More than ever before the general election will play out differently across the United Kingdom. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the focus will be on Brexit-related issues while in Scotland it will be about one thing and one thing only, independence. As usual we shall be told that this is the most important general election in post-war history but maybe, just maybe, with the integrity of the UK at risk it shall be.
There will be nuances of course. In Northern Ireland the collapse of the Stormont talks and the (mostly Irish) concerns about a hard border stemming from a hard Brexit will divide nationalists and unionists amongst themselves as well as between each other.
In England and Wales the seven weeks we have until 8th June will be used by Corbyn’s Labour to find weak spots in the Conservative manifesto that will justify outrageous claims of privatisation of the NHS and pensions while talking up any deregulation and abandonment of climate change subsidies.
Such is the divided state of Labour and the prospect that the Charge of the Left Brigade will result in ignominious defeat it will find it very hard to maintain discipline in its ranks. Everybody, and that includes Corbyn himself, John McDonnell and other far left plotters, as well as the moderates, will be jockeying for what happens after the election.
In Scotland the stakes are the highest. Scottish independence remains a possibility and unionists cannot afford to become complacent.
Reports from local election canvassing suggest a significant mood swing away from the SNP. Polling has shown a demonstrable trend against a second independence referendum and support for independence itself has been falling away gradually. Theresa May’s strong leadership and calm reasonableness whilst being direct with Sturgeon – cleverly avoiding saying no to a referendum, but just “not now” – has earned her respect and support.
Her public ratings and that of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson have even been put ahead of Sturgeon’s.
Anecdotal evidence abounds of many previous SNP voters saying “never again”. Two reasons for this have been emerging; the first is the unionist parties calling on Nicola Sturgeon to get back to her day job have been striking a chord; the second is a general distaste for the personality cult developing around Sturgeon herself that has resulted in a toxic atmosphere of grievance and bitterness towards anything British.
If Scotland was enjoying economic growth at the same level as the UK, if the NHS was not visibly on its knees, if Scottish education was not becoming a laughing stock, if the new Forth Bridge was on time, and a plethora of other self-inflicted SNP disasters were not happening then Sturgeon might be in a stronger position. But her administration is in crisis; distracted by the focus of breaking up the UK at any cost it has not passed a single new law in the last year and the constant repetition about independence is wearing ordinary people down.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Easter excursion to the United States only added salt to her political wounds. While she undoubtedly pleased her own supporters with egregious attacks on Theresa May’s UK Government to do it at taxpayer expense on foreign soil during a Scotland Week promotional tour was crass and demeaning to her office. She told a Stanford audience that Scotland was ready for independence when patently the public has demonstrated otherwise and with a deficit worse than that of Greece the economy would require an IMF rescue.
The height of insensitivity was when she appeared on stage in New York for an interview with Tina Brown under a backdrop declaring the First Minister as “Queen of Scots”. Sturgeon could have insisted that it be changed but was content for it to be shown and available for posterity.
Many commentators today still write as if Sturgeon is an Alex Salmond clone but from my own experience in debating with her she is undoubtedly much further to the left. Her nationalism originates and is driven by different influences, such as her early membership of the CND. She demonstrably has a poorer understanding of economics and is without doubt more partisan.
Once said to be cautious, she has also now become more reckless than Salmond, painting herself into a corner over the demand for a second independence referendum she has no legal authority to deliver
In Sturgeon’s defence it has been said that because the SNP is the largest party at Holyrood and won convincing elections in 2015 and 2016 she can behave the way she does – but this ignores that Sturgeon told Scots in 2015 that a vote for her party was not a vote for independence. Many Scots have, as a result, voted SNP for reasons other than having a second referendum or separating from the UK.
This time the general election will be different. The SNP cannot repeat that deceitful claim. This time they will have to be honest – and that is what gives Ruth Davidson and Theresa May their chance to reduce the threat of independence.
The party has nowhere to hide and, having demanded a second independence referendum on the back of leaving the EU must now include that explicit policy in its manifesto. This will only polarise Scottish voters and encourage many Labour supporters to hold their noses and vote Conservative for the first time.
Likewise, what the SNP will say about maintaining EU membership when some 400,000 SNP supporters voted to Leave, will leave it open to hypocrisy or suffer electoral decline.
On balance the SNP seats held in fishing communities such as Banff and Buchan as well as Perthshire and the Scottish Borders are all now in play and could go blue. Areas in Dunbartonshire, Ayrshire and Fife could also throw-up surprises if Labour and Conservative voters switch to the front-runner between them. Liberal Democrats might also see a revival if their party offers the strongest unionist candidate against the SNP.
Such division is not all one-way, however, with the Scottish Green Party openly touting the idea of not standing where Tories might win, such as in the seat of sole Conservative MP, David Mundell, so that the SNP’s chances of creating a Tory-free Scotland might be realised.
On balance we can expect the SNP to remain the largest party but it is unlikely to retain its 49.9 per cent voter share and should suffer a setback. This will make any claims of having a mandate for independence or a referendum less than clear cut.