There are at least three different general elections taking place in the United Kingdom right now. The first, in England and Wales, is largely about Theresa May and Brexit. The second, in Northern Ireland, is about the province’s historic communal divisions. The third is in Scotland, and it is about the issue of independence versus the union, seen through the Brexit prism.
Theresa May went to Edinburgh on Friday and plunged into the third election. Launching the Scottish Conservative manifesto, Mrs May made no bones about her unionism and her intention “to stand up to the nationalists”. This was not the time for a second independence referendum, she warned. Anything except a vote for the Scots Tories was a vote to weaken the union.
Not long ago, that trenchant Tory pitch might have seemed tone-deaf to Scotland’s mood, and even politically suicidal. Conservative MPs were wiped out there as recently as 1997. The brand was toxic. The separatist mood against Tory England ran strong. But Mrs May is not Margaret Thatcher, and times are changing in Scottish politics.
Last year, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon interpreted the Brexit vote, which was opposed by 62% of Scots, as a transformational moment that would open the way towards a second independence referendum. Yet Scottish public opinion hesitated to follow her down that path. Support for a second referendum, amid the uncertainties of Brexit, has wavered. Recently it fell below 50%; as did Ms Sturgeon’s ratings. Her government’s ratings, especially on health and education – two issues under the SNP government’s direct control – are also in decline. The latest opinion poll on independence itself shows only 44% support. Canvassers report impatience with Ms Sturgeon’s priorities as a factor on the doorstep in the general election campaign.
The SNP clearly remains the dominant party in Scotland. But its ascendancy is now under serious challenge for the first time in a decade, principally from the Scottish Tories, under the charismatic leadership of Ruth Davidson. The recent local elections saw a Tory surge, which has resulted in anti-SNP deals on some of Scotland’s 32 hung councils between historic Tory and Labour enemies. Tactical voting against the SNP may occur in the 8 June general election too. The SNP’s landslide of seats in the 2015 general election – 56 wins out of 59 – was only two years ago. Yet few expect them to repeat it in 2017.
Although the SNP lost a small amount of ground in last year’s Holyrood elections, the general election could be shaping up to be the most significant electoral reverse for the SNP cause in the last decade. About a third of SNP voters voted for Brexit, and are thus more open to a vote for a pro-Brexit party. Impatience with the SNP should not be exaggerated, but it certainly exists. Westminster constituencies that have been SNP fortresses for a long time now look like targets, mainly for the Tories. The psychological impact of this pushback could be greater than the actual numbers.
Mrs May clearly feels the political tide is running her way. This week’s Tory manifesto takes a harder line than before against a second independence referendum. Having previously insisted that “now is not the time”, Mrs May now seeks a mandate to oppose a second referendum “until the Brexit process has played out” and “unless there is public consent for it to happen”. That implies she will not authorise any second referendum unless there is a Holyrood majority for it after the 2021 Scottish elections.
If that is indeed her stance, it would represent a bold calling of the SNP’s bluff. By 2021, the SNP will have governed Scotland for 14 years. To put a second referendum at the centre of its next Holyrood offer could try the loyalty of many SNP voters. Ms Sturgeon may thus be tempted to call an early referendum in 2018-19 without the necessary legal sanction. But that would be an even riskier course, especially if it ended in defeat, as polls currently suggest it would.
The 8 June election in Scotland is therefore pivotal. The better that the pro-union parties do on 8 June, the more Mrs May will feel strengthened in refusing calls for a second independence vote. At the same time, however, such an outcome could hasten the moment at which the SNP faces up to the possibility that its future may be as Scotland’s champion within an increasingly devolved, post-Brexit UK. Mrs May could have many new powers to offer Holyrood after Brexit. In the long run, a compromise along those lines might prove the best deal for both sides.