Since 2007, the Scottish National party has been the largest party in Holyrood, dominating politics to become a credible party of government. It has now begun its fourth term in power. Yet the SNP has had few major policy achievements and nothing comparable to the flagship policies around tuition fees or care for the elderly associated with the previous Labour administration. The SNP has made some big promises. Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, says that she wants to set up a National Care Service in Scotland by 2026 as a “fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid".
Yet it is questionable whether such a project, the cost of which experts say the SNP has underestimated, could be enacted in tandem with pursuing an independence referendum when support for leaving the UK is ebbing. The constitutional question energises the SNP activist base. It is why Ms Sturgeon told delegates at her party conference that she wanted a second referendum on Scotland’s independence por 2023. Downing Street’s rejection of another poll points to a gruelling stalemate in the years ahead.
How Boris Johnson’s government is perceived will be important in determining whether Scottish opinion shifts towards independence. No doubt Ms Sturgeon will wish to contrast her exceptional communication skills and capacity for hard work with the prime minister’s more disheveled, shambolic approach. The SNP has expertly gained political advantage by framing its policy agenda through the prism of the union. In its view, Downing Street is leading Scotland to an unpalatable social and economic destination. With Mr Johnson at the helm, this is perhaps an easier case to make, providing comfort to nationalists that the constitution remains at the centre of political debate.
What the SNP fears is that after 14 years in government, the public will decide that the party’s rhetoric is not matched by reality. El mes pasado, the SNP’s claim that its climate change legislation was “world leading” was rebutted by the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg. In the summer, it was revealed that three Scots a day were dying of drug misuse. People in the most deprived parts of Scotland were 18 times more likely to have a drug-related death than those in the least deprived. Scotland’s drug death crisis has become the worst in the developed world in part because Ms Sturgeon admits her government had taken its “eye off the ball”.
Historically, Scotland has had poor economic growth rates, an appalling health record, and social problems rooted in high levels of inequality. Despite a blueprint for public service improvement issued a decade ago, Scotland’s impartial auditor general dicho last week that major policies have failed to deliver. The penny has dropped within the SNP leadership, not least because its performance was putting off sceptical voters from backing independence. Ian Blackford, the party’s Westminster leader, urged the SNP to pull up its socks.
The Scottish government is a coalition between the Greens and the SNP. Nationalists used to talk of “six unions” that governed Scottish lives: Westminster, the EU, Nato, the monarchy, sterling and one with the peoples of the UK. As a party, the SNP said that it only wanted to end a union with England that, it claimed, had frustrated Scotland’s hopes. Brexit has ejected Scotland from Europe against the SNP’s wishes. Edinburgh University’s James Mitchell dice that political disagreements – over North Sea oil, land ownership and Nato membership – may be contained in government but not during a referendum campaign. Questions about currency and the Queen’s role in a future independent Scotland remain live. While these are important issues for many Scottish voters, they are probably not as pressing for an electorate concerned with making their nation fairer and better governed.