This is a grand time of year for traditions. The cards, carols and bauble-festooned trees of Christmas. The New Year triptych of over-indulgence, regret and resolutions. In the world of Scottish politics, there is a more recent tradition but one with every chance for a long life. Each year around this time, half in hope and half in despair, Unionists ask: Is this the year the SNP will finally come a cropper? Each year, the answer is the same, as predictable as Christmas night heartburn and stubborn as a Ne’er Day hangover.
Scots go to the ballot box again in May and a thwocking great victory is on the cards for the SNP. In the final opinion poll of 2020, Nicola Sturgeon’s party recorded a 35-point lead over the Scottish Conservatives. The last time an incumbent UK government enjoyed a poll lead like that was New Labour in 1997 — one month after Tony Blair became Prime Minister.
The extraordinary and enduring popularity of the SNP makes electoral triumph all but guaranteed. However, it does not translate readily into political or policy triumph. In fact, 2021 has the potential to be the SNP’s most difficult year since it came to government.
The primary challenge will be managing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a mediocre record, the First Minister has spun herself a reputation for competency and effectiveness wholly unsupported by the facts. What comes next will require tangible leadership, the kind that cannot be confected down a TV camera. Sturgeon’s government will be responsible for rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines and clearing all the inevitable logistical hurdles.
Once the vaccine has been administered, it will be for Sturgeon to begin the transition out of lockdown. There will be big questions and big calls. When will the Scottish government surrender its pandemic powers, and will it try to cling on to some of them? When will a public inquiry be held and will there be a separate review into what happened in care homes? What legal liability might ministers face if their decision-making is found wanting?
These matters alone would be enough to dominate an entire parliamentary term; however, they will vie for attention with the Alex Salmond inquiry. It is clear from the evidence heard so far that inconsistencies exist between the version of events presented by Sturgeon and that told to the committee by her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
Given Salmond’s evident sense of injustice, and determination to shine a spotlight on those he blames, it is likely that matters will only get more personal and, for Sturgeon, more politically perilous.
There is no good outcome to the inquiry for her. If it concludes in her government’s favour, it will be branded a whitewash. If it is found that St Andrew’s house acted improperly, Salmond would appear vindicated. A reckoning would be unavoidable and it could even cost Sturgeon her job.
Perhaps the worst outcome for her is the likeliest: a muddled conclusion with some blame assigned here and some exoneration delivered there. Even if it was the truth, such a mixed appraisal would leave no one satisfied, wounding Sturgeon but leaving her in situ, convincing Nationalist critics that she still has a case to answer and embittering her allies further towards the other wing of the party.
Whatever decision the inquiry reaches, 2021 is likely to see yet more deteriorations in party discipline. The more intra-party rivalries spill into the open, the more others are encouraged to remonstrate with factional opposites.
At the centre of much of this disquiet, consciously or otherwise, is the I-word. Independence is the only reason the SNP exists and yet, despite being in control of one of the most powerful sub-national governments anywhere in the world, uncatchable in the opinion polls, and with a majority of Scots now in favour of a breakaway, it is acutely frustrating for true-believers that their dream seems no closer than it was during the 2014 referendum.
Ever since losing that vote, Sturgeon has held her troops in line by promising next year in Jerusalem. The party had to keep its head down in 2015 for the general election, in 2016 for the Holyrood and EU votes, and in 2017 for another general election. In 2018 and 2019, the apparent disintegration of the UK political system convinced the rank and file that independence was within reach.
The past year has been harder for them, with a Tory majority, a hard Brexit and a pandemic reducing opportunities for pro-separation marches and meet-ups. They were denied the ability to organise at the very point when it could have done the most good. Mass rallies on the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh might have spooked Westminster but, as the party of government in Scotland, the SNP could not be seen to endorse such gatherings.
The coming year will see these frustrations vented. The stressor will be the devolved election. Assuming the SNP wins an outright majority at Holyrood, Sturgeon will be under pressure to demand another referendum. If the Prime Minister refuses, it will represent breaking point for some, a blunt moment of realisation that the Sturgeon approach has reached its end point and a fresh, more assertive campaign is required.
There is a growing clamour for a judicial route to a second referendum or for a consultative vote to assert moral authority over the UK Government. Others still are tempted by a wildcat plebiscite or even a Rhodesian-style unilateral declaration of independence. With every passing day, change becomes all the more unavoidable: either Sturgeon leads her troops into the battle they long for or her troops find themselves another general.
Then there is the small matter of the governance of Scotland, a process devolution was supposed to improve but which it has largely sidelined in favour of arid constitutionalism and grand strategy. Devolved portfolios such as education and health and partly devolved issues like drug rehabilitation had already suffered for being insufficiently sexy compared to independence, but nine months of a pandemic has driven them even further down the agenda, with grievous results.
The next 12 months will test Nicola Sturgeon and her government but they will also run the rule over the opposition. Given the SNP’s lacklustre record across 14 years, how can the party be 35 points ahead in the polls?
Yes, Scotland is a dominant party system and tends to go through long bouts of single-party hegemony. Yes, there is a pro-independence vote that is, for now, locked in for the SNP. But these factors alone do not account for the opposition’s inability to land a glove on a dull and leaden administration.
Unionists are seldom happier than when decrying the hated Nationalists and their many outrages. Introspection is a less pleasing task and so it is largely avoided these days among opponents of independence. They would rather pretend the polls showing Scotland is a pro-independence country are biased or rigged or tell themselves that their countrymen and women are simple or brainwashed. How uncannily like the impervious Nationalists of 2014 the impervious Unionists of 2021 sound.
Challenges lie ahead for the SNP but the biggest challenge of all for its opponents will be facing up to reality. Scotland looks at a failing and unambitious government, on the one hand, and Douglas Ross, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie, on the other, and scarcely hesitates before choosing the former. The damage nationalism has done to Scotland is the fault of nationalists. The failure to stop them is the fault of Unionists.
The SNP will get another five years and it will govern in much the same way as the last 14. Headlines first, results to be announced. Prosperity talked up, businesses held back. Bold on trivial identity politics and culture wars, timid on anything truly transformative. A government that always grabs the Saltire but never the thistle.
Governments this bad never do it alone. They are aided by the quiet collusion of lazy, weak, uninspiring opposition. The SNP has let Scotland down, but they are not the only ones.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.