Anyone seeking to understand the strength of the SNP should look to those parts of Scotland where the party is supposed to be weakest. At the last election, the nationalists took just under 10 per cent of the vote in the Scottish Borders. This year, Tory canvass returns suggest the SNP may treble its share of the vote in one of the most staunchly unionist seats in Scotland.
For months, opinion polls have made unremittingly gloomy reading for unionists. The nationalists are heading for a victory on a scale still not fully comprehended in England. The polls suggest the SNP could win as many as 55 of Scotland’s 59 seats, up from six at present. No one can quite bring themselves to believe an earthquake of such magnitude is about to strike Scottish politics. Bookmakers’ odds forecast a smaller SNP landslide, but winning even 35 seats might be enough to prevent Ed Miliband from winning a majority. Without its Celtic base, Labour would struggle to govern Britain — unless a deal is cut with the nationalists.
Far from finishing the SNP, the referendum campaign has left them stronger than ever. Indeed, the SNP is no longer just a party, it is a movement — and one boasting, per capita, more than twice as many members as the three main unionist parties combined. One in every 50 adult Scots has joined the SNP since the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s party has more members than the British army has soldiers.
Scottish elections have rarely made much difference in Westminster. Indeed, at the last election, nothing changed north of the border: every Scottish seat returned the same result in 2010 that it had in 2005. Scotland’s election was a quiet affair, untouched by change (or enthusiasm for David Cameron). This year, in contrast, England’s election may be inconclusive while Scotland will be the scene of a political insurrection.
Neither Cameron nor Miliband are in any position to shape the outcome of the election in Scotland. Each is curiously powerless. They sit in London, anxiously awaiting the news from the north that may determine their fate. The SNP, which has been polling at more than 40 per cent for four months, holds a significant structural advantage. Unlike its rivals, it has a cause which motivates an army of supporters — and a cause is a fiercely powerful thing. Stronger, certainly, than anything offered by a weak and divided unionism. Who else, the SNP says, can be trusted to put Scotland’s interest first?
The unionists try to pretend this isn’t happening. In Edinburgh last week, David Cameron claimed the constitutional question has been ‘settled’. No one in Scotland recognises it as settled, however, and if the Prime Minister thinks it is he is deluding himself. Unionism’s complacency remains a problem second only to unionism’s inability to recognise that it has a problem.
Every device intended to kill Scottish nationalism has ended up making it stronger. Devolution succeeded in killing Toryism north of the border, but only at the expense of fertilising nationalism. Labour’s hegemony in Scotland needed an opposition and the SNP was happy to fill that void. The independence referendum made the idea of secession seem a plausible reality. An alternative future was glimpsed and sold with commendable, if heroic, optimism. In the circumstances, it was little surprise that 45 per cent of Scots thought it a risk worth pursuing. In the long-term, this bodes ill for unionism and, if nothing else, the SNP is adept at playing the long game. It need only win once; unionism cannot afford a single defeat.
So, far from the Scotland issue being settled, it looms larger than ever. In terms of domestic politics, it is the greatest challenge to the authority and confidence of the British state since 1918, when Sinn Fein won a landslide victory in what, in the end, became the Irish Republic. For obvious reasons, the SNP dislikes comparisons with Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, its aim — the dismemberment of the British state — is the same. And this, in turn, makes Ed Miliband’s reluctance to rule out a post-election deal with the nationalists utterly baffling. The SNP likes the idea of being kingmakers but its true aim is to be wreckers. If Miliband genuinely wants Britain to stay together, why even consider joining forces with a party whose central aim is to tear Britain apart?
The idea of a weak and limping Miliband government dependent upon Alex Salmond’s support — albeit on a confidence and supply basis — is a useful second prize for the SNP. But the gold medal-winning result is another Conservative-led government lacking ‘democratic legitimacy’ north of the Tweed and Solway.
A second term for Cameron will add weight to the SNP’s claim that Scotland and England are such diverging polities that it makes less and less sense for them to be part of the same political union. The SNP’s agenda is to sue for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
Here we may perceive a difference between the SNP leadership and its newly swollen membership. The lion’s share of SNP voters (and, for that matter, Scots) prefer the idea of an SNP-dependent Labour government. In other words, the Tory argument ‘Vote SNP, get Labour’ encourages Scots to vote for their preferred outcome. This is worse than a dubious political strategy for the Conservatives to pursue — it is a reckless one.
Then again, Labour’s ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ warning is little better. It is intended to revive Labour’s vote in its besieged west of Scotland heartland, inviting Labour defectors to remember how much they hate the Tories. But this rendition of an old tune — one trotted out at every election for decades — shows little sign of persuading Labour-supporting ‘yes’ voters to return to their ancestral fold. According to one recent poll, just 8 per cent of ‘Yes’ voters plan to endorse Labour candidates in May.
And why would they return? What’s to return to? Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour’s new leader, claims a vote for Labour is a ‘patriotic’ vote but this, like so much else in Scottish politics, merely reminds voters that Scotland’s political weather is made by the SNP. Murphy appreciates that Scottish Labour must be more than just London Labour’s northern branch office, but almost all of Scottish Labour’s brightest and best — a relative term — are in London, not Edinburgh. Even Murphy only became leader in Scotland because he’d been passed over by Miliband in London.
The referendum campaign necessarily divided Scots along the line of the national question; the future of the country is plainly a greater issue than any differences over the NHS, education or even economic policy. This being so, no one should be surprised by the nationalist surge. The logic is chiselled from granite: if you voted ‘yes’ in September, why would you vote for a unionist party in May?
Moreover, if the election contest is framed as a battle to secure greater powers for the Scottish parliament (or ‘For Scotland’, to adopt the SNP’s shorthand) then voting SNP is the surest, perhaps only, way of ensuring the Scottish Question remains high on Westminster’s agenda. Even Labour voters accept that the SNP is best-placed to secure more powers for the Scottish parliament. Given that the nationalists may well become the third biggest force in a hung parliament, there will be ample scope for mischief.
If this infuriates English voters, so much the better. Alex Salmond will, in effect, be dispatched south of the border as Nicola Sturgeon’s ambassador to London’s television studios. His role is to run a guerrilla campaign, fomenting discord and division. Resisting his provocations will not be easy, not least because so few English Tories, whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance, are aware that Labour is merely the opposition, whereas the SNP is the enemy.
The Scottish Tories see matters more clearly. In Edinburgh and Glasgow and Aberdeen, cities where the SNP is challenging Labour, there is considerable anecdotal evidence supporting the suspicion that many Tories are prepared to vote Labour, the better to thwart the nationalist advance. They would rather risk a Labour government than an SNP landslide that might put Cameron back in Downing Street. A Miliband administration is a misery that need merely be endured for five years. A nationalist victory, by contrast, risks a second independence referendum which might break the Union forever.
To the SNP, the next general election is just a staging post. Winning a majority of Scottish seats would be an excellent start, but influencing the governance of the UK is of relatively minor importance. Any deal with Labour — or even a stage-managed week of negotiations — will be conducted with the 2016 Holyrood elections in mind. An SNP majority next year would bring the power to call for a second referendum. And if a majority of Scottish voters call for one, through an SNP (and Green) vote, how can Westminster reasonably say no? This is why so many Scottish unionists will vote tactically in May: it is crucial that the nationalists’ momentum is checked now.
Then comes Europe. Should Cameron lose the election less badly than Miliband and earn a second term, he is committed to a referendum on EU membership. While Scots are more Eurosceptic than the SNP allows (a third say they would vote to leave), the English are still far more likely to vote to leave the EU. If they do, and Scotland votes to stay in, the thirst for independence might prove unquenchable. (Equally, how would England react if Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes determined the outcome of the EU referendum?) Cameron’s European difficulties are another opportunity for the nationalists. And a reminder that the Union can be lost in London as well as in Scotland.
It is depressing that so many English Tories are plainly more exercised by ‘threats’ from Brussels than from Edinburgh. As one Cabinet member puts it: ‘Scotland really is, now, another country: I’ve given up understanding it.’ Many have given up caring, too. It is clear that a good proportion of English Tories would accept a notional bargain in which Scottish independence was the price of levering the rump UK out of the EU. That leaves Scottish unionists, especially right-of-centre unionists, as the forlorn last-believers in a faith long since abandoned by everyone else — including those they mistakenly reckoned as their co-religionists.
Scottish votes could well determine the outcome of this general election, but the matter of Scotland — that is to say, the battle of Britain — will not be resolved this May. This is just a preliminary skirmish for the other, larger, battles that lie ahead. David Cameron would be wrong to think that his mission in May is to sneak over the finish line: his fight will have just begun. So unionists are entitled to feel a deep and heavy sense of foreboding. This election is going to be a disaster.
The era of stable governments is over
Join us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.
Alex Massie is The Spectator’s Scotland editor.