The SNP has had an absolutely dismal election campaign in which its support has fallen by at least ten per cent in the last 6 weeks. Many were shocked when the Labour Party, supposedly disappearing into history in Scotland, bounced back in one detailed poll and was shown to have overtaken the SNP in popularity among 18 to 24-year-olds. Many of these youngsters crave for the novelty, risk and excitement which the SNP provided in spades during the 2014 referendum campaign. The bearded, ageing hell-raiser Jeremy Corbyn was a lightning conductor for their own militant rejectionism of the status quo.
Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, appears staid, demure and overly fond of the trappings of office. Her personal ratings have plunged steadily and she did not feature prominently in the last week’s launch of the SNP manifesto. But owing to the fact that she is one of the few capable campaigners the party has, she has been the face of the SNP in this election. She has been helicoptered around Scotland in lightning visits to seats which the SNP is struggling to retain. It will look bad for the separatist cause if the despised Scottish Conservatives make a comeback. Between 7 and 11 gains seem well within their reach. Under Ruth Davidson they have positioned themselves as the main defenders of the Union. She has ably shown that Unionism is bound up with jobs, investment, money for keeping Scotland’s extensive public sector afloat and preventing a flight of capital.
In 2014, Scottish voters became the first ones in the history of the United Kingdom to endorse the Union in a referendum, one that had an 85 per cent turnout. Successive polls show that the vast bulk of the 55 per cent of voters in favour then now align with the Conservatives, many for tactical reasons. Scots in general are desperate not to have another referendum anytime soon. They dread a return of the intense partisanship which cast a blight over social relations in many places, want to see the terms of Brexit first, and are keen for a devolved government to start governing the country properly.
Sturgeon hasn’t known how to pitch the Indy issue in this campaign. At first she said it was her opponents who were obsessed with independence, but by the end of it she was claiming that, if necessary, Scotland would have a third referendum campaign sometime in the future if that’s what it took to pull the country out of the UK.
She knows the idea of a ‘Neverendum’ only plays with SNP zealots. In what had been billed as the largest pro-independence march in Scotland’s history, only 15,000 turned out to march through Glasgow last Saturday. Increasing attention is being paid to the SNP’s decade-long stewardship of the country. It has been ‘a lost decade’ according to the former close adviser to Alex Salmond, Alex Bell.
The chronic mismanagement of education and health has been laid bare in recent months in hard-hitting media exposes. These are issue that Sturgeon discourages debates on in the Scottish Parliament. Her government now routinely impedes journalists obtaining information on her government’s activities via Freedom of Information legislation.
SNP electoral broadcasts have been very personal, emphasising the threat that it thinks Theresa May and Ruth Davidson pose to Scotland’s children. At the start of the campaign, Sturgeon tried to turn a clause in the revised tax credit scheme into a defining issue. Henceforth, state aid claimed for low wage earners with children, will only apply to the first two children. Without exemptions, this could be seen as harsh. Women who claimed that a third child had been the result of rape would be exempt. A third party professional such as a GP would carry out a review. A form would be completed that would not require the women to report the matter to the police or directly to the HMRC. The Department of Work and Pensions would also offer third party support from experienced professionals.
Yet the SNP, and far-left allies, made a ferocious attempt to portray this as an unfeeling government deepening the agony of rape victims through sadistic state interference. This is the very same government which has been trying for years now to impose an Orwellian Named Person requiring all children to have a state guardian.
The rape clause issue left an ugly taste but did not take off for the SNP. A series of widely viewed television debates have prevented the SNP from deflecting attention away from its dismal record of governance. On 22 May, a heated exchange occurred between the SNP leader and an Edinburgh nurse, Claire Austin, who hit out at a lack of money for the NHS and claimed she was forced to resort to food banks because of her low pay. She went on to say that the reason why thousands of nurses positions in Scotland were unfilled was due to low pay. She obtained backing from the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who pointed out that Sturgeon and her colleagues had voted against lifting the pay rise freeze the previous week.
Within minutes, the SNP’s spin operation swung into action, wrongly accusing Austin of being married to a Conservative councillor. Joanna Cherry, a QC and the SNP candidate for Edinburgh South West and the party’s justice and home affairs spokesman, re-tweeted the claim but was soon forced to apologise after it became clear that it was untrue. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: ‘There was a public sector worker in Scotland who was challenging the first minister of Scotland and the first minister’s team was running around behind the scenes trying to smear the person who was asking the question, as it was illegitimate of her to ask it’.
In the same torrid debate, when asked about poor pass rates in school exams, Sturgeon said she was proud about record exam passes in Scottish schools only for one teacher to say: ‘That is going to happen if you lower the standard of exam. The lamentable state of Scottish education, once a cause of the country’s distinctiveness globally, has been raised increasingly on the campaign trail. Sturgeon, a lawyer with a good retentive memory, simply splays her critics with statistics. The aim is to try and deflect attention from massive cuts in the further education sector that were meant to pay for free university tuition. This flagship policy primarily benefits EU students and wealthy Scottish ones but has made it harder for working-class Scots to reach university and of course involves English and Welsh students having to pay in order to study at Scottish universities.
This is the kind of arid politics that is the SNP’s trademark: cheap restrictions directed at the rest of the UK, which is felt to be holding back Scottish aspirations while keeping its ill-managed para-state afloat and all combined with virtue-signalling for the wider world by unfurling a supposedly progressive free education system, which has become a white elephant.
Perhaps one of the high points in a good election campaign for Ruth Davidson was when she blasted the SNP for having become a party that stood for an Orwellian kind of nationalism, displaying so many of the negative features that the British writer George Orwell had acutely identified when writing in the 1940s.
This election campaign has shown Scots to be increasingly unconvinced that the SNP offers a fresh and appealing message about their identity and can safeguard their welfare by withdrawing from the UK at a time of crisis in the energy sector and a fall-off in investment to Scotland. As support for separation edges down towards the high 30s, it is the SNP’s core voters who she appears to be principally addressing. She fears being the victim of a Conservative-Labour pincer movement and this may have prompted her to into a desperate move in the last televised Scottish Leaders debate on 7 June.
There she claimed that her Labour opponent Kezia Dugdale had actually said to her in confidence that she as willing to support a second Independence referendum. Whatever substance this may or may not have, the First Minister was breaking a confidence and revealing what a ruthless and unprincipled operator she could be. It also showed how much she feared a Labour revival. She knows that if Labour wins a clutch of seats in Scotland, the new members will be equally opposed to Jeremy Corbyn and to backing a second Indy referendum.
Just as the SNP was keen to prop up a minority Ed Miliband government in 2015, she is prepared to offer the same service for Corbyn. Tommy Sheppard, the MP for Edinburgh East, has made it clear that the SNP will combine with a Labour government to cancel the Trident defence system, but will expect a swiftly-held referendum and a reversal of Brexit.
The SNP has fought a sterile but ruthless campaign. The sense that it, and only it, is ordained to rule over the Scots and determine their fate has never been more palpable than this spring. The sense of arrogance was shown when a nationalist activist, Lorna Taylor, put a video on YouTube of her harassing Conservative canvassers in a seat where the party stands a chance of unseating the SNP. She was later arrested and charged by the police.
The good news from this election campaign is this. Plenty of Scots have had enough of an appeal to the worst instincts of voters on the basis of an unsustainable fantasy independence prospectus. Irrespective of whether they are truly Conservative in their political instincts, they will vote for the party in numbers not seen for a generation in order to halt the SNP. It means that in Scotland, the Conservatives will make clear advances on 8 June. This is good for the Union and also shows it is possible to defeat fanaticism and unreason up and down our island by standing up for what you believe in.
Tom Gallagher is completing a novel entitled ‘England – to be continued’. An earlier book, ‘Scotland : A Warning to the World’ was published in 2016.