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The SNP has finally admitted it has nothing left to offer Scotland

In Europe
June 04, 2024

John Swinney had an uncertain start to the general election campaign. While his more sure-footed predecessors (well, perhaps not Humza Yousaf, then) would have pretended to welcome the news with a confident prediction of victory, Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon would have expressed delight at the opportunity to rid Scotland of a Conservative government.

But not the new first minister. Looking worried and doleful, his first comment was that the choice of July 4 as polling day – after Scottish schools have broken up for the summer – showed “disrespect” for Scotland.

Unperturbed by polls showing that the SNP will lose significant ground to Scottish Labour, killing off any notion of the nationalists using the outcome in Scotland as a “de facto” referendum, Swinney has failed to inject his candidates with the optimism and energy they need to avoid the dole queue come July 5.

He did not perform well in last night’s televised Scottish leader’s debate, an event more notable for the fact that none of its participants are candidates at this election than by the quality of the discussion. The first minister got off on the wrong foot by acknowledging the SNP’s recent challenges, then failed to convince the audience that he had an answer to criticism of his party’s plans for North Sea oil and gas exploration.

Perhaps unexpectedly – some might say courageously – Swinney has decided to use his campaign visits to emphasise his party’s continued support for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which, had it not been vetoed by the UK Government, would have allowed trans people, including children and sex offenders, to self-declare their legal gender whether or not they suffered from gender dysphoria. It has been named “Isla’s Law” by opponents, after the trans woman (biological male) Isla Bryson who, despite being a rapist, was initially sent to a woman’s prison to serve his sentence.

The issue and its unpopularity in Scotland has already contributed to the departure of the last two first ministers, but Swinney seemed unconcerned by this fact; Conservative plans to amend the Equality Act to defend woman’s spaces and services were nothing short of an attack on devolution, he said, because the plans involve reserving to Westminster the right to make gender laws.

Given the problems the issue has caused his party, you might have expected Swinney to welcome the opportunity to wash his hands of it. But instead he doubled down: “I want the Scottish parliament to be a parliament that deals with all the issues that affect the people of Scotland. And I’m certainly not going to stand idly by as the Conservatives erode the powers of the Scottish Parliament.”

The truth, of course, is that Swinney does not expect the Conservatives – responsible, incidentally, for handing the biggest ever tranche of devolved powers to Holyrood since 2010 – to erode its powers since he has explicitly accepted that Labour will form the next UK government.

This is also a problem for the SNP. It has thrived by constantly demonising the Conservatives at Westminster as “evil Toaries” and insisting that Labour was incapable of replacing them, thereby giving Scots only one way of avoiding continued Conservative rule: independence.

The strategy has worked in the past, just as constantly promising a second independence referendum has worked in motivating party supporters to get out and vote. But that was in the past, when Labour looked unelectable and before the Supreme Court ruled that Holyrood had no legal authority to hold a referendum on its own.

Now the SNP’s prospects look distinctly shaky, and Swinney’s insistence on talking about fringe issues – and his odd tendency to oppose a majority of Scots on gender reform – isn’t helping. A party that was swept to office more than once on the back of voters’ appetite for radical constitutional change is going to the wire in 2024 over the right of men to legally declare they’re women.

More worrying for the nationalist movement: how does it persuade its current supporters, particularly those who deserted Labour for the SNP in the middle of the last decade, not to be part of the current effort to remove the Conservatives from office?

As the polls confirm, it can’t. With no prospect of another referendum in the short or medium term, the SNP has nothing to offer its supporters. All it can do is watch, bereft, as they are wooed and won by its rival.

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