Scottish nationalism in trouble

Two weeks ago we looked at Rishi Sunak’s efforts to draw a line under the long-running Brexit saga, with his agreement to revise the Northern Ireland protocol. Not surprisingly, that story is still running, with the Democratic Unionist Party criticising the deal but not yet committed to rejecting it. Either way, there’s no doubt that the protocol will in some measure weaken Northern Ireland’s ties with the rest of the United Kingdom.

So, you might be thinking, what about that other potentially separatist part of the country, Scotland? Is Brexit also having the effect there that many pundits (including me) predicted, of boosting support for independence? Well, no – at least not so far.

Opinion polls show that support for independence, which peaked towards the end of last year, after the chaos in the Conservative Party leadership, has been in steady decline ever since. The “no” vote now commands a lead of something like seven points, the biggest it has been in nearly four years, and heading back towards the 10.6% gap from the 2014 referendum.

It’s probably no coincidence that last month Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister of Scotland since 2014, announced her retirement. The SNP is currently engaged in the process of choosing her successor, by a postal ballot among its 72,000-odd members – an impressive number, but sharply down from the 104,000 claimed just two years ago.

And that in turn may have something to do with the fact that the leadership contest is turning out to be quite nasty. There are three candidates (voting is optional preferential), finance secretary Kate Forbes, community safety minister Ash Regan and health secretary Humza Yousaf, and they have been attacking one another in a series of televised debates over the last week.

Yousaf broadly represents continuity with Sturgeon’s left-leaning line (although Sturgeon has not made any endorsement); Forbes represents the more right-leaning, socially conservative side of the party; while Regan, who is regarded as the outsider, is seen as close to former leader Alex Salmond, who left the party rather acrimoniously in 2018. Most commentators seem to think that SNP voters at large would prefer Forbes, but that the party membership is more likely to go for Yousaf.

It’s not unusual for parties like this, whose animating concern is something outside the traditional left-right spectrum, to embrace a broad range of opinion on other matters. Sturgeon and her supporters obviously see independence as a progressive cause and have tried to govern accordingly – helped by the fact that they rely on the Greens for their majority. On most issues the Scottish government has been conspicuously to the left of the government at Westminster, notably with the recent controversy over transgender recognition.

But, to state the obvious, nationalism is not always progressive. Many of the party’s members, and even more so its voters, are traditionalists, often from rural areas, who see independence as a way of preserving old-fashioned values and resisting the influence of cosmopolitanism. They have little sympathy with a left-wing agenda, and will see their views reflected better in Forbes and Regan, both of whom opposed the transgender legislation.

Forbes in particular seems to have gone out of her way to antagonise the progressive wing of the party; as a member of the very conservative Free Church of Scotland she is opposed not only to transgender rights but to same-sex marriage. (A fine piece by Fraser McDonald in the LRB explains some of the splintering of Scottish Presbyterianism.*) Her leadership would represent a dramatic shift in the party’s direction.

Regan proposes to paper over some of these differences with a renewed focus on the campaign for independence, currently stalled by the courts. Given the state of public opinion, however, it’s not clear how well that would work – and many of those with the most uncompromising views on the subject have already left to join Salmond’s breakaway party, Alba.

It looks as if sorting out a unified line from here is going to be difficult, whoever wins. But it may also be that an ability to air internal differences is to some extent a sign of strength, and that in the long run the SNP will be better off for having had this debate in the open rather than sweeping it under the carpet. As Lesley Riddoch puts it, “washing dirty linen in public has engaged voters with hitherto unknown figures, normalised discussion of independence, and proofed possible leaders with the steepest imaginable learning curve.”


* Thanks to Sandy Ross for drawing it to my attention.


2 thoughts on “Scottish nationalism in trouble

  1. @charlesr81 do you think that Scottish Labour has a future? To me, no, at least not in the short term. One day the SNP government will totter and fall… but it may be that it is the Scottish Tories or the Scottish Liberal Democrats who will benefit.


    1. Thanks Paul – good question. If the SNP tacks rightwards and loses its more left-leaning voters, it stands to reason that Labour would be the main beneficiary, but it’s no certainty. While the Tories have outvoted Labour at the last 2 Scottish elections, it still looks to me as if Labour has greater underlying strength, particularly if the independence issue goes off (or stays off) the boil.


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