The polls are turning, and maybe the political tide, but what if the fundamentals of Scottish politics are changing too?
A common misconception is that the tide comes in and out. Really the tide doesn’t move, it is the earth that rotates through the tidal bulges caused by the moon’s gravity. That is an idea to keep in mind whenever someone uses the metaphor of a tidal change in politics.
There is much chatter tonight about a sea change after an opinion poll showed Labour and the SNP neck-and-neck in voting intentions for both Westminster and Holyrood. Significantly, Labour is now in the lead in voting intentions for the regional list vote.
Is this shift away from the SNP simply a matter of incumbency finally catching up with a party after 16 years of mediocre government? The former SNP voters in our focus groups certainly felt so. By the way, the paywall is down on those videos if you haven’t been able to watch them yet.
But what if something else is happening? What if rather than the tide turning on cue, it is really the world turning? What if the foundations on which nationalism has been built are being washed away?
One idea that nationalism has rested on is that Scottish political decision-making, and so Scottish politicians, are somehow inherently more moral than their corrupt English counterparts. Recent events may have begun to erode that conceit.
While devolution was built on the idea of better government, nationalism was built on the idea of different government. Now enough voters don’t seem to be accepting the excuse that we can’t have change until we break up Britain. The same poll shows a sharp fall in the SNP government’s competence rating, with just a quarter of voters now saying they are competent. Perhaps Yousaf’s own reputation and record are tarnishing the whole brand of the party. The only issue which the SNP now have a positive approval rating for is one from the past:
The poll also shows support for remaining in the UK at 55% versus 45% for leaving, the same level as in the referendum, which is, as I have discussed here before, remarkable given that half a million older No voters have passed away since 2014. Fewer than a third of us now think a referendum would result in independence. While the SNP’s route to change disappears over a distant horizon, it is hardly surprising that voters have looked elsewhere for a change they can be part of.
The SNP meanwhile seem determined to place themselves in opposition to that change. Stephen Flynn rose at Prime Minister’s questions today to attack Keir Starmer rather than Rishi Sunak. Trying to pull down Labour is a tactical response to a strategic problem. They are spooked that it is even conceivable that Labour could become the largest party in one of the next Scottish elections but risk now looking like they are unhappy that a Conservative government, and their hopes of an independence majority, are passing.
On a deeper level, a closer alignment of voting intentions between Scotland and England contradicts one of the central ideas of modern nationalism: that English and Scottish voters have incompatible values. Kenny Farquharson has an excellent piece on this today:
“Seems the English and the Scots were not as incongruent as indy folk would have had us believe. We were not, after all, drifting ever further apart. We were not, as human beings, inconsonant with our nearest neighbours. The othering of the English promoted by the SNP and its fellow travellers is revealed as a hollow sham. It is exposed as cynical opportunism. It is unmasked as a ploy to turn neighbour against neighbour, to foment distrust between people with more in common than divides them, to encourage the most lamentable nativism.”
With exceptionalism punctured by scandal and incompetence; their offer of change no longer on the table; and Scots uniting with our neighbours behind a shared project of change, could the world be turning on its axis?
Real Politics Returning To Scotland
Another reason to think it might came from the First Minister today. In an interview with the Daily Record, he seemed to signal the SNP are ditching their manifesto commitment to universal free school meals:
“I’ve got a 14 year old now. Should people be paying for her free school meals when I earn a First Minster’s salary? I don’t think that’s the right way to use that money. I think the better way to use the money is to target it to those that need it absolutely the most.”
Compare that to this from more than a decade ago:
"What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut? What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people can't get a job or a place at college?"
That was Johan Lamont back in 2012. Back then Humza Yousaf gleefully joined in the attacks on her as an irredeemable Thatcherite causing Nye Bevan to birl in his grave. Lamont’s speech wasn’t a call for universal benefits to be removed. The attack on her was to pretend that is what she said so that they could ignore the real message of the speech: we can’t have universal provision without paying for it. A wasted decade later, the new SNP leader has arrived at the same conclusion.
For too long the SNP have governed by reallocating resources within existing budgets. This was possible because of Scotland’s higher public spending - paid for mainly by the South East of England and topped up a little by marginal differences in income tax. We know the costs of that. Every time a charge was removed for the wealthy, it was paid for by cutting the services to the less wealthy. If you doubt that, earlier today while the SNP leader in London was congratulating himself that middle-class kids get free university tuition in Scotland, the SNP Government in Edinburgh was cutting millions from colleges.
Now that Yousaf needs political cover to either drop commitments to universal provisions or significantly increase taxes to fund them, he is seeking consensus with other party leaders. It would be tempting for Labour to return the same political attacks he made on Labour back then. That would be a mistake. It is far more damaging to Yousaf to accept his offer at face value.
When Scottish politics is reduced to a juvenile contest of who is more Scottish, the SNP win. When it is a conversation about how to pay for and manage public services, they will lose. Nationalism is an alternative to real politics and Humza Yousaf is starting a real political conversation. In the long run, that can break the nationalist framing of Scottish politics.
Culture Corner: the only essential differential.
Kenny Farquharson’s piece made me think of Goody For Our Side And Your Side Too, by Ogden Nash. In particular:
There’s many a difference quickly found
Between the different races,
But the only essential
Is living different places.