In Scotland, the unionists (and Ruth Davidson) strike back

No Conservative had a better night than Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who won more seats than at any election since 1983. (Facebook)

It was the worst night for Scottish nationalism in over a decade — worse, perhaps, than the narrow vote against independence in 2014.

Though the Conservative Party lost its majority at the national level, thanks to a loss of 21 seats in England, it will stagger on as the largest party in the House of Commons thanks in no small part to a surge in support in Scotland, where the party picked up 13 seats, all at the expense of the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Though the SNP still won a greater share of the vote and more seats than any other party in Scotland, it was a very bad night for the party, which lost more seats, in total, than the Conservatives nation-wide. It was the worst electoral performance for the SNP since 2010 — former SNP leader Alex Salmond lost his seat in Gordon, and deputy SNP leader Angus Robertson lost his seat in Moray. Other MPs, like Mhairi Black, the 22-year-old who is the youngest member of the House of Commons, were easily reelected.

It was a sign, perhaps, that Scottish voters are growing weary of the SNP’s focus on independence after first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to demand a second referendum on Scotland’s status after Brexit negotiations conclude in 2019. As all three national parties made gains in yesterday’s general election (including what amounts to one-third of the Liberal Democratic caucus in the House of Commons), it leaves Sturgeon and the SNP in a precarious position.

After becoming the indisputable leftist opposition to conservatism in Scotland, the SNP now faces the dual threat of a plausible Tory unionism to its right and a resurgent Labour under an equally left-wing Jeremy Corbyn.

The SNP’s Mhairi Black, at 22 years old, is the youngest and one of the most outspoken voices in British politics today. (Facebook)

Though Sturgeon won a fresh mandate in the Scottish parliamentary election last May (and will not face voters again until 2021), the SNP’s plurality in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh falls two seats short of an absolute majority. While the SNP and its allies currently command a majority in favor of calling a second referendum, the 2017 general election result may force Sturgeon to rethink that approach in favor of more quotidian concerns. Moreover, she will have to reorient the SNP approach after it has held power in Scotland since 2007, first under Salmond and, since 2014, Sturgeon. Not an easy task for a party that thought it could keep amassing outsized margins solely by demanding a second referendum.

Sturgeon herself admitted that the ‘referendum-or-bust’ approach may have backfired. Since prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, Sturgeon and the Scottish government have demanded a second referendum on independence for Scotland. The region’s voters narrowly chose in September 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%. The same voters, however, opposed Brexit in the June 2016 EU referendum by a margin of 62% to 38%, joining ‘Remain’ majorities in Northern Ireland and London.

Sturgeon has threatened that if the Brexit negotiations do not leave Scotland with access to the European single market (and a ‘hard’ Brexit would not guarantee that access), Scottish voters deserve the chance to seek independence again as one way to return to the European Union.

But by waging so much of the 2017 campaign on the basis of Brexit and a potential referendum, the SNP’s losses may have doomed the chances of another plebiscite, even if the Brexit negotiations result in a hard divorce that leaves Scotland and the United Kingdom outside any free-market bloc or customs union with the rest of Europe.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon will have to think twice about the potency of a fresh independence referendum. (Facebook)

Given the volatility of an electorate that delivered a majority to Conservative prime minister David Cameron in 2015, voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and then swung strongly toward Corbyn’s Labour in 2017, it’s far too early to know what might be politically viable in 2019 when Brexit negotiations conclude. A hard Brexit, combined with economic pain, could easily boost the cause of Scottish independence, notwithstanding even greater fiscal devolution since 2014.

For now, Sturgeon will have to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that any government faces — education, welfare, health care and the like. Under post-referendum legislation (the Scotland Act 2016), Sturgeon’s government now has far more powers to take Scotland’s fiscal destiny into its own hands, with more power to collect the money that it spends (instead of relying on grants from Westminster) — and it will even have more powers to borrow money and decide how Scottish revenue is spent on welfare and other programs.

Traditionally, even before the latest slug of fiscal devolution, the SNP government refrained from maximizing those powers available to it — for example, to raise income taxes to a higher rate than in the rest of the United Kingdom. The SNP often talks a big game about financing the kind of ‘Nordic’ welfare state that nationalists say they would replicate in an independent Scotland. Indeed, successive SNP governments have, however, rebuffed the tuition fees that have become such a toxic issue in the rest of the country. So far, however, especially as oil revenues dropped over the last three years, Sturgeon has so far balked at raising taxes. Sturgeon has only considered raising the top marginal income tax rate from 45% to 50%. The 40% marginal rate applies to incomes over £43,000 (it applies to incomes over £45,000 in the rest of the country). Ominously, in the 2016 regional parliamentary elections, Labour campaigned on raising Scotland’s taxes and lost 13 seats.

Nevertheless, in the coming years, it will be up to Sturgeon to show that the SNP can use the autonomous powers that it already possesses to chart a different course for Scotland.

Meanwhile, Davidson has emerged as the definitive voice of unionist opposition in Scotland (the Tories outpolled Labour in the 2016 regional election) and, increasingly, as a rising star in British politics altogether. Her efforts boosted the Tories to a 13.7% swing in support since the 2015 election (compared to a 4.6% swing in England).

Davidson, who is openly gay, fits virtually none of the stereotypes of a ‘Conservative,’ and she renewed calls Friday morning for a ‘soft Brexit’ that guarantees access to the European market. If Davidson can consolidate the unionist vote at the regional level, there’s a chance that the Tories might even take power at Holyrood within the next decade. The 38-year-old Davidson was first elected to the Scottish parliament only in 2011, previously working as a radio commenator and journalist for BBC Scotland. In the aftermath of the 2011 regional election, she narrowly won the Scottish Conservative leadership election, promising a more moderate tone for the party.

Even Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, once written off as hopeless, had reason to smile with her party’s gains. (Facebook)

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, whose party feared losing its sole Scottish MP at the beginning of the campaign, will be thrilled with gaining six more seats, with marked improvements in left-leaning Glasgow. Labour only narrowly trailed the Tories yesterday in the total share of the vote, and the party will be relatively happy with a 2.8% increase in its vote from the 2015 election.

Jo Swinson (center) is tipped to one day replace Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron (left). (Facebook)

Alistair Carmichael, a former secretary of state for Scotland, easily held the Orkney & Shetland constituency for the Liberal Democrats, which gained three constituencies in Scotland, despite a 0.8% drop in the party’s vote from 2015. That includes Jo Swinson, who won back her Glasgow-based seat in the Dunbartonshire East constituency that she had held since 2005 before losing it to the SNP wave in the last election. The 37-year-old Swinson, a former minister for employment in the Tory-led coalition government, is tipped as a potential future leader for the Liberal Democrats.

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