The SNP’s huge electoral test

Humza Yousaf’s party is about to enter an existential battle with Labour

August 09, 2023
Humza Yousaf with the SNP’s candidate for the proposed Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection, Katy Loudon. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Humza Yousaf with the SNP’s candidate for the proposed Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection, Katy Loudon. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There has been an important domestic political event over this August holiday period: the successful recall petition against Margaret Ferrier, SNP MP for Rutherglen, a town south of Glasgow. This forces an autumn byelection in a marginal SNP/Labour constituency which will be a bellwether for next year’s general election in Scotland.

We will get some idea from Rutherglen if the Scots are seriously tiring of the SNP and if they want a Labour government at Westminster—and perhaps also in Edinburgh at the next Holyrood elections in 2026.

In the last UK election in 2019 the SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, with 45 per cent of the vote. Labour won just one, with 19 per cent. In Rutherglen, the SNP vote was 44 per cent, Labour 34 per cent, so if the polls are right Labour should win this seat fairly easily. Starmer will then hope to win a solid chunk of seats north of the border next year, running against both 14 years of the Conservatives in Westminster and 17 years of the SNP in Edinburgh. Alongside the Tory slide in England, this should put him even more firmly on the road to Number 10.

The SNP has a chronic leadership problem after the departure—apparently in disgrace—of Nicola Sturgeon. In her more than eight years as first minister, Sturgeon’s approval ratings tended to be impressively high. A full 41 per cent of Scots report an unfavourable view of her pedestrian successor Humza Yousaf compared to barely a quarter who feel favourably. “Humza Useless” is the cruel jibe. As Scotland’s former health secretary, he is a target for Scottish discontent with the poor state of the NHS and public services, and he can’t deflect so readily onto the evils of Westminster and the imperative for independence.

However, defeat comes in many forms and a stronger Labour party winning more seats in Scotland is not unproblematic for Starmer, if the result is a hung parliament at Westminster with the SNP holding the balance of power. There is also a big difference between a decline for the SNP and a rout. Polls still show the nationalists ahead of Labour by a few points in Scotland at large, and support for independence is still roughly in the region of 45 per cent, the figure achieved in the independence referendum of 2014 and a significant change from the prior position.

Over the next decade, the SNP could lose the battle but win the war if a Labour government becomes deeply unpopular and the SNP regroups.

A key strategy for the SNP must be to not overplay its hand in the event of a hung parliament. Spain may offer a foretaste. After last month’s closely fought election the fate of Pedro Sánchez, the left-wing prime minister, hangs on the votes of Catalan secessionists who six years ago tried to declare independence from Madrid. But the newfound strength of the left has come at the expense of nationalists. Sánchez’s socialists are now the largest party in Catalonia. If the nationalists there overdo it, they will probably just end up with another election and further decline.

In this politics—with nationalists in decline and left-wing parties relieved to be ascendant once more in potential breakaway territories—a successful bid for independence is inconceivable. Rather, nationalist skill in Barcelona and Edinburgh will lie in supporting left-wing governments and painstakingly negotiating favourable deals on finance, culture and the locations for new public and private institutions, strengthening the foundations for possible independence hereafter.

I started with electoral statistics. Here is a key social statistic. Last year, of 30,490 Scottish students accepted for university in the UK, 29,630 stayed in Scotland. That is 97 per cent. Centuries of institution-building lie in that figure. But so too does the decision of the first devolved Scottish government in 2000, a Labour government indeed, to abolish university fees for Scots studying “at home”. This was replaced with a lower graduate endowment fee—itself later abolished. There would be a charge, now at £9,250 a year, for Scots studying in England. This is how you build a nation.