Still No Progress
After a calamitous week for the UK's institutions, the nationalist cause still can't command a poll lead. Why? And could Labour really be about to recover in Scotland?
Like Scotland’s unregulated bus services, you wait for ages for one poll and then three come along at once.
In the last few days, pollsters across the UK have recorded record leads for Labour in the aftermath of the Truss and Kwasi’s budget. Everyone was wondering what impact the economic crisis and Labour surge might have on the Scottish constitutional question, and on the standing of Scottish Parties. Now we know.
Can Labour Remake the SNP’s Coalition?
Let’s take the party numbers first. These numbers point to a continuation of the nationalist hegemony in Scotland, but they also suggest how that dominance might finally be challenged.
In context, these are great numbers for Labour. You’d have to go back three general elections to find polls where the party regularly polled above 30%. However, these are truly awful numbers for the Scottish Tories, who are now even lower than their vote share the last time their party was wiped out in the 1997 Labour landslide. For them, this is worse than just losing parliamentarians - these numbers mean losing a credible claim to be the party best placed to defend the Union. As their vote share sinks, so does their only significant political message of the last decade. As Labour’s share rises and their candidates threaten more SNP seats, it is Sarwar and Starmer who can reverse the march of nationalism.
For Labour, these polling numbers offer the opportunity to create a similar electoral coalition to the one that has served the SNP so well. In all the noise of Scottish politics, it is often forgotten that there is a sizable chunk of voters, perhaps as many as a third of the electorate, who do not share the tribal identification of the constitutional true-believers. These voters approached the 2014 referendum as a pragmatic economic choice, and since then there have been moments where they have appeared to be open-minded on the prospect of revisiting that choice. In most recent elections they have voted SNP, normally in spite of, rather than because of that party’s commitment to leaving the UK.
In the absence of a Tory revival, Labour now appears to have a more solid constitutional core vote on which to build their General Election campaign. Like the SNP they now need to add to that base by persuading those voters in the middle, and, as the SNP did in the past, to do that they have to become the more attractive change proposition. There are many reasons Labour is better placed to do this than in previous General Elections - a more tired SNP, for one - but the main reason they should be optimistic is that the SNP have handed them a strategic advantage...
This prospect of a new coalition for change is why the SNP have, for a party that is seemingly so confident, looked a little worried of late.
Safe Change Versus More of the Same
If the battle for those middle voters is about who best represents change, then the SNP has disadvantaged itself by declaring the General Election a defacto referendum.
In every past election, the SNP have been able to offer change without risk by reassuring voters that “a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence.” This time their message will be the exact opposite: “a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence”. In the months leading up to the election, they will be presenting new policy documents setting out how they could fund the NHS after giving up our share of UK funding, how a new hard border with England will work, and how a separate currency will replace the pound, who will set interest rates, etc.
Even with a skilled communications effort, this frames the whole SNP election campaign around managing new economic risks. Labour will be able to offer change and an escape from self-inflicted crises through a change in government. Thanks to Nicola Sturgeon they will also be able to point out that the SNP’s whole focus in the election is creating economic crises. Do people really want more instability? Today’s poll showing just a third of voters support the First Ministers’ planned referendum next year suggests not.
That isn’t an offer of change from the Tories…that is more of the same.
In any event, on these polling numbers, the SNP’s defacto referendum would fall short. This leads us to the constitutional polling numbers.
Let’s ask the question that should, but probably won’t, dominate the minds of every delegate to SNP conference: Why hasn’t an unprecedented and almost entirely self-inflicted economic crisis created a majority for leaving the UK?
As I wrote last week, the SNP have nothing to offer in response to an economic crisis but more disruption. Expect SNP Conference to present messages like “never again can unionists lecture us on economic risk”. But that isn’t an argument that leaving the UK won’t be an economic risk, rather it is an attempt to bring down the pro-UK argument to their own level of economic recklessness. Because in the mind of the nationalist, what matters isn’t that it is an economic crisis, it’s that it isn’t *our* economic crisis. The virtue of a policy is in its Scottishness, or perhaps more accurately its absence of Englishness, not whether it makes things better. A Scottish-made crisis is better than any return to stability created in partnership with England.
There’s a deeper reason for the lack of a pro-Scexit majority in this moment of economic crisis. It is precisely because this is an economic moment that it does not suit the SNP’s ends. The moments when momentum has been with nationalism were those when the debate has been about national pride or imagined difference from the English (think the last couple of weeks of the referendum or the height of covid). Even It’s Scotland’s Oil was an emotional, rather than economic offer: *they* are stealing from you so be angry. Likewise, the moments they have struggled have been when the debate has been about the economy (think the collapse of RBS or Salmond’s inability to set out ‘Plan B’).
So while the current incompetence at the heart of the great institutions of the British state might be expected to undermine faith in the UK, it also stands as a reminder that these questions of deficits and borrowing; currency and interest rates; borders and trade really matter. Perhaps being reminded of the importance of these fundamentals is as likely to encourage caution as it is to create carelessness.