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Scottish National Party Turmoil: Governing Party in Holyrood Set to Lose Half its Westminster Seats to a Surging Labour in 2024 General Election

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is on course to suffer a damaging loss of seats in the House of Commons if a general election were to be held in the immediate future. According to recent polling from YouGov, the pro-independence, nationalist party would lose 23 of its 45 House of Commons seats to Scottish Labour. Scotland has 59 seats in Westminster, and YouGov’s poll indicates that Labour would achieve 24 seats, meaning that the SNP’s electoral dominance in both Westminster and Holyrood is well and truly up for grabs.

The majority of Labour’s gains from the SNP would be taken from the Central Belt of Scotland – the densely populated area between the nation’s largest cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. YouGov predicts that Labour will win all but one of the SNP’s seven seats in Glasgow which, since 2014, has been a pro-independence stronghold.

Further polling does not make good reading for SNP politicians, with the Times recently illustrating that support for the party had fallen by ten percentage points in five months. Research by Ipsos also found support had declined sharply since the surprise resignation of former party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. If these numbers were to be replicated at a general election, it could prove to be vital in establishing a Labour majority and administration for the governance of the United Kingdom.

SNP collapse in polling

As the Telegraph noted, the latest polling illustrates ‘a seismic shift in Scotland’s politics since Sottish Labour’s near wipe-out at the hands on the SNP in 2015.’ One of the reasons behind the falling support for the party is the damaging implications of the arrests of very senior figures within the SNP in connection with a criminal investigation into the party’s finances, with ‘months of negative headlines’ since Sturgeon’s resignation. This has also proved difficult for the new leader of the SNP and Scottish First Minister, Hamza Yousaf, to settle into his new position and project an aura of competence in Scotland whilst the uncomfortable investigation prolongs.

The allegations of financial misconduct against the SNP are extremely serious. Three years after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded that Westminster grant Scotland permission to hold a second vote on the matter. Her main argument for doing this just several years after the ‘once-in-a-generation’ vote was because of the UK’s collective decision to leave the European Union in 2016. Sturgeon believed that Brexit warranted a second independence referendum due to its ‘significant and material change in circumstances.’ The Scottish population voted decisively to remain in the European Union, with just thirty-eight percent of the turnout opting for a UK departure. The image below illustrates the overwhelming Remain stance in Scotland back in the 2016 referendum.

The areas which voted Leave and Remain

As part of this second independence referendum push, the SNP launched a fundraising campaign to finance political activity toward achieving that goal. The party raised more than £740,000, yet after continued Westminster refusals and a Supreme Court ruling that rejected Sturgeon’s authority to unilaterally hold a vote in the style of Catalonia, the possibility of a second independence referendum in the near future seemed remote. 

David Henry became a member of the Scottish National Party after being encapsulated by the political development and experience of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Many others shared Henry’s optimism of the prospect of an independent Scottish nation, and the party achieved 125,000 members at its peak.   However, after constant rebuttal from Westminster, Henry and a cohort of other SNP members were dissatisfied with how the party had used their donations and raised the issue with the police. The SNP had made the strict commitment to solely use members’ funds for the second independence referendum campaign, yet Henry and other members believed the party had been ‘diverting the money to other things.’

These members had good reason to believe this was the case. As the Times reported, the SNP’s 2019 filings showed that the party had less than £100,000 in ‘cash and cash equivalents’ whilst concomitantly maintaining that the independence fundraising campaign had amassed a total of £600,000. Moreover, the party’s 2020 accounts illustrate that the SNP spent almost £700,000 in office furnishings, computers, and other miscellaneous equipment. After the party’s former chief executive and husband of Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, bequeathed a loan of over £107,000 to the SNP, criticism over the organisation’s management of finances intensified. Police arrested Murrell in April 2023, along with Colin Beattie, the party’s treasurer.

Sturgeon and husband

YouGov’s recent judgement of the SNP’s situation was clear: ‘Accusations of party mismanagement and potential criminal cases being brought against senior officials have taken a serious toll.’ Former member of the SNP’s national executive committee Caroline McAllister agreed, recognising that ‘the party of government’ was ‘taking money from people and saying it’s for a referendum, but then use it to prop up the party,’ deeming it ‘not acceptable.’

The debacle reflects the political issue of transparency and accountability regarding the use of party finances. It is clear from polling that a significant breach of trust has occurred between a large chunk of SNP members, voters, and party executives. However, despite many commentators suggesting Scottish independence is on the retreat following the contemporary SNP’s behaviour, recent Ipsos polling indicates that 53 percent of the Scottish population still supports Scottish independence.     As columnist Joyce McMillan correctly identifies, the movement remains strong, notwithstanding ‘a substantial gap … opening up between the popularity of the SNP, and the popularity of independence.’

McMillan also identifies a crucial point about the future of both a potential UK Labour government and Scottish independence. Acknowledging that many of the disgruntled SNP supporters are seemingly heading back to Labour, he doubts that Starmer’s party will be able to hold on to these pro-independence voters for long, citing the Labour’s ‘hard line unionist attitudes and rhetoric.’ It is important to note that, despite the fallout of the SNP fiasco, they are still the party of government in Holyrood and continue to command the leading position in polling, despite a resurgent Labour party that is closing the gap.

Nevertheless, Hamza Yousaf is struggling to engrave a committed approach and vision for the party’s immediate future. This is due to a novel challenge the SNP have been forced to confront since entering government. Unlike Sturgeon, Yousaf must deal with the political reality of there being ‘zero prospect’ of a second Scottish independence referendum in the near future as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. Competing against Yousaf to become SNP leader several months ago, Ash Regan recognised the potential political impasse the SNP could face as a result of the Court’s ruling, stating that she was ‘not going to be asking anyone’s permission in order to become self-governing.’   

The SNP debacle has led to commentators asking whether Scottish independence has lost momentum, alongside the future and purpose of the union in the twenty-first century. The journalist Iain Macwhirter has argued that the SNP’s prioritisation of achieving independence has damaged their ability to govern for the people of Scotland, including overseeing a ‘broken’ health service and the prospect of Yousaf introducing ‘a new round of tax increases in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.’ Tom Harris concurs, citing the Scottish government’s ‘inability to deliver two new ferries to serve Scotland’s island communities’ and the ‘unpopular Deposit Return Scheme’ as evidence that proves ‘the illusion of competent devolved government’ will automatically reveal itself after Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon resigns

As Andrew Marr correctly identified, ‘the resignation of a single politician, however long-serving and charismatic, does not turn an unhappy Union into a happy one.’ Sturgeon was perhaps one of the most popular and successful democratic leaders of the twenty-first century and represented a large chunk of the United Kingdom’s population who wanted out. Marr suggests that, for Unionism to survive, further devolution and decentralisation of government and departments from London is necessary. The notion that Westminster is ‘hoarding power’ is not just a view held in Scotland but also in English regions too, including Cornwall and Manchester. The Conservative Party’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda sought to address this but has failed to placate disgruntlement from those that feel their voices and interests are not being wholeheartedly represented. 

The SNP continues to attempt to ride out this wave of turbulence. The criminal investigation into the party’s finances continues, currently supervised by the National Crime Agency – the UK body that addresses ‘serious and organised crime.’ The SNP’s policy convenor, Toni Giugliano, recently confirmed that the party ‘must have space’ to decide the next steps towards the route of independence. Perhaps to cajole those pro-independence voters away from voting Labour in the near future, Giugliano also starkly stated in the latest Holyrood Weekly podcast that ‘if we don’t win the next election, if the SNP weren’t to be in government, independence is off the agenda, and it is off the table.’

Illustrations of Nicola Sturgeon jumping a sinking ship seem apt. However, commentators should remember that pro-independence feeling remains strong north of the English border before suggesting the phenomenon has ceased to exist. It is the contemporary outlet that requires resuscitation.

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