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Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Flickr/Scottish Government

In a divided Scotland, it is only the SNP that can hold off the Tories in this election, argues Chris Bambery 

Never in my lifetime has Scotland been more politically polarised than it is today in the build up to the UK general election. Buoyed by their relative success in the local elections earlier this month the Scottish Tories are presenting themselves as the only party which can challenge the Scottish National Party. 

Scotland is witnessing the re-emergence of a confident pro-UK side which has consolidated around the Tories, once widely seen as finished in Scotland. They have been helped by the fact that in the local elections and in the current campaign both they and Labour have concentrated their fire on the SNP and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, particularly the possibility, post-Brexit, of a second independence referendum.

What has happened is that those whose major concern is maintaining the Union are getting behind the traditional Unionists (the Tories have renamed themselves as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party), bypassing Labour.

It has done so by tapping into networks that are linked to the British state in one way or another including the Orange Order (a shadow of its former strength but with a presence still in working class areas), ex-servicemen etc. But it has also mobilised among its more natural middle and upper class supporters by focusing on their fear that independence will happen.

In the local elections, on a low turnout, that translated into seats. There is now considerable hype that the Tories can do the same in the Westminster election. This is based on a supposed collapse in the SNP vote. In reality that did not occur, instead some Labour voters transferred to the Tories.

The SNP holds 56 out of 59 Westminster constituencies. Their success in 2015 was a result of the continuing momentum from the September 2014 independence referendum. The Yes campaign lost, winning 45 percent of the vote, but came nearer than had seemed possible. More importantly the Yes campaign unleashed a tidal wave of meetings, debates and cultural events. It also involved a major mobilisation, spearheaded by the Radical Independence Campaign, of voters from some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. In Niddrie in East Edinburgh there was even a march of Yes voters to the polling station led by a piper!

In the weeks that followed the referendum the SNP’s membership mushroomed. 

The 2015 Westminster election saw the destruction of the three pro-Union parties – with Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems gaining just one seat each. The Tories had long been in decline but the collapse of Labour was spectacular, pay back for a disastrous decision to join with the right wing in Better Together, the pro-Union No campaign in the referendum.

Not so long ago Labour viewed Scotland as theirs, taking its dominance of its heartlands in Glasgow and the West of Scotland as granted, and not even bothering to build up its membership. Now Labour is targeting just three seats in Scotland, Edinburgh South, the one it holds, East Renfrewshire and East Lothian. Its poverty of ambition is shocking.

Scottish Labour sits well to the right of Corbyn, whom it dislikes. Its leader, Kezia Dugdale, is unpopular and uninspiring. It is hard to see it doing well on 8 June. The decision by Labour councillors to go into a coalition with the Tories in order to run Aberdeen caused a shock, and even though Kezia Dugdale suspended them all it was quickly followed by news that Labour was in talks with the Tories to form a coalition in several local authorities and that West Lothian Labour councillors had requested permission to do what their Aberdeen counterparts had done.

For the Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, there has been a crucial shift. Until recently her main strategy was to downplay any connection with the Conservative government in London, and to present herself as more socially liberal. But in recent weeks she’s swung in behind Theresa May defending measures such as the Rape Clause.

This is now a battle between the SNP and the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon has re-positioned the SNP as the only anti-Tory force shielding Scotland from a hard right, hard Brexit Tory government in London. But the SNP has to mobilise those who turned out to vote for it in 2015 but since then turn out in the Scottish parliamentary elections, the EU referendum and the local elections has fallen.

In a first past the post-election there’s no room for the radical left. The Greens have stood down in a number of crucial seats like East Lothian which will boost the SNP. There is much to criticise the current SNP government for and the party is very cautious. But the truth is that any gains for the Tories in Scotland will be a knock back for any chance of a second independence referendum and will be a huge boost for Theresa May. In that situation, and with Scottish Labour not being at the races and distancing itself from Corbyn, there is only one choice come polling day.

Tagged under: Scotland SNP
Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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