“Stronger for Scotland” has become the dominant narrative in the General Election campaign in Scotland. For the last seven months, since the independence referendum of 2014, there has been an unstoppable expectation that May 7th will see arguably the biggest single change of political balance in history – at least in Scotland.
For whilst the polls across the UK have proven unchanging in their prediction of a close result, Scotland has broken that trend, with a dramatic swing expected from Labour to SNP. That change is coming is not in doubt, although there remains considerable uncertainty over the scale of the nationalist tsunami.
What is clear, is that unless something very radical changes, and there is absolutely no sign of it yet, May 8th will see a majority of seats in Scotland elect an SNP MP. So, whether there are 30 or 50 nationalists in the next Parliament, their impact is going to be significant.
Nicola Sturgeon should not be underestimated in her intellectual ability to understand the consequences of such a landslide in Scotland, and her strategists should not be questioned in their ability to deliver upon her ambitions. Wisely, she has started to see the significance of the relentless Conservative narrative warning of the consequences of a Miliband minority government run with the acquiescence of the SNP whips office, and has started to widen her narrative.
The rise of the SNP has been built on a belief that the interests of Scotland and the interests of its nationalist Party are completely intertwined. The relentless adoption of the saltire flag as the ultimate symbol of the SNP has been the visual embodiment of SNP communication strategy for the last 15 years. Now, the “Stronger for Scotland” narrative has done its job in positioning the SNP to make unprecedented gains in 10 days. But Sturgeon has now realised the time is right for that message to be widened.
Her Radio 4 interview this morning continued the intertwining strategy (“we’ll be acting on Scotland’s behalf”), but is now much wider. The nationalists are now much more explicit in their “hand of friendship” strategy which sets out their ambition to lead a radical left agenda in Westminster after the election. The embrace between Sturgeon, Plaid leader Leanne Wood and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, was much more than an impulsive moment at the end of the most recent TV debate, it was a carefully planned part of SNP strategy to now take on the mantle of the “true” left in the House of Commons, in circumstances where the Greens and Plaid Cymru now look very unlikely to make significant inroads.
Sturgeon recognises that she needs a UK narrative for the next Parliament. The reversal of previous SNP policy of abstention on “english votes” gives them the ability to lead that anti-austerity, ultra-left force from the opposition benches, whichever party is sitting opposite.
Characteristically, the nationalists have engineered themselves another win-win situation as we head into the final few days of this election campaign. Three scenarios present themselves for Nicola Sturgeon’s strategists to salivate over.
● A Conservative majority government, where the “interests of Scotland have once again been shown to have been misaligned with the UK”. Another Cameron term in number 10 will present an ideal back-drop for a move towards another independence referendum – and with 50% of the electorate likely to vote for the SNP, and indicating a preference for independence, who would be foolish enough to bet against SNP success in any rematch?
● A Conservative minority government resulting in a Queens Speech that can be voted down with the help of a significant cohort of nationalist MPs. For many of their supporters, that will be the nirvana of nationalist intervention at Westminster, righting the unfortunate 1979 scenario where SNP support withdrawn ushered Margaret Thatcher into number 10. It will be just the crescendo of influence they will want to see them skipping into the next Holyrood elections in May 2016.
● A Labour minority government where SNP red lines may well be completely irrelevant, however the long shopping list of nationalist yellow circles will dominate the daily business of politics.
Only a Labour majority will not provide instant opportunity, but with between 25 and 45 Labour seats lost to the SNP, the chances of that scenario declines with each passing day.
So attention will now rightly pass onto the long list of measures that could be delivered by the SNP from the opposition benches. To take just one example, Fergus Ewing MSP, Scotland’s energy minister, has insightfully called for a North Sea Oil Tax Commission made up of industry and government with a right of effective veto over changes to oil taxation, with the ambition of delivering longer term tax stability. What are the odds of that not being delivered by negotiation in one of five minority Labour budgets? There will be many more asks, and with Sturgeon’s change of tone, many will focus on delivering “radical fairness” in issues that will, in truth, have only limited impact on Scotland.
“Stronger for Scotland” will remain, but change across the whole of the UK is now squarely in nationalist sights.
Peter Duncan is Managing Director at Message Matters, a Scotland-based strategic communications company, delivering a spectrum of integrated communications services including media relations, political relations, campaigns and branding.