THE UK election on July 4 has huge consequences that could draw the curtains on 14 Tory years – and see the election of a Labour government under Keir Starmer.

All expectations are that the Tories will lose badly, and Labour could win by a landslide. However, the Tories won emphatically in 2019 and Labour need to gain 124 seats for a majority of one seat – something they have done twice in post-war times, in 1945 and 1997.

The Scottish contest comes at a time of major flux. The SNP have been in office in Holyrood for 17 years. They have gone through several leaders, with the recently anointed John Swinney now in post, and with a patchy record to defend – putting it diplomatically. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour are in the ascendant, mostly aided by the mistakes of their main opponents: Tory and SNP.

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Can Starmer and Labour win big, and if they do, how will they govern? What will be left of the Tories after the election and how far right can they go? How will the SNP fight this election, what kind of state are they in – and what will be their message and offer?

Mainstream political leadership everywhere feels uninspiring. This is true of Sunak and Starmer, but also of Swinney, who all appear rather managerial; miniaturised in relation to some of their predecessors.

The past week has seen a sub-optimal start to the SNP campaign. At First Minister’s Questions, John Swinney defended former minister Michael Matheson, lashing out at a parliamentary committee and process that recommended his suspension from Parliament for 27 days. And besides that, Police Scotland announced that it had sent a report to the prosecution service relating to charges against Peter Murrell, former SNP CEO.

Meanwhile, former SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been touring the country. She has talked about the march of over-centralisation and lamented divisive politics. She asserted that her resignation last year – seven weeks before her husband Peter Murrell was arrested – was a mere “coincidence of timing”.

One seasoned SNP member, Helen McPherson, takes a dim view of this, stating: “Nicola touring the country handwringing about toxicity is pretty rich given how she referred to women like me with sex-realist views.”

The state of the SNP after Sturgeon

How did it come to this? What does it mean for the election, the future of the SNP and independence? To assess we need to return to November 2014 when Sturgeon became SNP leader and first minister.

James Mitchell of Edinburgh University recollects that: “Nicola Sturgeon inherited the best political situation that any leader could have because of the independence referendum – SNP membership soared, party finances were very healthy, public support soared to unprecedented levels and there was remarkable goodwill across society for the SNP government.”

This was also when the first signs appeared of issues that would later go very wrong. The coronation of Sturgeon as SNP leader may have been unavoidable but led to a deification and closing down of debate. There was the triumphalist Glasgow Hydro rally and – more damningly – a conscious decision to have no post-mortem on why Yes lost.

Post-2014 Sturgeon had enormous political capital and goodwill. To Mitchell, this was the moment when misjudgements began: “She squandered all of that, spending far too much time and effort on spin and selfies and did not take Scotland’s social and economic challenges seriously.”

This reinforced a propensity to presidential politics – with senior SNP figures sidelined, command and control reinforced, and the living, breathing culture of the SNP slowly ossified.

Assessing the Scottish political landscape and SNP post-2014, Simon Barrow, national secretary of the SNP trade union group, says: “The political energy coming from an insurgency with nowhere clear to go after 2014 was not matched by a renewal of ideas and boldness for the SNP as a governing party.”

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The result of this was that inexorably, the SNP became like other system parties. One senior SNP member who saw all this close to hand reflected that it was important to understand the changing nature of the party under Sturgeon: “It is less accurate to talk about left, centre and right in the SNP. It is more relevant to talk about system capture and corporate capture.”

Sturgeonism drew the oxygen out of the party, silenced policy debates, ignored inconvenient outcomes of debates at party conference and disrespected party governance. But much of this was undertaken with the willing collusion of SNP members who saw a popular leader and electoral success. Leadership is interactive – and Sturgeonism is as much an invention of party members as the former FM herself.

The Sturgeon era did of course produce some positives. There were policy gains in the Scottish Child Payment and baby boxes, but they look thin compared to the failures, questions about wider direction and the refusal to prioritise in government or to have candour about independence.

Take a couple of examples: Scotland becoming a fairer, more equal society, for one. The Child Payment has made an impact and Scotland has been able to mitigate against the worst aspects of Westminster policies. This has resulted in one of the lowest UK rates of child poverty but that figure remains unchanged across the SNP’s years in office. It was 24% in 2007 and exactly the same last year.

The state of local government is not as disastrous as in England but is not in a good way. Inexorable centralisation under the SNP following such a trend under Labour and the LibDems has left local government starved of funds, stretched and lacking capacity – the effect of the Council Tax freeze only adding to problems.

One major stain has been the shocking level of drug deaths that have dramatically increased in recent years on the SNP’s watch. Some of those who work on the frontline judge the SNP’s record as not up to the challenge, and the situation being made much worse by government cuts to key services.

“One of the most glaring failures of the SNP has been their inadequate response to the escalating crisis of alcohol and drug deaths. Despite repeated warnings and rising fatalities, their efforts have fallen woefully short” says Annemarie Ward, CEO of advocacy group Faces And Voices of Recovery UK, who doubts the SNP’s ability to bring about real change and support for people who need it.

This brings us to the legacy of the trans rights debate. This has not been Scotland’s finest hour. A swathe of opinion – from trans rights activists to women’s rights campaigners –have felt ignored, unheard and marginalised.

“The lack of willingness by Sturgeon to listen to other voices and in fact to castigate them as malevolent players, meant that women – especially older women who had considered these issues for many years – felt sidelined and disrespected,” observes Wendy Forbes, a women’s rights campaigner.

She concludes: “Ultimately, this approach felt [like] a severely regressive step for women’s rights; didn’t create the place where a conversation about gender stereotypes could take place and exposed some of the most vulnerable women in society to risk.”

Sturgeon is rightly portrayed as pro-trans rights. But seldom discussed is that as the debate raged in its first year, Sturgeon mostly remained silent in public. She did not make the case for change, nor did she reach out publicly or privately to critics of the proposal. Leadership involves stating your case, listening and trying to bring on board critics in your party – none of which happened.

“Young activists cried for leadership when the party failed to implement a fair complaints process or challenge institutional bigotry, yet instead Sturgeon sat on her hands and watched from a distance,” says Cameron Archibald, equalities officer in the SNP.

When Sturgeon did belatedly intervene, condemning transphobia, it was too late and the lines were drawn.

“Maybe there was no right way of doing trans rights,” says a prominent SNP activist. “But Sturgeon’s leadership style of not confronting things and dividing the world into people onside and those she discounted didn’t help.”

Where are the SNP today?

How the SNP do politics has increasingly creaked as the years in office have continued. This can be seen in the way the SNP now talk about things – and how they think about representation and the Scotland they represent.

There has been a rise in SNP figures seeing their supporters in a proprietorial, tribal way, talking about “our people” and “our folk”, assuming that independence voters have to vote SNP and cannot shift to Labour. Increasingly, there has been a propensity to take the SNP’s vote for granted, which echoes how Labour took its support for granted in Scotland up to the point it fell off a cliff.

A major dimension is where the expanded SNP of recent years have regarded as their heartlands. This used to be pre-“Big Tent” SNP in the north east and parts of rural Scotland; then post-2014 in the Sturgeon era shifting to Glasgow and the west coast.

“The SNP are struggling to reconcile their ‘one Scotland’ position” of a unified, homogenous nation, notes Christopher Silver, who became politically active in the 2014 indyref. He observes: “If the SNP lose out in the central belt to a significant degree, that will pave the way for a more assertive shift to the right.”

A critical factor in how people see the SNP and independence is generational politics. First, the SNP are devoid of a large part of a generation in representation – a result of the talent in the party starved of oxygen by the Sturgeon leadership’s deficit in encouraging talent and new voices. This has left a party dominated by a cohort of elders, alongside emerging politicians in their thirties like Kate Forbes and Stephen Flynn.

“I was angry at the way Nicola left and left us in a mess (all stored up on her watch)” says McPherson, adding that “the way the party establishment anointed Humza who clearly was not up to the job – I thought we were supposed to be good at politics!”

Second, the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and even independence have become normal. Anyone who voted in a Holyrood election that the SNP did not win has to be at least 41 years old at the next Scottish contest, and someone who voted in a Westminster election prior to the Scottish Parliament must be at least 45 years old now. Devolved Scotland and the SNP have become conventional and taken for granted.

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Finally, some of these generational attitudes percolate how people view the SNP and independence in the decade since 2014. A section of older activists who have seen tough times with the SNP are more sanguine and loyalist and have stressed at times to younger activists that things have been much worse in the past.

Mairi McFadyen rose to prominence in 2014 as a leading figure in National Collective, the cultural pro-independence group. She now speaks of being “utterly disillusioned” politically and more broadly of “a massive intergenerational disconnect” defining politics.

The SNP as a party are not currently in a good place. Their senior figures are exhausted and their internal governance has been found wanting. The party lacks money and donors; they have run out of policy ideas; they lack coherent messaging and a positive story to tell about the story of Scotland. The more than a dozen party members I spoke to while writing this piece displayed differing degrees of anger, confusion and bewilderment; some are just hanging on to being members.

McFadyen observes that while “the UK Government has been busy tearing up the social contract”, there has not been enough of a creative response in Scotland and that “the SNP have had repeated mandates for real change – yet no momentum has been built, no institutions have been created, no lessons learned.”

Change is coming – continuity SNP won't do

The idea that the forthcoming election should be about securing another mandate for independence is a sign of a party running out of road. It is a leadership going through the motions to give the impression that they still know what they are doing when they palpably don’t.

The SNP say they will be putting independence at the core of their manifesto. But what happens if the party – as it looks likely to happen – lose? This could be seen as an explicit rejection of, and a demand for reversing, independence.

Simon Barrow of the SNP Trade Union Group takes the view that: “If the framing suggests that independence lives or dies with the SNP’s fortunes in this particular poll, it risks seriously burying the cause if there is a significant loss of seats, as polls indicate is well possible.”

He makes a historical comparison back to the worst election result in Labour’s post-war history – 1983, fought on a left-wing manifesto under Michael Foot. He says: “Back in 1983, Labour’s reckless manifesto was famously dubbed ‘the longest political suicide note in history’. The SNP may be in danger of making the first line of their 2024 programme the shortest political suicide note in history.”

The SNP enter this election in a maelstrom of anxiety and confusion. This will be a tough election as it is a change election. It is the end of an era in the UK. But it is also the end of an era in Scotland – of unchallenged SNP dominance.

“They’re limping into this election. They’re low on cash, devoid of momentum, beset by scandal,” says Mark McGeoghegan, pollster and doctoral researcher at Glasgow University.

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In the absence of tangible progress on independence, the SNP are vulnerable and susceptible to the problems that face parties in office for a long period. “The weaknesses of the Scottish health care, education and justice systems are being exposed and leveraged by opposition parties,” says McGeoghegan. Add to this that the Westminster election offers “voters an opportunity to give the SNP a kicking in the knowledge that they don’t need to hand control over to Labour” at Holyrood – pointing to “a likely deadly gauntlet for the SNP”.

This shift will be difficult for some but is an opportunity. The end of the Sturgeon era is also the end of Sturgeonism, of the SNP trying to be an expansive catch-all “Big Tent” party which was all things to everyone.

This fin de siècle moment is a chance to escape the half-truths, evasions and deceptions that defined the Sturgeon era – concerning independence, but also about how government and the party were run. This window first opened last year with the resignation of Sturgeon and the election of Yousaf, but as the continuity candidate, he couldn’t and wouldn’t seize the moment.

The SNP now have the chance to break out of this doom loop and to escape the fairy tales and make-believe of the Sturgeon period that claimed that independence was just around the corner and that government was making Scotland fairer and more equal. There is an opportunity to walk into the light and to embrace a kind of liberation – of telling the truth, being candid and honest, and nurturing democratisation and a wider ownership of politics.

This is a politics centred on “the art of growing up” – to invoke Fintan O’Toole’s words about independence in 2014. This is what self-government and taking responsibility should be about. Yet in the 10 years since 2014, many have not wanted to embrace such a modus operandi – including on the independence side.

The forthcoming election will be tough for the SNP. Yet we need to have a sense of the bigger picture. Scotland has since time immemorial been characterised as a managed society peopled by elites, professions and vested interests who administered the country to fit their vision of “a good society”. This was how Labour Scotland was run and has become how the SNP, as a party in office, have come to see the world.

Such a political outlook has little mileage in the long run. It is a politics of parties representing those with voice, status and access – and who are already well supported by the political system. This is the world of system capture where the SNP – like Labour before them – have forgotten who they serve.

Caution and conservatism in Labour and SNP

Look at the state of the UK and the West. The politics of caution and conservatism – represented by Sunak, Starmer and Swinney – has no answer to the huge questions that humanity and the planet face. One SNP member notes that the SNP are literally turning back the clock, “promoting old-guard devolutionists and conservatives to positions of power”, concluding that “in a time when voters are crying for change, the SNP seem more interested in time-travelling back to 2007”.

Caution and conservatism will define this election and its choices. This despite the mantra, expectation and tailwinds being about change – in who the UK Government is, in Scotland and in the wider political environment. This change necessitates the encouraging of a wider debate which challenges the economic, social and global orthodoxies which have so conspicuously failed.

More effort needs to be put into finding and nurturing new thinking in Scotland. Cameron Archibald assesses that “new policy ideas” across Scotland “are in no short supply”, observing that “these can be found within the ranks of climate youth activists, Scotland’s trade union movement and a generation of new progressive economists”.

Yet none of this has been nurtured by successive SNP leaderships or mainstream politics, but that different Scotland is out there waiting and wanting to be listened to.

What is the point of politics, who do politicians and government serve, and what kind of society do we want to live in? These were some of the big questions raised in 2014, and in an age of change and disruption, the changemakers and those challenging the status quo must find their voice and keep pushing.

Safety-first continuity politics will not be enough – whether Keir Starmer’s Labour or John Swinney’s SNP.