By Graham Davidson.
“Can the Dominant Force in Scottish Politics Adjust to Cultural Changes in Politics?”
As an electoral force, the Scottish National Party (SNP) continues to defy both expectations and political precedent. Oftentimes, local and European elections in the UK tend to be used as a protest vote against incumbent governments. Even in its second term of government, a ruling party can expect, at the very least, to see its vote-share decline in non-parliamentary votes. The SNP, however, have thus far been able to elude these pitfalls. For example, midway through its third full term in power, the party gained a massive 38% of the vote in the European elections – an increase of nearly 9% on their performance in the previous European vote in 2014.
There are many factors that have contributed to the party’s recent high vote-share. The SNP have proven to be generally competent in the day-to-day business of government and have also emerged as the leading ‘Remain’ voice in Scottish politics. These issues will inevitably boost their vote in local and European elections. However, it is also apparent that the party now has a base of at least 30% in each and every vote, due to its stance on the issue of Scottish independence. For many voters, independence is the key issue in local, Scottish, British, and European parliamentary elections.
However, in mid-2019, splits have emerged in both the SNP base and the independence movement in general. Across Europe, both populist and Green politics are on the rise as voters desert mainstream parties. Although Scotland and the SNP seem to be immune to the rise of populism apparent in England and elsewhere in Europe, there appears to be two groups emerging within the party and the movement in general. While the split can be characterised as ideological, it appears to be a cleavage along cultural lines – as opposed to the usual differences over economic beliefs and policy.
The traditional left-right political divide is along economic lines. However, in an age of rising enrollment in higher education, increased social liberalism, and urban and rural/small town divide, culture has increasingly come to the fore. In the recent European elections, many countries saw a dramatic increase in vote-share for right-wing populists and an apparent concomitant gain for Green parties. However, political scientist Yascha Mounk of John Hopkins and Harvard University believes the green vote is not a reaction to populism but merely further proof of the dominance of culture in politics.
Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal unpopularity, polls show his economic policies are well-received across the political spectrum of voters. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent has demonstrated that seemingly ideologically-opposed Green and UKIP/Brexit Party voters are surprisingly in broad agreement on economic matters. With the fallout from the 2008 crash, bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses remain too clear in the public’s mind. As a consequence, free-market conservatism is generally unpopular. Left-wing and (vaguely) socialist economic and social policies enjoy support.
On the other hand, Green and UKIP/Brexit Party supporters are worlds apart on social issues. This trend is also reflected in voters in other European states. Furthermore, Matthew Goodwin states that cultural values, such as attitudes to immigration and European integration, are “far more important in explaining political choices than objective economic indicators.” People are increasingly voting according to their social values as opposed to their economic status or beliefs. Moreover, the conventional wisdom of populists and right-wing parties doing well in times of economic crisis no longer holds true. For example, the avowedly populist and deeply troubling Sweden Democrats have seen their vote-share rise dramatically during a recent time of economic growth. Fears over immigration are the obvious key issue, but other factors such as gender self-ID and national sovereignty are also important. Cultural matters are currently more of a dividing line than economic ones in European politics. This has led to a dramatic voter realignment across Europe with mainstream centre-left social democratic and centre-right Christian Democrat parties suffering unparalleled decline as voters flock to newly formed or newly prominent green and populist parties respectively. The rise of green parties across Europe may not be a backlash against populism, but a sign of a younger generation of voters asserting its own cultural and political identity.
These critical changes in voter behaviour ultimately leaves the SNP in an awkward position. While throughout Europe young university-educated and urban-dwelling social liberals vote Green and older provincial social conservatives favour populists, the SNP has a hold on both groups. None of these European states have an ongoing – and politically dominant – constitutional question. Despite the Scottish Greens being pro-independence, the SNP commands the vast majority of the pro-indy vote in each and every election. For pro-independence Scots, almost regardless of cultural outlook, the SNP is the only show in town. However, while this benefits the SNP in terms of vote-share, this also places the party in a precarious position as it tries to please two groups with essentially different values. Inevitably, splits among the membership over policy have begun to emerge. Two issues have emerged as focal points – the first of which has parallels in other countries and the second being uniquely Scottish.
Gender self-ID (including issues such as changing birth certificates and gender neutral bathrooms) has become divisive. MP Mhairi Black’s recent viral video on the subject brought strong criticism from both women’s groups and older, mainly former Labour voters. The issue highlights a problem for the SNP. What is popular with twenty-three year-olds in the bohemian enclaves of Edinburgh and the West-End of Glasgow may well be unpopular with middle-aged voters in provincial Central Belt towns. How much longer can the party go on trying to please both groups before one decides they are not being represented and begin to look elsewhere?
Secondly, there is the issue of the second independence referendum. Prominent independence blog “Wing Over Scotland” recently published a piece lambasting the SNP for its lack of movement on the issue and openly questioned whether the party may be enjoying power too much to actually push for independence. While this is a controversial opinion, it is not without merit. It is highly plausible that an independent Scotland would surely see at least one of the two aforementioned value groups find a more suitable party to vote for, thus significantly weakening the SNP itself. Certainly, social media (Twitter in particular) is awash with comments such as ‘I’ll vote SNP till independence, then never again’. Despite the SNPs continued electoral successes, there is clearly dissent from its members and supporters.
While it is not hard to be sympathetic to the SNP leadership in exercising caution over a second referendum (given a further defeat would be devastating, perhaps fatal to the movement for many decades), it must be said that the party is almost obligated to push for independence sooner rather than later. It is not unjust to question the tactics of an SNP leadership which seems keener on stopping Brexit – thereby effectively damaging its own case for independence – than pursuing the one thing it was actually set up to do.
Furthermore, playing a waiting game may be damaging in itself. SNP voters, whether they’re young social liberals or older social conservatives, cannot be kept happy in the same party forever. Alternative pro-independence parties for both groups may emerge. Without fully focusing on the unifying factor of independence, the SNP may begin to lose voters whatever its social and domestic policies. Cultural splits exist in Scotland as they do elsewhere and could tear the SNP apart. Unless the SNP takes the bull by the horns, they may face the same harsh fate as many other mainstream parties across Europe. Furthermore, unlike their European counterparts, their destruction could have critical implications on the whole independence movement and future of Scotland.