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SNP’s new strategy exposes nationalists’ desperation

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Often your plan of attack reveals your deeper weaknesses. After years of ascendancy, Scotland’s ruling Scottish National party faces the strategic challenge of the first UK election for some time in which independence is not the dominating issue.

Since 2007 the SNP has dominated Scottish politics, reshaping public bodies in its image, going on to crush the once-powerful Labour party and making independence the central issue. Now it is being battered by a resurgent Labour and a UK election that looks set to be defined by the battle to oust the Conservatives at Westminster. Douglas Alexander, former Labour cabinet minister and returning candidate, captures the challenge: “The SNP is struggling with is its structural irrelevance in the central choice of the election — who is best able to remove the Tories.”

And since sustained nationalist success is the precondition for another independence referendum, the consequences of a major setback extend well beyond the election.

Hence the party’s desperate search for a new strategy. For much of last year the SNP tactic was to attack Labour as a pink Tory party, not committed to reversing Brexit or welfare cuts. But in the past few days Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, offered a range of new and confused messages including assuring voters that Keir Starmer’s Labour would win the UK general election and so did not need Scottish votes. He suggested they were two sides of the same anti-Tory movement and invited Starmer to Edinburgh to discuss ways they might work together.

To be fair to Yousaf, his party has had a diabolical year. Leading lights, including former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, are waiting to hear if they face criminal charges. The political divisions between progressive and more economically conservative nationalists, which she kept bottled, have now bubbled over with the latter faction denouncing both social policies and the coalition with the Scottish Greens, whose ideology is far to the left of most voters. Efforts to confront Westminster on trans rights have backfired.

Polls show a narrowing SNP lead over Labour and party support well below support for independence. In the 2019 UK election it won 48 of the country’s 59 seats. Now it faces a battle with Labour to retain the title of Scotland’s largest party in Westminster. If the SNP vote share drops well below 40 per cent, it falls short of the tipping point that delivers the avalanche of seats. One nationalist critic warns: “I wouldn’t rule out a total SNP implosion.”

On top of this, the SNP’s record in government north of the border is catching up with it. According to the recent Pisa ratings, educational standards are falling behind the rest of the UK. Waiting lists for surgery are at an all-time high with particular pressure on A&E and cancer appointments. Recent statistics have shown the highest figures for violent crime in more than a decade. 

In addition to the internal splits, Yousaf is also under fire from former SNP leader Alex Salmond’s breakaway party, Alba, lambasting his failure to advance independence and timidity in confronting Westminster.

And this points to the SNP’s core failure. Yousaf cannot offer a convincing route to the independence it demands. All routes to a new referendum seem blocked by Westminster — Labour has refused to countenance another vote even as the price of coalition. His efforts to argue a good result in the coming UK-wide election would give a mandate for a new referendum are failing to enthuse Scots more concerned about the economy and public services.

Yet there are also multiple problems with the new approach. First, it reinforces the point that Labour is the vehicle for removing the Conservatives. Second, while the Tories could lose power without Labour gains in Scotland, Starmer’s hopes of an outright majority are greatly enhanced by Scottish gains. It is also absurd to suggest that a UK government does not “need” representation across all its nations (Northern Ireland is a separate case) or that Scotland’s voice would not be amplified in a Starmer government if it boasts a significant contingent of Labour MPs.

It may be that the weight of incumbency, the scandals and splits surrounding his party and a desire to be rid of the Tories leaves Yousaf few options. But some nationalists see his central error as accepting Labour’s narrative of an anti-Tory election. Separatism commands between the mid-40s and over 50 per cent in polls. That is a lot of potential votes. But critics worry that Yousaf lacks the leadership to force the issue back into the campaign.

Some critics say that a wiser strategy is to argue that Labour and the Tories are united in trying to bury the cause and only a strong SNP showing will stop them arguing that the demands have receded. A Labour revival is seen by unionists as the key to stopping the separatist train.

Nationalists will hope that even if the general election goes badly, a new Labour government will have lost popularity by the Holyrood election in May 2026, allowing the SNP to bounce back.

This is possible. The strength of support for independence could render any setback a blip. But older SNP heads know how long it took to end Labour’s hegemony and that politics is a dynamic process. It is safer to stop a bulldozer gathering pace than to lay down in front of it once it has momentum. Right now Yousaf looks transfixed by the tracks grinding towards him and his cause.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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