The Tories are right, there was only one winner: the SNP

The Tories are right, there was only one winner: the SNP
The Herald, by Iain McWhirter

“There was only one winner last night,” said an ecstatic David Mundell, the Tory Scottish Secretary on Friday as the votes rolled in. He was right, of course, but the winner was the Scottish National Party – by 431 seats to the Tories tally of 276. Some might even have called that a modest landslide.

Indeed, if the local elections really were a referendum on a second independence referendum, as the Tories and Labour, unwisely, insisted it was, then Nicola Sturgeon’s mandate, already firm in Holyrood following the vote on Section 30, is now super-firm. The opposition parties can’t have it both ways. They can’t turn a local election into a single issue campaign on the national question and then say that the Nationalists lost because they didn’t return more than 50% of the vote.

On that criterion, we wouldn’t have had a Tory government in 2015; we would not have had a referendum on EU membership; and, most importantly, the Leave vote in June’s EU referendum vote would not have been enough to justify Brexit.

So, why did this SNP victory seem like, if not a defeat then a set back? And no, it wasn’t because the BBC and the hated media were conspiring to promote #SNPbad. The Tory advance is very real and and represents an important political realignment as the Conservatives replace Labour as the party of the Union.

The other reason is that, as this column pointed out some weeks ago, following the Tsunami of 2015, the only way is down for the SNP, and they have failed to manage expectations accordingly. They should never have allowed the expectation to grow that they would take overall control in Glasgow, even if that seemed likely on the strength of the 2015 general election vote. People were expecting the SNP to take overall control in at least three or four councils; yet they lost the only one they did control, Dundee. “No Overall Control” was the big winner on Thursday.

Not even Nicola Sturgeon can defy the laws of political gravity forever. For any government to be winning elections like this after ten years in office is an achievement in itself. But for it to be recognised for what it is, voters and activists need to be counselled against the twin vices of triumphalism and complacency. Peak Nat has not passed but Peak Tsunami probably has.

The SNP now have four weeks to get it into the heads of Scottish voters, and their own supporters, that the days when there were more Giant Pandas than Tory MPs is over. The Tories are back and they are going to win seats, even though they will lose the general election. The Tories have what political pundits call the Big Mo, or momentum, by which they mean that they are the story. SNP election victories are old hat, boring, seen-it-before.

For Scotland to be voting Tory at all let alone in significant numbers is undoubtedly news, if only on the man-bites-dog principle. Scots are supposed to be immune to Conservatism. Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Tory has been a four letter word. Yet here they are picking up seats in Ferguslie Park, the most deprived area in Scotland. There is even a Tory councillor in Ravenscraig, site of the totemic former steel mill which was a monument to the Tory destruction of manufacturing industry.

But the Scottish political classes need to stop living in the past. Ravenscraig was condemned a quarter of a century ago and Margaret Thatcher is a figure from ancient history to most voters there. The issues that dominate today are indyref2 and Brexit which cut across traditional class lines. It is obvious that there are unionists in West Central Scotland who don’t want another referendum. There are also working class voters hostile to the European Union, as there are in the North of England. Given these factors, and the reality that the Tories uniquely represent both Brexit and the Union, the surprising thing is that they aren’t winning more seats there.

The local elections, unlike the general, were fought on Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies, which ensures that all votes count (except for those many voters who understandably put a cross down instead of a tick). Middle class journalists like me forget that there are quite prosperous enclaves in the wards that surprised the country when they elected Tory members. This means that the Tory votes in areas like Glasgow Calton and Shettleston are not wasted votes, and that is a good thing for democracy.

Indeed, the rise of the Tory vote is a blessing in disguise for the Scottish government. The Tories won by burying the SNP’s traditional enemy, the Labour Party, who lost almost as many seats, 133, as the Tories gained. Yet, even after Labour’s defeat Kezia Dugdale was still saying that the result was a vote against indyref2, therefore tacitly endorsing the Tory victory. She should have made the local election about the SNP’s record on council cuts, social care, schools, not the constitution.

But Labour is now history. Both Brexit and the Union are now represented by one party: the Scottish Conservatives – or rather the Ruth Davidson party, since the Tories could not have achieved their 160 gains had it not been for her. She is a formidable politician, and the SNP should give her credit where it is due. But she is a much easier target for the SNP than were Labour, because Davidson cannot avoid the fact that she is a wholly-owned outpost of a right wing Brexit government led by Theresa May.

Nicola Sturgeon should hug her new enemy closer. Reverse the expectation gap by talking up the prospects for the Tories in the general election – expectations which the Tories cannot meet. She needs to get into debates with Ruth Davidson to puncture her image as a new form of classless, liberated and autonomous Scottish Tory. She may be a breath of fresh air, but the Tory party remains a bastion of right wing halitosis.

Where does this Tory revival leave the question of Scottish independence? It’s too early to tell, but the big take-away is that the SNP can still dominate elections even in the face of a revolt against a second independence referendum, because, let’s face it, this is what the local elections represented. There’s a lot of people, even SNP supporters, who like Brenda from Bristol just can’t face the thought of another referendum right now. And they have a right to feel scunnered – there’s just too much going on with Brexit.

Nicola Sturgeon took a huge risk calling for a second independence referendum, but she felt she had no choice but to give Scotland the option of leaving the UK before Brexit. She should be satisfied that the line has held. The hectic expectations of an imminent referendum will now subside as the Yes supporters realise that the Tsunami of 2015 was an unrepeatable experience and that indyref2 is not there for the taking.

The local elections show that the Scottish National Patty remains an extremely popular party of government which can draw on huge reserves of electoral goodwill. But there has been a reconfiguration of Scottish politics. Scotland is no longer dominated by two essentially social democratic parties, Labour and the SNP. The re-emergence of the political right in Scotland after 20 years is a challenge to Scottish civil society, and a warning to the Scottish government not to take voters for granted.