Scottish Politics

Can the SNP improve its reputation?

Derek Mackay has been an important politician in the SNP. His resignation as Scottish finance secretary and his suspension from the party, after sending 270 messages to a 16-year-old boy, may hold a broader historic significance. There is also mounting criticism of the party’s domestic record as the former leader, Alex Salmond, is due to stand trial over serious sexual offences on 9 March. The SNP is now at risk of being overwhelmed by a wave of scandal and would be electorally vulnerable if it faced any meaningful opposition.

The resignation comes at a time when there is renewed support for independence in the face of Boris Johnson’s refusal to implement a second referendum. The SNP can see Scottish voters’ anger that EU withdrawal is being imposed by a Conservative party whose majority is drawn from elsewhere, and they aim to remedy this through independence. However, Brexit makes independence much harder to achieve, as it does not improve the economic case for independence. Moreover, Scotland recently chose to stay in the UK after the defeat of the pro-referendum side in the 2014 referendum, in which the SNP recognised the once- per- generation status of the ballot.

Some opinion polls now indicate a slight pro-independence majority. Nicola Sturgeon’s main argument for independence is the Scots voted to remain by 62% to 38% in 2016, creating a ‘material change in circumstances’ which justify a second ballot as Scotland now faces being taken out of the EU ‘against its will’. She aims to use this argument for a victory in next year’s Scottish parliament elections, and she thinks this kind of a result will signal enough backing for another referendum, putting pressure on Johnson to grant one.

However, the party also faces other issues – it has been governing for 14 years, yet it runs an administration which has left many gaps in its record. This week, the education minister bowed to pressure and confirmed that the OECD will be called in to conduct a review of Scottish schooling and the SNP’s introduction of a ‘curriculum of excellence’, in which Scottish school children underperform in literacy and numeracy tests relative to their English peers. The police service is also in revolt and a scandal over a ferry contract running more than £100 million over budget is causing uproar. The SNP’s defence is the impact of Tory austerity, but this claim doesn’t seem to add up to the fact that public spending is around 20% higher per capita than in England.

The SNP must focus on domestic issues which deserve the most attention. The argument that Britain’s departure from the EU changes the constitutional situation is legitimate, but the SNP should recognise the benefits brought by the union in the past and focus on first solving issues at home. Only then will it recover its image and credibility.

Tanya V