion that it currently lacks.

Forbes is thought to wish to pursue a longer term strategy of achieving independence by gradually winning over the Scottish electorate to the cause, even if that takes far longer than most activists have the patience to endure.

Provided Starmer can maintain his own party’s double-digit opinion poll lead until the long-awaited arrival of the formal general election campaign, and provided he looks like he can be the mechanism by which Scots can help remove the Conservatives from Downing Street, Humza Yousaf’s worst fears will be realised.

Labour’s unelectability in the last decade has helped make the case for the SNP, even if Scots continue to harbour a degree of scepticism about independence.

The last time the SNP fought an electoral contest at UK level against an electable Labour Party, in 2005, it won six of Scotland’s 59 seats.

In 2024, the SNP leader needs to come up with a persuasive argument as to why Scots should reject the chance to change the government at UK level and instead support a party whose electoral triumphs have had no discernible negative impact on the Conservatives’ ability to govern.

The SNP could be about to learn a hard political lesson: that parties which represent the political establishment, and which oppose the change that voters want, will find it very difficult indeed to get the public to listen to them.