What does the Scottish National Party stand for?
Before you leap to answer “independence”, note that SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon made a pointed effort to downplay talk of another referendum during the conference this week, refusing to set a date for what is supposedly her party’s primary aim.
With support for Scotland staying in the UK fixed stubbornly at 56 per cent, this caution seems wise. The trouble, as the conference illustrated beyond doubt, is that the beleaguered SNP has little on offer except its cause celebre. And after a decade in power, Scottish voters are finally starting to notice.
The June election results may have been bad for Theresa May, but they were diabolical for the SNP, which lost nearly twice as many seats as the Conservatives did – over a third of its Westminster representation – including heavyweights like Commons leader Angus Robertson and referendum architect Alex Salmond.
Nor have matters improved since. September’s Survation poll shows SNP support down by at least 4.5 per cent, which would cause pro-separatist forces to lose their Holyrood majority in the 2021 Scottish elections.
More recently, a YouGov poll this week revealed that 42 per cent of Scots were disapproving of the SNP’s record in government. That record has included offering glitzy giveaways – like free university tuition and rounds of IVF – while letting more basic public services crumble. As energy and airtime have been wasted on banging the drum for independence, NHS targets have been missed, Scottish schools have slipped disastrously in the international rankings, while pupils from disadvantaged areas are four times less likely to go to university than those from wealthy backgrounds.
In addition to this backdrop of poor governance, the same YouGov poll also shows that nearly half of Scots now believe that the SNP misrepresented economic figures to make the case for independence in 2014, while 45 per cent think their family would be worse off if the separatists had won.
Clearly, the SNP’s constitutional raison d’etre is no longer enough to win votes.
This leaves the SNP with the same ideological crisis currently faced by Ukip. With all single-issue campaigns, you can get a long way in uniting people with radically different views when they coalesce around one burning policy, but when that policy is no longer the focus, support starts to fracture.
SNP leaders have been successful over the past decade by bringing together so-called “Tartan Tories” and Scottish socialists under the independence banner. They have been highly efficient at fudging tough decisions, blaming every fallback on the government in Westminster. But after winning further devolved powers in 2014, and with a second referendum on the backburner, they have had to choose: maintain a centrist balance, or veer to the left.
It is obvious from this week’s conference that the left has won. Key announcements included a state-owned energy provider (borrowed from Scottish Labour’s platform), an expansion of state expenditure, and paying the residency fees for EU nationals working in the Scottish public sector.
That’s plenty to scare of some of the party’s patriotic but fiscally conservative voters, but is it enough to keep the far left on side, especially with Jeremy Corbyn as a cult-like socialist force among young people? Unlikely.
Meanwhile, adoration of Nicola Queen-of-Scots Sturgeon has taken a hit following the election, which she spent parading around like a presidential candidate despite not actually running.
Whether because of the growing appeal of Corbyn north of the border, or the sensational rise Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, Sturgeon is losing her status as the voice of Scotland. It is not a coincidence that she was far less prominent this year than at previous SNP conferences.
Without a popular leader, momentum for independence, and a strong record in government, the SNP has little to offer voters except the promise of a referendum most do not want.
This isn’t the end of Sturgeon’s reign, but it’s hard to see how she recovers from here. The SNP is in demise.