When Alex Salmond lost the Scottish independence referendum, he sought to console himself and the ranks of the vanquished by declaring ‘the dream shall never die’.
It was the salve that soothed the disappointment of a nationalist movement. But today that dream appears to lie in ruins.
Two years ago, the SNP swept all before it, claiming 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies at Westminster; on last night, they lost almost 40 per cent of those same seats. The reversal cannot be overstated. Salmond, the SNP’s former leader, lost in Gordon. Angus Robertson, their leader in the Commons, lost in Moray. The party was thrown out in East Dunbartonshire after a two-year incumbency and in Banff and Buchan, where the party has been immovable since Salmond wrestled the seat from Sir Albert McQuarrie, the Tories’ ‘Buchan Bulldog’, in 1987. The Conservatives now dominate the north east and the south of Scotland, with a good chunk of the centre, too. Meanwhile, the SNP recorded the lowest share of the vote for a winning party (36.9 per cent) since 1983 and the lowest seat tally (35) since 1951.
This is not a setback for the SNP so much as a reckoning. They sustained themselves electorally, at Westminster and Holyrood, by appealing to the Cheated Not Defeated, an angry and permanently aggrieved segment of Scottish public opinion. These are the lifelong nationalists and the late converts who became so caught up in the evangelical mood of the 2014 Yes campaign that defeat only sharpened and embittered their nationalism further. Nevertheless, by sounding the right dog-whistles and presenting Scotland as an ill-treated possession of callous, colonial Tories, they could dominate the political scene against a Unionist opposition split three ways.
Hubris set in, as it always does with movements of righteous victims, and the SNP began to believe that l’état, c’est Sturgeon and that dissenters were traitors; ‘talking down Scotland’ has become a commonplace charge of tartan McCarthyism. What has undone the separatists, however, is not the soft chauvinism perfected by Salmond and aped by Nicola Sturgeon (no one ever lost an election in Scotland by wrapping themselves in the Saltire and cursing London); rather, what the Scottish government has done, or failed to do, with the generous subvention supplied by the Barnett formula.
Despite higher levels of state funding per head than England, Scotland’s education system is in crisis. Not the confected ‘crisis’ of newspaper headlines, but an actual systemic crisis, one that is consigning a generation of schoolchildren to the scrap heap before they’ve even left primary school. Under the SNP’s decade-long charge of the Scottish government, 4,000 teachers have been cut and so too have 150,000 college places. Attainment in literacy and numeracy has either stalled or dropped for children across multiple demographics, with even the offspring of the wealthiest leaving primary school unable to read or write well. Students from the poorest backgrounds are four times less likely to make it to university than their peers from the richest families, the widest gap anywhere in the UK.
In the Scottish NHS, cancer targets continue to be missed, as do those for A&E waiting times; a promise to cut junior doctors’ hours has also been ripped up. Some 3,000 nursing and midwifery vacancies lay unfilled last year along with 400 consultancy posts. At the same time, the economy north of the border lags behind the UK as a whole — the Scottish Government has responded by cutting business rates while freezing the 40 per cent income tax threshold £2,000 below the national rate.
It all gives the impression that independence has caused the SNP to take its eye off the ball. Nicola Sturgeon promised voters that education would be her top priority, but academic results tell a different story. Ruth Davidson tapped into this growing sentiment by repeatedly demanding that the First Minister ‘get on with the day job’. The line riles nationalists because they cannot imagine how anyone could deem something as pedestrian as education or economic growth more important than independence. The SNP was once split between gradualists and fundamentalists, who differed on the pace and prominence of the push for separation. The party is now fundamentalist through and through; secession is what gets SNP politicians out of bed in the morning and tweeting angrily at night.
By loving independence so much, the SNP may have killed it — or at least squeezed it into unconsciousness. Polls show support for breaking up Britain falling, and voters have handsomely rewarded opposition parties, particularly the Tories, for Unionist election pitches.
For amid the history-making humiliation of Theresa May, it is easy to miss the other big story of this election. Nicola Sturgeon has been transformed from Mother Scotland to ‘that bloody woman’, her very name provoking venom on the doorsteps and down the pubs of Scotland. Scots, even those who voted Yes in 2014, really do want her to ‘get on with the day job’.
The cause of independence has been set back a generation and perhaps even longer. The dream may never die but today it seems further away than ever.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.