Nicola and the Nats

Jansen VanderMeulen ’19
Staff Columnist

For many Americans, the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 was a distant curiosity. For Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, it was simultaneously devastating and triumphant. Ms. Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) had been elected to lead Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament in 2011 on a promise to hold a referendum to end the union between it and the rest of the United Kingdom.[1] Hold the referendum they did, and though polling initially showed a blowout win for “No” (that is, the side seeking to keep the United Kingdom united), “Yes” gained dramatic late momentum despite opposition from all of the UK’s three main political parties.[2] On election night, supporters of independence fell just short; “Yes” earned just under forty-five percent of the vote.[3] Scotland’s then-First Minister Alex Salmond resigned after the defeat, and his longtime deputy suddenly found herself one of the most powerful people in one of the world’s most powerful nations.

Following the referendum loss and Mr. Salmond’s departure, Ms. Sturgeon’s SNP reached previously unseen political heights. Membership nearly quadrupled,[4] and two successive elections showed its staying power. First, at the UK General Election of 2015, the SNP wiped out Labour and the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives being near-extinct north of the border since the time of Thatcher) across Scotland, gaining fifty seats to win fifty-six of Scotland’s fifty-nine in London.[5] Next, at the Scottish Parliament elections a year later, the SNP fell just one seat short of an absolute majority, while historically-dominant Labour fell into third place behind the long-moribund Scottish Conservatives.[6]

During the Brexit referendum, Ms. Sturgeon campaigned hard to keep Scotland and the rest of the UK in the European Union. Her efforts were rewarded: though the UK as a whole voted to Leave, Scotland voted strongly to Remain,[7] and Ms. Sturgeon was handed a powerful weapon in her quest to separate England and Scotland. The SNP delights in driving wedges between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and now it would have their biggest ever wedge: Scotland’s desire to remain part of cosmopolitan Europe contrasted with the rest of the UK’s know-nothing nationalism.

Ms. Sturgeon seized on the strategy with enthusiasm. The day after the referendum, she declared Scotland’s pending departure from the EU “democratically unacceptable,” and called a second independence referendum “highly likely.”[8] She has sought one-on-one talks with EU leaders, demanded special access for Scotland to the EU single market, and needled UK Prime Minister Theresa May for excluding Scotland from her talks with European leaders. Mrs. May’s decision to seek a so-called “Hard Brexit” (meaning departure from the tariff-free single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) is another boon to Ms. Sturgeon and the SNP.

Ms. Sturgeon must feel optimistic about her nationalist cause, but trouble looms. First, while Scottish Labour has collapsed and struggles to separate itself from its inept and hapless UK-wide leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the long-dead Scottish Conservatives are on the rise. Under the leadership of middle-class kickboxing journalist Ruth Davidson, Scotland’s right-of-center has made a surprising comeback. Ms. Davidson’s party, which had taken just fifteen of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, took thirty-one in 2016, beating Labour into second place.[9] Ms. Davidson’s cheery pugnaciousness goes over well with the public; during a Brexit debate, she went toe-to-toe with fellow Conservative and then-London Mayor Boris Johnson (who has quite the personality of his own; he once hung above a London street in a harness and helmet waving UK flags) and more than held her own. If Ms. Davidson’s star keeps rising, Ms. Sturgeon has reason to worry.

Next, the SNP seems to have hit a ceiling. Support for independence remains stubbornly around forty-five percent.[10] Forty-five percent of Scots voted to leave the UK and forty-five percent of Scots regularly vote for the SNP, and while that has enabled it to gain unchallengeable power in the Scottish Parliament while its opposition remains divided, it is not enough to win another referendum. Ms. Sturgeon is stuck: she must continue to promise independence, which is, after all, her party’s raison d’etre. But the arguments that sunk the 2014’s referendum, namely the problem of currency and Scotland’s own economic problems, have only grown stronger with the fall in oil prices, which power Scotland’s economy. Forced to fight another referendum on today’s political ground, Ms. Sturgeon would lose.

Finally, there is the problem of governing. While the SNP rode the post-referendum wave into a dominant position in the Scottish Parliament, Ms. Sturgeon and her party have been bogged down by a raft of unwelcome economic and governmental news. Thanks to falling oil prices and profligate spending, Scotland is running a massive deficit, larger by GDP terms than any Eurozone member, even the debt-beguiled Greeks.[11] Its local-run National Health Service produces frequent claims of mismanagement and pleas for more cash,[12] and the SNP’s penchant for centralization has led to widespread complaints about the organization of Police Scotland, the national police force; one columnist for The Guardian called it “a lamentable shambles.”[13] The longer the SNP stays in complete control of Scotland’s levers of power, the more these problems will be associated with the party’s tenure. The SNP still basks in the glow of its successful campaigns, but if Ms. Sturgeon wants to achieve her dream of a Scotland free of the backwards English, she had better show Scots that she can govern.