As the importance of independence declines, so does the SNP’s relevance in this election

As the importance of independence declines, so does the SNP’s relevance in this election

Two years ago, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP would treat this next general election as a de facto referendum. The SNP would campaign on the single issue of independence. Winning more than 50% of the vote would constitute a mandate to begin negotiations for independence.

It was classic Sturgeon – a bold statement designed to grab headlines but with little attention to implementation.

Sturgeon’s approach resembles the Brexit Leave campaign, with bold promises, blaming decisions made elsewhere, while avoiding the challenging issues arising from her prospectus. Closing the education gap was her “defining mission” as prime minister. Scotland would have “the most ambitious legal framework for reducing emissions in the world”, she insisted. Pensions in an independent Scotland would rise to the European average. These and more were all suitable slogans for the side of a double-decker bus.

That legacy overshadowed her successors.

Seven months ago, Yousaf and SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn amended Sturgeon’s policy. Independence would still be the key issue in this election; page one line one of the SNP manifesto would say “Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country”. This would, she argued, be a “simple and powerful statement”.

As journalist Peter Smith said to Swinney, he might as well say “vote SNP for Scotland to win the Euros”.

If the SNP “wins a majority of seats in the Scottish general election”, they insisted, then the Scottish Government will be “empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. It remains unclear what is meant by granting a democratic effect – another referendum, devolution of power to hold a referendum or to start negotiations on independence?

The policy committed the SNP to include “Independence for Scotland” or similar words in the party’s name and logo on ballot papers, “to make it clear beyond doubt what is at stake in this election”.

These commitments to prioritize independence were further reduced under John Swinney. He did not mention independence in his opening statement in the first Scottish leaders’ debate of this election, preferring the ambiguous demand that decisions be “made in Scotland, for Scotland”. This wording is a variant of “Scottish control of Scottish affairs” which has been used for a century to refer to everything from expanding the powers of the old Scottish Office to supporting a devolved Scottish parliament and independence.

He also spoke of negotiating more powers for Holyrood with a Starmer government after the election. The manifesto refers to the “devolution of new borrowing powers”, the “full devolution” of fiscal powers, the “devolution of national insurance” and exceptional taxation. This reads more like a version of full fiscal autonomy than independence.

It calls for powers over energy regulation, prices and production, as well as over the planning system, immigration and social security. But alongside this there are many references to independence. It makes sense to keep all options open, but this is cakeism, a manifesto designed by someone who attended the Boris Johnson school of political campaigning.

But few people read manifestos. The ballot paper does not seem likely to include “independence” – although the Electoral Commission has given permission for that change – and that will be seen by all voters.

At the manifesto launch, Swinney described the SNP as a “moderate left of the party centre”, reviving a description first made in 1981 by Gordon Wilson, Swinney’s political mentor from his early days in politics. Then, as now, the SNP leader’s task was focused inward, seeking to unite a divided party. Swinney’s claim that the SNP is the most left-wing party is not based on the SNP’s performance in office in Edinburgh, but on a mix of populist performative policies and demands that SNP MPs will make in the face of a Labor government at Westminster. All of this is designed to appeal to voters who see independence not as an end in itself, but as a means to remove Tory rule. But the claim to be left-wing lacks credibility from a party that has frozen council tax and a politician who leans slightly to the right.

SNP MPs will introduce a Keep the NHS in Public Hands bill to rule out privatisation, and will call on the next UK government to increase NHS spending in England by at least £10bn a year so Scotland gets a share of the extra funding by the Barnett formula. Swinney was finance secretary and in charge of negotiating more tax powers for Holyrood a decade ago. Giving more money to the Scottish NHS is in his gift, but instead he wants England to lean left to allow the SNP to appear progressive.

The problem facing the SNP in this election is that the wave of support that rose in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum is receding. The SNP has been unable to build on this major surge in support and the exceptionally favorable circumstances for the nationalist cause provided by the calamitous premierships of the last decade in British politics. Swinney’s job is now one of damage limitation.

John Swinney inherited unrealistic expectations from his predecessors. This made writing the SNP manifesto difficult. Independence may be on the front page, but there is little prospect of the SNP getting anywhere near Sturgeon’s 50% target, and it is likely to miss Yousaf’s target, with the SNP winning a majority of seats.

The manifesto offers a wish list of new powers for Holyrood, but little reason why Westminster should pay attention. As the importance of independence declines, so does the SNP’s relevance in this election, and nothing in the manifesto comes close to addressing this issue.

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