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"Another such victory and we shall be ruined"
SNP Conference is preparing for a pyrrhic victory when they should be trying to avoid a defeat.
The chalice passed from Nicola Sturgeon to Humza Yousaf contained many poisons, but the most damaging wasn’t a surprise motorhome or the crisis in public services. No, it is her de facto referendum policy that has done the most damage to her party.
The full results of the Savanta Poll we shared a question from in the last issue have now been published by the Scotsman. They show the SNP has lost its lead in Scotland. As I’ve written many times, when you imagine yourselves as the liberators of a grateful nation, losing popular support isn’t just the pendulum swing of politics, it is an existential crisis.
This is a crisis that the party may have been able to manage if it had the full range of political tools available to it. They might have tried to tell a story about holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. They might have embraced Labour and positioned itself as a pressure group in Westminster for a more radical left-of-centre government. Or they might have argued for a more modest transfer of powers and campaigned around what these would mean for people.
A stronger leader would tell the hard truth to party members: voters are stubbornly unwilling to separate from the UK and so, until such time as that changes, their focus should be on the cost of living, growing the economy, and fixing public services.
All these approaches would have allowed the SNP some sort of claim to offer change. They are now unable to follow any of these strategies. Instead, Sturgeon’s defacto referendum has trapped her party in a debate which is, at base, about how a movement with a minority of public support can somehow deliver a policy that only a majority of voters can mandate.
To try to solve this puzzle, in the last year the SNP have gradually shifted position as their poll numbers have fallen:
They started with a referendum that it turned out would be unlawful.
Then a defacto referendum where 50% of votes would deliver a mandate.
Then Yousaf suggested winning the most Scottish seats at a General Election would be enough.
Finally, we have them saying that winning a majority of seats at that election would be enough.
Even Option 2 is at odds with the views of Scottish voters according to a poll published in the Herald today. Option 3, Yousaf’s preferred moving goalpost is rejected by Scots in a poll for the Scottish Sun today - but in any event, it was too bonkers even for SNP members who opted for Option 4. Yousaf shifted position in advance of the conference to avoid defeat on the floor, but for any leader to spend the first day of his first conference as leader being turned over by his members is humiliating.
The strategic importance of the decision made today at SNP conference is that the SNP will now fight an election offering a change it cannot deliver while Labour will offer a simpler, safer and speedier route to change.
Every interview by SNP spokespeople in support of their manifesto will look like this one with Sky News where the First Minister tries to explain how losing nearly twenty seats would actually be a good result and a mandate for separating from the UK:
By building their strategy for independence around the assumption that the SNP will lose seats, they have ensured the conversation about their election campaign will be about them going backwards. The party that built its whole success for a generation on the idea of inevitable momentum have built into the Scottish General Election an admission that they are going backwards. But it gets worse.
Famously after winning the Battle of Asculum against the Romans with irreplaceable losses, King Pyrrhus of Epirus rejected congratulations saying, "Another such victory over the Romans, and we shall be utterly ruined." The problem for the SNP isn’t that they are headed for heavy losses, it is that are preparing to congratulate themselves for those losses. Because the General Election won’t be the last battle they fight.
Immediately Scottish politics will shift to thinking about the Holyrood elections. In such a scenario where the SNP suffer heavy losses, instead of calmly reflecting they will be claiming victory. The decision made today doesn’t just toxify their General Election strategy, it poisons the period afterwards too.