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Nov 20

What awaits the SNP if they lose in 2014?

Originally posted on Tory Hoose

I think this might be one of the most fascinating questions in British politics at the minute (at least for anybody with much of an interest in the constitutional situation). The SNP have played an increasingly central role in the politics of Scotland since the 1970s. Their rise has helped to drag that country’s politics farther from that of the UK as a whole, not only by providing the principal driving force for devolution but also by providing a safe, responsibility-free repository for the anti-labour centre-right vote that used to go to the Conservatives.

Now they’ve got what (most of them) have always wanted – a referendum on Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of the UK. There’s obviously the chance they’ll win, and the entire Scottish party system – or at least, the non-Labour sections – will fracture and reform, with the left and right wings of the SNP going their separate ways. But what happens if, as present indicators suggest, they lose?

That depends on several factors, not least the manner in which they conduct the referendum campaign. As I wrote for Open Unionism/the Huffington Post, broadly speaking Salmond can either go flat-out to win at the risk of breaking his party, or playing it safe and trying to emerge on the far side of 2014 with as little damage to the SNP as possible. With devo-max taken off the table with the confirmation of a two-option referendum, there isn’t really a way he can take the cautious route anymore.

The scale of the damage will depend greatly on how great the margin of defeat is. The Parti Quebecois, once Salmond’s ‘favourite nationalist party’, have survived both two referendum defeats and the near-wipe out of their federal sister party, the Bloc. They’re now back in government in Montreal, fanning the flames for a third independence referendum, and squaring up for an almighty row over the federal legislation – the Clarity Act – that governs the all-important wording of the question of such a referendum (sounds familiar…).

But the PQ enjoys advantages Salmond doesn’t. Their last referendum, which posed a totally impenetrable 43-word question, was defeated by a razor thin margin of 49.42% “Yes” to 50.58% “No”. Thus there was more than enough tension maintained between Montreal and Toronto to sustain the PQ’s politics. Furthermore, Quebecois nationalism has much more in common with Welsh nationalism than Scottish, with its strong emphasis on language and cultural differences.

If the SNP get a similarly tight result it is likely that the immediate prospect of another attempt in the near future will keep them together, but if a heavier defeat sends the next referendum off into the long grass they might not be so lucky.

Adapting to the post-referendum world won’t be easy. There will be those who want to turn the party, in the short-to-medium term at least, into a ‘made in Scotland’ party focused on being a party of government in Holyrood. This will not sit well with the true believers, who see the SNP as a single-issue vehicle for campaigning for independence and won’t like seeing the cause take a back seat.

But even without any possible schisms the consequences of defeat might herald for the party, losing the referendum could present it with other problems. For a start, barring an extraordinarily close result it will probably see the end, or the beginning of the end, of Alex Salmond’s career in front-line politics. He has already started to lay hints that he’ll step down in the event of a ‘No’ vote. It is hard to see him carrying on as a back-bench MSP, so odds are he’ll either sit as a nationalist peer in Westminster or simply retire. Either way, there’s no replacing him. Nicola Sturgeon is widely seen as competent and effective but doesn’t have that… x factor, or however you want to describe it. Simply put, she isn’t Alex Salmond.

The 2015 general election will come within months of the ending of the referendum campaign. The national parties, unlike the SNP, can draw upon the coffers of much larger pan-UK fundraising and party machines to fight it. If the SNP have gone for broke on the referendum fight they might really struggle to mount an effective parliamentary campaign – which probably helps to explain why they’re pushing for strict spending limits for the referendum.

On top of that, there’s the issue of motivation. Would the SNP’s foot soldiers be willing to throw their energies into an election campaign for a parliament they dislike, months after the Scottish people had rejected their dreams of breaking all ties with it? Would SNP voters be fired up to get to the polls? In close races such things could make all the difference.

Finally, the great unknown is the impact defeat will have on the SNP’s electoral support. The key to the SNP’s rise as a party of government in Scotland has been building a coalition of voters far broader than that which supports independence. If they go for broke in campaigning for a proposition that goes down to heavy defeat, how much will that soften their vote?

This thought is on the minds of Tory strategists too. One of the few consistent themes I got from speaking to various people at conference – including Chris Grayling, David Davis and Grant Schapps – was that a referendum victory would open up an opportunity to win back the old Scottish Conservative heartlands in the northeast, and perhaps a couple of Liberal Democrat seats, as the anti-Labour, centre-right, non-separatist vote looks for a new home.

The 2015 election is going to be very tight and all resources will have to be carefully deployed. But if CCHQ see an SNP demoralised, divided and strapped for cash, perhaps they’ll spare the resources needed to properly exploit it.

Or maybe the SNP will win 15 seats, which is the Electoral Calculus prediction. All things are possible..

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1 comment

  1. Old Albion

    All the SNP has to do is, ask the English to vote on Scottish independence. They’ll get what they want then…..

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