December 22, 2016 By FTI Consulting
May’s Scottish Parliament elections saw Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party pull of its third successive election victory, cementing its already-overwhelming powerbase north of the border.
While the party lost some ground – losing its overall majority and dropping from 69 to 63 seats – it continued its steady advance into the Labour Party’s former heartlands, picking up a clutch of seats economically-deprived and post-industrial areas such as the city of Glasgow and Central Scotland. No longer can the Labour Party claim to be the voice of centre-left and social democratic-minded Scots; nor can they claim to be the formal opposition to the SNP, given they now hold only 24 of the Parliament’s 129 seats to the Conservative Party’s 31.
It’s certainly true that Nicola Sturgeon is powerful in Scotland but 2017 has also taught her (and the SNP) the limits of their power. The party passionately campaigned against Brexit during the June referendum; only to see Scotland back their position while the remainder of the United Kingdom opted for Leave.
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Sturgeon and her ministers took to the airwaves in order to decry the fact Scotland’s will had been usurped by English and Welsh votes. Describing moves toward exiting the EU as “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland, Sturgeon has spent much of the past months seeking to secure a Brexit carve-out for the country – yet these demands have fallen on deaf ears in London where her status and influence as the leader of a devolved administration is viewed as decidedly second rate.
As we enter 2017, it is clear that Sturgeon and the SNP will try to use Brexit to their political advantage. The document outlining the Scottish Government’s position in Europe post brexit shows that Mrs. Sturgeon has come out of the blocks early in determining an evidenced based positon – and will campaign relentlessly with EU member states and the UK. But with the most recent polls on independence showing pro-union forces leading 56%-44% – roughly the same as at the time of the 2014 referendum – the issue may not be the spark that reignited independence in the way the SNP hoped. However, the detailed nature of this document shows that the SNP may well have concluded that tit for tat economic claims with their opposing parties will not carry them over the independence line with the electorate. Greater realism and better answers to hard questions such as currency and oil revenue declines could be about to enter the electoral fray from the SNP.
That Scotland was the first office visit undertaken by Mrs. May after she became prime minster indicates her fears of overseeing the breakaway and breakup of the UK. Giving Scotland official input to Brexit negotiations goes some way to building alliances with Mrs. Sturgeon – the Prime Minster should beware through, give the SNP an inch and they‘ll likely take a mile. In this debate, if Sturgeon is playing the role of Mary, Queen of Scots, Theresa May is Queen Elizabeth I. While nobody would accuse Mrs May of harbouring a desire to execute Miss Sturgeon, she would dearly love to politically decapitate her – and her dreams of independence. The outcome of Brexit negotiations will be a strong bellwether on another independence referendum.