The SNP’s remarkable electoral ascent over the past decade has been driven by an ever increasing sense of political momentum.
Far from diminishing after the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP’s momentum only gained in strength, and the 2015 election result that returned 56 nationalist MPs, wiping out Scottish Labour and reaffirming the notion of conservatism as a foreign imposition within Scotland, imbued advocates of independence with a sense of historical inevitability.
However, the aftermath of the 2017 election finds Scotland in a very different environment. The political ground underneath the SNP has deteriorated rapidly, threatening not just its chances of ever triumphing in a second independence referendum but also its future electoral viability.
Over the past two years, four pillars that have been essential to the rise of Scottish nationalism have collapsed, and all in quick succession.
First, North Sea oil tax revenues have decreased to almost zero, ending the prospect of using their largesse to finance an independent Scotland that can be wealthier outside the UK.
The fortunes of the SNP have risen almost in tandem with the discovery of North Sea oil and the psychological impact of its demise should not be underestimated. Bountiful oil revenues formed the basis of the 2014 referendum promises where an independent Scotland would be one of the richest nations on earth, establish a sovereign wealth fund and use oil revenues to end austerity, finance tax cuts and spend increasing amounts on public services.
The oil price may return to higher levels in future, but North Sea tax revenues won’t and future voters will be hesitant to believe any economic prospectus based on excessively optimistic oil revenue forecasts.
Second, Brexit has rendered the SNP’s Independence in Europe strategy dead. No longer will it be possible for Scotland to become independent yet remain within the same European Union and single market as the rest of the UK, thus minimizing disruption over trade and borders.
Brexit has magnified the costs, risks and downsides of leaving the UK. In 2014, Scots were offered a vision of soft independence that involved a great deal of continuity and only moderate upheaval. Post-Brexit, leaving the UK now means leaving the UK single market, worth over 26% of Scottish GDP, erecting a hard border with England, all while undergoing painful austerity from the loss of the UK fiscal transfer and having to establish a new Scottish currency.
As long as the SNP plans to join the EU after independence this will also involve legally committing Scotland to joining the Euro in due course, necessitating further fiscal retrenchment as a member of a chronically unstable currency union.
In short, Brexit has ensured that only the hardest of separations is now possible for Scotland, thus making the prospect of any referendum victory for an independence campaign less likely.
Third, an avowedly left-wing Labour Party has risen from the ashes and gained 40% of the vote in a UK election, providing a rival vision for leftist supporters of Scottish independence.
Much of the SNP’s support has come from disillusioned former Labour voters who believed independence offered the best possibility of achieving their vision of a socialist society.
These voters had resigned themselves to living under permanent Conservative governments within the UK but Jeremy Corbyn has proven this is not a foregone conclusion and by almost winning a general election he has offered left-wing soft-nationalists a vision more easily achievable than waiting decades for independence.
Finally, Scots have started voting for the Tories in large numbers and nullified the idea that there is some huge unbridgeable divide in political culture between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
At the recent election, the Conservatives gained only 20% fewer votes than the SNP and turned its North East heartlands blue. The largest swing to the Tories in the whole of the UK was in Alex Salmond’s Gordon constituency. That such a previously unthinkable event should happen to the one man who is more than any other responsible for taking Scotland to the brink of independence is indicative of a sea change in Scottish public opinion.
The nationalist myth of Scotland’s political exceptionalism is above everything built on the notion that Toryism is an alien creed foisted on Scotland against its will. The argument follows that Scotland must be free from the shackles of the UK so it can realise its unique progressive potential free from Tory interference.
The rise of the Scottish Conservatives has shredded this myth and thrown the mother of spanners into the works of Scottish independence. Scotland suffers from no democratic deficit if Scots vote for the Tories along with the rest of the UK.
Further, it is rather difficult to win a secessionist referendum if it is dependent on demonising one third of the population as sub-human deplorables.
Triumph and loss
These four pillars formed the basis of the political environment that contributed to the Yes campaign’s 45% vote share in the 2014 referendum and they have underpinned much of the SNP’s rise over the past four decades.
What is extraordinary is that they have all crumbled in quick fashion at just the moment when the SNP was at its most triumphant and its soaring electoral success appeared to make Scottish independence a foregone conclusion.
The political factors that gave rise to the 2014 referendum now appear to be unique and unlikely to be repeated. Some of these factors may return, others, like Brexit, appear to have permanently disadvantaged the cause of independence.
The collapse of these factors has also ruptured the SNP’s highly successful coalition of rural conservative voters and progressives in Labour’s former heartlands. Rural conservatives want to see an end to the instability caused by perpetual referendums and progressives want to support an authentically left-wing political party. The basis of the SNP’s support is being eroded from left and right.
It is doubtful the SNP will ever experience better conditions for winning a referendum as they had in 2014. The future has just become much more difficult for Scotland’s nationalists.
First published on the author’s site