Normally, if a candidate whose party came fourth in a constituency last time tells you they’re going to win, you put it down to election derangement syndrome. But in post-referendum Scotland the normal political rules don’t apply. When Joanna Cherry, the SNP candidate for Edinburgh South West, says she’s headed for Westminster — despite the SNP picking up just 12 per cent of the vote here in 2010 — she is probably right.
Walking round with Cherry as her team cheerfully canvasses in the early evening sunshine, you can’t help but be struck by how prosperous the constituency is. If it were anywhere in England, you wouldn’t bother to ask which way it voted: you’d know it was Tory. For almost a quarter of a century, it was represented by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Last time its voters returned Alistair Darling to Westminster. But this genteel part of Britain’s most middle-class city seems to have succumbed to the SNP surge.
Lord Ashcroft’s constituency poll puts Ms Cherry, a respected QC, on course for a 13-point victory. Even in this ‘no’-supporting seat, 38 per cent of voters backed independence. If the bulk of those do come out for Cherry, while the Unionist vote splits between Labour and the Tories, she’ll be part of a band of 30 to 40 or more SNP MPs who’ll be heading to Westminster on 8 May. The one thing that might have held back the SNP tide — a popular local incumbent — isn’t there. After leading the Better Together campaign, many thought Alistair Darling would return to the Labour front bench. Instead, he’s one of the many Scottish MPs who have chosen to retire rather than fight the nationalists again.
The SNP has the resources to mobilise its ‘45 per cent’. With more than 100,000 members, it has enough activists to run an old-fashioned canvassing and get-out-the-vote operation. In another political throwback, it also has a popular leader: 62 per cent of Scots think Nicola Sturgeon, who is a far less divisive figure than her predecessor Alex Salmond was, is doing a good job as First Minister. Voters talk about ‘Nicola’ with almost proprietorial pride. She is an authentically working-class girl made good — she was the first in her family to go to university — and her story seems to resonate with people here.
At the last election, Scotland was Labour’s silver lining; there was actually a swing to Labour here, even though the SNP went on to win a majority at Holyrood the following year. But the referendum appears to have collapsed the difference in voters’ minds between UK and Scottish elections. They seem to be treating this general election the same way they would a Scottish Parliament one.
One estimate has Labour losing 28 of its 40 seats to the SNP. People on both sides find these numbers hard to believe. One Labour candidate told me that the polls just don’t tally with what he’s hearing on the doorstep. Privately, senior SNP figures admit that they’d be satisfied with a gain of 30 seats in total: that would still mean they held the majority of seats in Scotland.
What is most alarming for their opponents is that nothing seems to hurt the SNP. The collapse in the oil price has demolished the economic case for independence; this fact barely registers in Scottish political debate. The nationalists’ poor record in government (neither health nor education are better as a result of rule from Edinburgh) also bounces off. As even senior Labour figures now admit, New Labour’s devolution model has a fatal flaw: it allows the Scottish government to blame Westminster for every failing.
The question now — for Scotland and the rest of Britain — is what this boatload of SNP MPs will do at Westminster if they hold the balance of power. Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly declared that she’ll never put the Tories in. But she is also clear that Labour will have to pay for nationalist support. She claims that she would make Labour increase spending, not cut it. Labour counters that if Sturgeon won’t back their opponents, then she has no bargaining power.
Last week, a Scottish Office memo was leaked which said that Sturgeon, contrary to all her public protestations, had told the French ambassador she would prefer Cameron to Miliband as Prime Minister. You can see why she would: a Tory government committed to an EU referendum would make it much easier for the SNP to hold another referendum of its own.
Sturgeon has denied the story, saying the leak summed up what was wrong with Westminster. Such is her personal authority that in the Scottish television debate on Tuesday none of the other leaders dared mention it. But there’s still no convincing answer to the question of what the SNP would do if Labour, despite not having a majority, simply refused to deal with them. Are there any circumstances in which the SNP would vote down a minority Labour government?
The Scottish situation makes it almost impossible for Ed Miliband to win a majority; if he is to govern, he will almost certainly have to rely on nationalist support. This thrills the SNP, who boast that they will keep Labour ‘honest’ — in other words, stop it from behaving in the centrist, reformist way that New Labour did. While this might appeal to disillusioned former Labour voters in Scotland, it has the power to alarm swing voters in England; the Tory campaign is counting on that. Hence the perverse situation where the Tories and the SNP seem to need each other — they benefit from each other’s seemingly antagonistic rhetoric.
If the SNP do win a majority of Scottish seats, it will have a profound effect on British politics. A nationalist party will be able to claim with some justification to speak for Scotland at Westminster, and will use every tool at its disposal to make the case for independence. That could prove far more important to the future of Britain than who is Prime Minister after 7 May.