The four pillars of Scottish nationalism have crumbled

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.

Hard UKexit

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


  1. Joseph MELLON says

    Well, the SNP’s historical moment might have passed as Joe Ray hopes, but I am not convinced by his arguments…

    1) Oil revenues
    Are currently very low. As they were in the 90’s when oil was at $8 (!!!!) a barrel. The easy to get at oil is gone…. or is it? “Easy to get at” meaning “cheap to get at” is determined partly by geology and partly by technology. And the absolute cost doesn’t really matter, what matters is the ratio to the price of oil. The total amount of oil by value still there is probably equal to the amount already extracted: and we have heard the “end of North Sea oil” call several times before: usually emanating from oil companies wanting a tax break or subsidy.
    And in any event: Ireland, the Baltic States, Austria, … are all doing fine without any oil.
    2) Brexit.
    Now here Joe Ray is really bringing an astonishing argument! The rUK in an astonishing act of self harming voted for Brexit. If it goes through it will have terrible consequences for the UK, including Scotland. We can only hope a “soft Brexit” is achieved – in which case Joe Ray’s argument falls as there will be few trading or social barriers. If there is a hard Brexit – as Joe hopes – disentangling Scotland might have unfortunate costs, but staying with the sinking boat will probably be worse.
    And one relevance of the Brexit vote for Scotland is to raise the question: is Scotland part of the same demos as rUK? Does Scotland have the same priorities and world view? Or to put it more directly – do we want to be part of a country that is that daft?
    3) Support has risen for Corbyn Labour and Davidson Torys
    I think it probably has…
    Corbyn Labour is attractive, because it promises an end to neo-liberalism, austerity and unearned privilege, and chimes with the values of traditional Labour supporters. And the SNP increasingly looks like the sold out establishment, and not the party of protest. It is once more possible to vote for Labour and feel good about it. But: Kezia Labour is Blairite Labour, and Labour in Scotland still has serious problems, not least organisation, membership, and credibility.
    4) Increase in Tory support
    Many areas of Scotland are and always were conservative (small ‘c’), particularly the rural areas. The Torys did best in Scotland (the 50’s) when they marketed themselves as an independent ‘one nation’ party pursuing *Scotland’s* interests as the establishment party: a strategy very like the Bavarian CSU. It emphasized the social responsibility of the better off, often with a strong Christian emphasis.
    The UK Tory party are not conservative. They are not one nation, and they are not socially responsible.
    Ruth Davidson has underlined her independence, such that there is even speculation of a break away. But she still has to toe the Westminster line and betray her own beliefs and Scotland’s interests: a prime example being Brexit, where she argued cogently and passionately for ‘remain’: until doing a 180° turn around, which she has yet to rationaly explain. And that is the weakness of the Unionist parties: they have to internalize and defend the views and interests of a party which is really all about someone elses views and interests: the City of London, the well off in Surrey, the Oxbridge educated civil service which regarded Scotland’s fishing industry as ‘expendable’ compared to East Anglian wheat.
    And Joe Ray talks of a ‘collapse’ of SNP support. The SNP won the election: it is only a ‘collapse’ in relation to the exceptional last election. SNP and independence support over the decades is like an advancing tide: the sea it goes back between waves, but the SNP is on 35 MPs where two elections ago it was on 6.
    How much has kernel support really risen for the Unionist parties? Did Torys vote tactically for Labour, and Labour people vote for Torys?

    Maybe the tide has turned as Joe Ray hopes: but he points to events, not primal forces.

  2. Ian says

    This article is selective and lacks balance. By all means be sceptical – that’s healthy – but at least try to indicate that there is another side to the argument, otherwise it is hard to listen to what you say.

    You said….
    “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”

    What about Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Bulgaria and the other 4 EU members not using the Euro? Or is they just too inconvenient to mention?

    You said
    “Bountiful oil revenues formed the basis of the 2014 referendum promises”
    I remember something being said about it being a ‘bonus’.

    You said
    “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 oil price may return to higher levels in future, but North Sea tax revenues won’t”
    “zero, ending, won’t”…….these are strong and pessimistic words. Do you know that the cost of producing north sea oil is now much less as a response to the downturn? This makes the industry much stronger for the future as production and tax revenue is less dependent on price. But hey why let facts like this spoil your argument.

    Given the extreme volatility of UK politics over the past year, do you not think you might be a tad premature in burying independence?

    • Maurice Bishop says

      Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Bulgaria all joined at a time when the rules for new members were different.

      You remember oil being a “bonus” because that is the excuse that the SNP came up with after-the-fact in order to cover their embarrassment over how massively wrong they were in the White Paper. Here is a direct quote from former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson – who Nicola Sturgeon has outsourced all the economics discussion to: “we did have oil baked into the numbers and it was indeed a basis”. 6/3/2017

  3. Bob Tait says

    Joe Ray makes the future sound as inevitable as joh-re-mi. And as simple. One thing we can be sure of is that it will be neither. Another thing plain to see in his piece is that he is as guilty of leaping to supposedly foregone, but actually very iffy, conclusions as any who ever supposed that the momentum behind the SNP a couple of years ago would inevitably bring independence – or who fondly imagined that an independent Scotland would be for sure a Tory-free social-democratic Scotland. Thirdly, his conclusions rely entirely on overstated economic, fiscal and political assumptions (about the electorate’s motivations and behaviour) masquerading as safe grounds for firm predictions.

    Have the prospects for Scottish independence got worse and the cause of social democracy become more problematic in the past couple of years? They have indeed. No one should be in denial about that. But that leaves questions about how bad and how portentous current conditions and prospects are. I would rate current prospects as the most problematic they have been for over forty years. However, they don’t predetermine events and in particular the outcome of a tricky choice the electorate may have to make. Here’s why.

    The choice people will face – if they are granted a choice – will be between staying in a disunited UK (with post-Brexit costs to pay and unstable governments if not necessarily Tory ones) and taking the hits and chances of membership of the EU. Not a simple choice, that one. There will be no safe bets on offer. There will be more competing downsides either way than outstanding upsides, and the outcome of such an electoral choice is always likely to be highly unpredictable right up to polling day. I am clear about my own voting intentions: yes to independence in Europe. This is not because of blind faith or heroic assumptions about independence or the EU outweighing disaster-assumptions and scenarios on the other side. It’s because under almost all scenarios (including Joe Ray’s but excepting, say, the collapse of the EU) I have no difficulty finding and recommending fresh-minted and up-to-the-minute reasons, as well as old ones, for taking that course. Hard to sell? Certainly. Don’t believe anyone who suggests otherwise. On the other hand, don’t believe anyone who jumps to the conclusion that independence in Europe is a dead letter by ignoring just about the one thing we can now all be sure of. To wit: the unpredictabilities of economic and political circumstances and of electoral sentiment.

    • Joseph MELLON says

      Very much agree with most of what you say Bob but:
      “Have the prospects for Scottish independence got worse and the cause of social democracy become more problematic in the past couple of years?”

      A long time ago when we were all young (2014) support for independence was ‘stuck’ at 28%.
      Now it is ‘stuck’ at 45%
      Two elections ago the SNP had 6 MPs in Westminster, now it had 35.
      From the mid-70s (Thatcher/Reagan) the dominant political and economic view was neo-liberal. That started falling apart in academical economist circles about maybe 15 years ago. Blair and Clinton – the centrist exponents of neo-liberalism – are no longer electable. Even the right are starting to doubt that markets deliver good outcomes, and that trickle down is the way to prosperity. The coming forces generating excitement are the likes of Sanders and Corbyn. Even Macron may call himself a centrist: but he knew that to get elected he had to put a big distance between himself and neo-liberalism. He believes in the state. So: the glass is half full, not half empty!

      • Bob Tait says

        Thanks, Joseph – and I agree that it is entirely possible to see the glass as half full, not half empty. Or the other way round! The same contents (conditions, factors and numbers) can all too easily be seen as half-way positive or half-way negative depending on slight and subtle shifts in viewpoints (perspectives and scenarios) – without the one “take” definitively cancelling out the other. Because economic and political conditions etc have become markedly more uncertain and foggy since 2015 it has become harder than ever to guess, and impossible to predict, how and under what circumstances different sections of the electorate will see things one way rather than the other. IF they ever get a choice. That was the point I wanted to make and your glass-half-full-half-empty metaphor helps make it.

  4. Maurice Bishop says

    That “sense of political momentum” was only because the majority of Scots who are opposed to independence divide their vote among three parties.

    The SNP told us over and over in 2014 that our votes would settle the independence matter for a generation. That they subsequently decided otherwise is shameful opportunism on their part. But there are still around 950K Scots who will vote for them anyway. Not enough for independence, but enough to render Holyrood inept.

    • Joseph MELLON says

      ..actually that the Unionist parties decided that their priority was uniting to defeat the SNP candidate was probably inevitable given that they were utterly destroyed in 2015.
      It is actually a sign of the relative weakness of the other parties, and unionist opinion: don’t forget support for independence is ‘stuck’ at 45%, whereas it was previously (2014) ‘stuck’ at 28%.
      Don’t forget: both Labour and the Torys said the general election about independence,
      and so unionists must do the right thing and vote for the union and against the SNP (Not least because talking about Brexit was too embarrassing).
      …and they *lost* the election under the reigning first past the post rules. 35 to 24 is a sound defeat for those who remember the days when a simple majority of SNP Westminster MPs was to be regarded as a mandate for independence.

      • Maurice Bishop says

        Don’t forget: the SNP have the unwavering unquestioning support of around 950K Scots but over 2 million Scots voted to preserve the union in 2014.

        Don’t forget: Nicola Sturgeon chose to make the GE a referendum on the correctness of her decision to pursue the Neverendum, and as a result the SNP lost 21 seats.

        Don’t forget: Nicola Sturgeon and the whole Yes movement told us repeatedly in 2014 that our votes would be settling the Independence question for a generation.

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