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Reasons to be Cheerful
New polls, new leadership, and a new message that's about more than just fighting the SNP might make things interesting again in Scottish politics.
Three developments this week point to good news for opponents of Scexit. None of them is about the bloody cage fight that rages on between supporters of Nicola Sturgeon and the followers of her former mentor. I thought I’d build this issue around a musical reference that sums up a buoyant feeling amongst those who believe in solidarity across the UK. So here are reasons to be cheerful: one, two, three.
The first of a couple of interesting opinion polls this week was from Survation. It found that the recent trend away from leaving the UK has continued and that remaining in the UK is back in the lead.
The same poll shows Nicola Sturgeon close to losing the majority which her political message assumes is in the bag. Of course, the Holyrood elections should be about whether the SNP deserve a majority rather than accepting their arrogant demand that we should assume they have already won by a landslide.
Even though it is on-trend, it is just one poll and should be no more cause for excitement than any of the polls that caused such hubris among nationalists and hysteria for many Union supporters. What the Survation numbers do is raise a question: what if the nationalists who claim that opinion polls carry such democratic weight that they justify overturning a vote by millions of Scots suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of that same opinion polling?
Of course, as with any other item of evidence, polls will be tossed overboard if they are felt to be weighing down the nationalist balloon. For their opponents though, any sustained movement in the polls allows the remain side to be able to claim momentum. This was always a problem for Better Together in 2014: the ‘status quo’ option isn’t as interesting and finds it difficult to claim movement in society, even when it commands a majority of support. Today though the SNP have been in power for longer than the Thatcher governments were. They have dominated Scottish life for so long. What if they are now the status quo that people begin to react against? What if the interesting new narrative in Scottish politics isn’t the story the SNP always tell: of the inevitable march of a nation towards leaving a union? What if, instead, Scotland’s story over the next few years becomes the gradual decay and decline of a political hegemony?
Even normally nationalist-leaning commentators have been telling that tale for some months now. Kevin McKenna concluded that:
“This party has lost its heart and without this it has little else to offer.”
Neil MacKay is similarly scathing:
“A party which proposes to lead the nation to independence repeatedly shows itself incapable of governing – and clearly the closer a second referendum comes the more these failings will be used as a weapon to undermine independence.”
And Iain McWhirter wrote:
“Every so often political parties become so divided that they can barely function. It happened to Labour over Militant entryism in the 1980s, to the Tories over Europe in the 1990s. Now it is happening in the Scottish National Party.”
Even if the SNP win well in May it might be that the story has turned irrevocably. If there is just a little more slippage in the polls and Nicola Sturgeon fails to gain a majority, it isn’t difficult to imagine her no longer being able to lead a dangerously divided and deeply disappointed party.
Rather than living and dying by the polls, those who want to remain in the UK should give up on punditry. Instead, focus on making an argument. In fact, reading this should be the longest you devote to thinking about polls…
…but forgive me if I point to another poll. Ipsos Mori asked voters views of what should happen if, in the event of the SNP winning a majority, they do not get an agreement with the UK government to hold a referendum. Just 18% of voters surveyed thought that the SNP Government should hold a referendum anyway.
This raises an important, but little understood dynamic in the debate about leaving the UK: voters have different feelings about the process of leaving the UK than they do the policy. Scots who are captured as supporters of leaving the Union in binary polls include significant numbers who don’t think it’s any sort of priority for our governments. They also include many who are swing voters, curious about leaving the UK, but who recall the debate leading up to 2014 as being a source of antagonism, aggravation and even aggression.
As she seeks to placate impatient members and regain control of her party, Nicola Sturgeon talking more about her plan for a disputed referendum may turn these voters off. We saw something similar happen in 2017: the more Nicola Sturgeon talked about the process of leaving the UK, the less likely she was to win permission for that. In past elections her tactic has been to reassure indy-sceptic voters that the election is about choosing her, not choosing the break up the UK. Now she has a noisy chorus of internal critics saying the opposite on every platform available to them. All the talk of illegal referendums and court battles only serves to make the process of leaving the UK feel even more acrimonious and costly.
Nobody should have been carried away with all opinion polls that showed the nationalists ahead, especially as those numbers were built on only a couple of percentage points advance on their 2014 vote. Nobody should get too excited now. However, the SNP are masters of taking the smallest advantage and presenting it as evidence in support of the bigger story they want to tell. Supporters of staying in the UK should be a bit more like the SNP in that respect.
Too often the politically minded wait for polls as if they’re omens sent from vengeful or benign gods, instead of realising that we have control of the numbers through the arguments we make. The rational reaction to positive trends should be the same as with negative movements in the numbers: tell your own story.
Into this setting comes Anas Sarwar as new leader of Scottish Labour. Already commentators are remarking how much more positive he sounds than those who preceded him. Nobody, least of all Anas, thinks he’s about to walk into Bute House in May, but I reckon he understands the political opportunity of the coming weeks.
Since 2007, despite being obsessed with division and disinterested in delivery, the SNP have managed to convince people that they are the optimistic party. They rested this on the story of independence as a fresh start, a blank canvass for imagining something different. As we emerge out of our homes and lockdown ends, we will see our workplaces, communities, friends and family through new eyes. This reset of society allows Labour to tell the story of a new beginning, without the need for a destructive policy or divisive process.
Anas captured this in his acceptance video. He cleverly connects his own immigrant family story of coming to start a new life in Scotland to the idea that end of the pandemic is a chance for us to have a fresh start in our politics. He poses the question of whether we really want to go straight back into those old fights. Now that we’re getting back together do we want a politics that pulls us apart again? It’s a message that understands what is going on behind the binary polling. It seeks to unite the people who are wary of the policy of independence with the people who are weary of the politics of independence.
If you’re not among the three-quarters of a million people who have seen his mini-speech, it’s worth a watch.
There’s a potential problem for the Conservatives in the Tone Anas has struck. They have harnessed the identity politics of Scotland to their benefit since the referendum. However, it has crowded out all other messages from them. Take a look at the leaflet delivered through your door, and every other Scottish door from the Conservatives this week. It literally doesn’t mention any other issue.
Like Lego Batman and Lego Joker, the Tories and SNP appear like they only find meaning in their lives through fighting each other.
The conservative position comes from passion, but they risk looking like they savour fighting the identity war with the nationalists more than they want to win a peace. So many scunnered voters just want an end to the headaches. Already Anas sounds more like those voters in the middle, more tired of the constant fighting than angry, more worried about the future of Scotland than he is about the flags of Scotland.
Combine Labour’s fresh start with a slowly deflating nationalist balloon, and things might be interesting in Scottish politics again.