Scottish Independence Stalemate Adds to Gloom Hanging Over SNP

The Scottish National Party meets Sunday with leader Humza Yousaf under pressure to unite members behind his independence strategy, and with a resurgent Labour Party threatening to end its grip on Scotland’s politics.

(Bloomberg) — The Scottish National Party meets Sunday with leader Humza Yousaf under pressure to unite members behind his independence strategy, and with a resurgent Labour Party threatening to end its grip on Scotland’s politics.

Opinion polls suggest the SNP is at its most vulnerable since it took power in Scotland’s devolved parliament 16 years ago. Over three days in the northeast city of Aberdeen, Yousaf will try to prove he can get the party back on track after he was chosen to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader in March.

Discontent over its running of Scotland’s semi-autonomous administration was building when millions of pounds were wasted on botched ferry contracts, while the devolved government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic also had its detractors. 

But a police investigation into the SNP’s finances has triggered a full-blown crisis. Sturgeon, her husband and the party’s treasurer were arrested and released without charge in an ongoing probe. They deny wrongdoing. Yousaf’s priority when he became leader was to restore calm, yet he’s got little to show from his first months in office.

This month, Keir Starmer’s Labour stormed to victory in a parliamentary election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West in the Glasgow suburbs, ousting the SNP on a swing that suggests dozens of the nationalist party’s Westminster seats will be in play in a UK-wide general election expected in 2024.

“The SNP cannot simply blame its current electoral predicament on the police investigation into its finances, embarrassing and headline-making though that might be,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said in a blog post on Friday. “The party’s predicament is more fundamental.”

The SNP’s sway in Scotland stems from its call for independence. While it’s been almost a decade since the country voted to stay part of the UK, the “constitutional question” dominates politics in the nation of 5.4 million people.

Even with support for the SNP slipping, opinion polls show Scotland is still roughly split over independence. “Nationalist voters have not lost faith in the idea of independence but, rather, their confidence in the SNP’s effectiveness as a political party,” Curtice said.

The problem for Yousaf is that the SNP appears to be out of moves. An attempt to hold a new referendum without the approval of the UK government was rebuffed by the Supreme Court late last year, while both the Conservatives and Labour refuse to sanction a vote.

Before stepping down, Sturgeon suggested using the next UK election as a “de facto referendum.” Under her plan, a majority of votes for pro-independence parties — which include the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba Party — would give the SNP a mandate to to start separation talks with the UK government. 

But that’s something the SNP has achieved only once before, in 2015, when it won 50% of Scottish votes. So Yousaf adapted the idea, proposing that the SNP would use the lower threshold of winning the most Scottish seats at at Westminster as the basis for negotiating with London on independence.

The Daily Record newspaper reported the nationalists may switch the definition again, to a majority of seats, at the meeting in Aberdeen.

The proposal has incited criticism including from within the SNP, on the basis that any claimed mandate below the threshold of a majority of votes would be unlikely to be taken seriously by the British government. The row has exacerbated tensions as the SNP’s poll numbers slip.

Meanwhile Labour has been making inroads. Nationwide polls show Starmer’s party is on track to oust Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative UK government, aided by the seats it’s projected to take from the SNP in Scotland.

Scotland has always been key to Labour’s fortunes in the Westminster Parliament. The party lost control of the Scottish government to the SNP in 2007, and in 2015 it lost 40 of the 41 Scottish districts it held in the UK Parliament. At the last UK election in 2019, the SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while Labour won just one. The win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West means it now has two.

A YouGov poll for the Fabian Society, carried out between on Oct. 2 and Oct. 6, found support for the SNP at 33%, only one point ahead of Labour. Other polls found that Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar could even be in line to replace Yousaf as Scotland’s First Minister, with the help of other unionist parties.

Labour is “now breathing down the SNP’s neck,” Curtice said.

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