It was the night of the long claymores.
One after one, the frontline of Scottish nationalism fell. Alex Salmond — gone. Angus Robertson — gone. John Nicolson — gone. The terrain of the nation’s politics has been redrawn; familiar peaks have collapsed and new ascents have risen in their place. Scottish politics has changed a generation in 24 breathtaking, tumultuous hours.
Since 2007, the SNP has had the run of the joint; none of their opponents could lay a glove on them. They had momentum and then they had even more. After the 2014 referendum, they had the 45% and as long as they continued to bang the drum for separation they were guaranteed victory at Holyrood and Westminster. Political gravity would stay suspended and the Nationalists would keep riding high, all the way to independence.
On Thursday night, the SNP learned in brutal fashion that what goes up must come down. And down they came, hard — losing their former leader and their deputy leader, rising stars and time-served veterans alike. Nicola Sturgeon’s party is sometimes compared to a religious sect but when the voters came to deliver their verdict nothing was sacred. There is not a crumb of comfort to be taken from this result.
The Nationalists have secured the lowest share of the vote for a winning party in Scotland since 1983, the lowest seat tally for the first-placed party since at least 1955. Alex Salmond, who spectacularly lost Gordon to the Tories, presented on television like an East European strongman in the final days of communism. Ashen-faced, hair frazzled, eyes darting to check for rebels storming the windows of the presidential palace, the former First Minister gave living portrait to the nightmare the SNP was suffering.
If General Election 2017 was an almighty shoeing for the SNP, the retribution was a group effort, with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats each tearing a chunk out of the Nationalist vote. The Tories wrenched away 12 of their seats, Labour six, and the Liberal Democrats four. The Better Together coalition, punished for winning the independence referendum, has taken its revenge.
Labour returned former heartlands to the fold: Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill; Rutherglen and Hamilton West; Glasgow North East — all are now back in the bosom of socialism. In East Dunbartonshire, ex Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson came back to reclaim her seat from the SNP’s John Nicolson. In Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Paul Monaghan — his face as familiar to viewers of Russia Today as those of BBC Parliament — was bundled out by the Lib Dems.
The big winners of the night, though, were Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives. Their campaign was about one thing and one thing only: Opposition to a second referendum on independence. The message proved popular enough to add a dozen extra Tories to Westminster’s green benches. Douglas Ross overturned a 9,000 majority and prised Moray from SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson. East Renfrewshire — won from the Tories in 1997 by Jim Murphy and grabbed by the SNP in 2015 — is once again true blue thanks to the Conservative candidate Paul Masterton.
John Lamont finally won Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk — or ‘The John Lamont Seat’ as political journalists have long called it, since no one could quite remember which configuration of burghs and shires it involved and the only common factor was John Lamont kept just missing out on victory there. Now the John Lamont Seat is John Lamont’s seat.
From the Borders and the south, through the rural centre, all the way to the north east — welcome to Scotland, the new Tory heartland.
The UK does not look set for the strong and stable government relentlessly, robotically promised by Theresa May. Instead it is Scotland, in recent years synonymous with political upheaval, that has come out the other end of this process in a steadier, surer condition. The SNP has been reined in, pluralism has been restored, the risk of a one-party dominancy averted. And for Unionists the sweetest prize of all: Indyref2 is dead and buried and won’t return for many years.
The Prime Minister was supposed to be Scotland’s bulwark against the machinations of Bute House and Nicola Sturgeon’s daily threats to drag the country back to the divisive politics of identity. In fact, the roadblock to a referendum was Ruth Davidson. It was her strategy that knocked Sturgeon back on her heels. It was her passion and energy that connected with voters from all walks of life and across the spectrum. When Britain needed a leader, she was to be found in Scotland, not Downing Street.
Many column inches and much airtime will be devoted to an autopsy of Theresa May’s gamble. What went wrong? Did a hapless campaign drive away voters or did Jeremy Corbyn genuinely connect with those disillusioned with mainstream politics? Did any of this need to happen? These are legitimate questions and the Prime Minister ought to account for her failure but if we are apportioning blame there is another worthy candidate for reproach.
Nicola Sturgeon took a punt on Brexit swinging the public behind independence. When that didn’t happen she figured that tagging Ruth Davidson with the most unpopular welfare reforms would shore up the Nationalist vote. In the final days of the election, recognising that this was not working, she absurdly posited that only a vote for her party could get Labour into power at UK level. The real coalition of chaos was between Mrs May and Miss Sturgeon, two leaders in the grips of hubris who led their parties from positions of strength to humiliating reversals.
A Unionist wave hit the Nationalists on Thursday night and made driftwood of, among others, the most successful leader in the SNP’s history. The symbolic import cannot be overlooked. Alex Salmond took the SNP to heights once unimaginable — into minority and then majority government, from the fringes of Scottish politics to the vanguard of a campaign to break up Britain that fell short but only just. He is smug and rebarbative and his every step is a swagger but no one can deny he has been one of the most significant figures in Scottish politics. And what has become of his legacy? His historic Holyrood majority lost, his party humbled by Ruth Davidson’s Tories. The Salmond inheritance has been tarnished by his successor, who tried to mimic his folksy bluster but could not match his intuition for Scottish public opinion. The unpleasant truth is that even his opponents liked Mr Salmond while some voters, too many of them, sincerely dislike Miss Sturgeon.
The former leader assured the crowd at his declaration that he would return but the words came lightly. It is more likely that the era of Salmond is over. Now the SNP has to hope that Nicola Sturgeon can recapture her early promise and popularity. If she can’t, if she still refuses to listen and continues to choose grievance over government, the Nationalists could fall further and may find themselves out of government after the next Holyrood election. What men and women of the SNP built up over eight decades, Nicola Sturgeon has put in peril in just two years. Theresa May’s future is rightly in question but it shouldn’t be the only one.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.