The rise of the separatist Scottish National Party in UK politics

The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) will likely become the third largest party in the UK Parliament after this Thursday’s general election

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) will likely become the third largest party in the UK Parliament after this Thursday’s general election. This, on the back of a failed bid to gain independence for Scotland in a referendum last year (lost by 45% to 55%) – Scottish independence is the explicitly stated raison d’etre for the party. And after the referendum, many expected the SNP would start a long period of infighting and scapegoating to figure out how this “once in a lifetime opportunity”, as they called it, was squandered. Though I certainly expected the SNP to eventually recover and try for another referendum as soon as possible after that, I was looking at a time frame of two Parliaments (10 years) before they would regroup.

There is also very little actual media scrutiny of SNP policies, which means they can make all sorts of assertions to the general public and will generally get away with it

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But the SNP has confounded expectations. Instead of infighting, they bounced right back, with potential dire consequences for the “United” in the United Kingdom. The party’s new leader since after the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon, managed to dominate the general election campaign with more media coverage than any other party leader, and her party are on the verge of permanently altering the electoral patterns in Scottish constituencies – by some polls they are expected to take 56 seats, up from 6 seats at the last general election, out of a total 59 seats. A complete takeover.

Explaining the rise

How did this happen? There are a number of reasons which explain the rise of the SNP.

At the political level, the previous party to dominate in Scotland, Labour, had taken support in Scottish seat for granted – and became complacent. So much so, that some Labour Scotland party members are even pleased that the national party is getting a wake-up call, through the rise of the SNP. But up until now, Labour and other UK-wide political parties have often dismissed SNP arguments and positions out of hand, without engaging with them seriously. Even in televised Leaders’ Debates during this general election Sturgeon got an easy ride from the others. And for no simpler reason that no one from the main parties in the UK really knows very much about the SNP’s record in the devolved Scottish Government. She could therefore make outlandish claims all day long, and there was hardly any challenge or comeback.

There is also very little actual media scrutiny of SNP policies, which means they can make all sorts of assertions to the general public and will generally get away with it. I have written extensively on the policy howlers of the SNP, but not very much of that has been echoed in the national media. And Scottish media, for its part, is a shadow of its former self. The Scotsman, which at one time produced some of the best journalists in the UK, will soon have to consider being a purely online operation due to declining numbers. The Sunday Herald has become an open SNP cheerleader and has generally tip-toed the party line without digging too much into anything that might spoil that happy image of independence where rainbows are ever glowing in the sky. And then there is The National – you can guess what side they are on. The National is like the Fox News of Scottish print journalism. Some Scottish journalists I know blush in embarrassment at the mere mention of it. That is, for the main part, the media landscape in which the SNP operates.

But even if you do go through the facts and present them the Scottish public, you are not very likely to get very much traction. Certainly not with the party faithful, which constitute perhaps even a majority of their core support – even the Herald agrees. There has been something about the independence referendum campaign that has inspired the people of Scotland. And it is certainly great for democracy when politics can elicit so much interest and passion. But when that passion becomes tribal, when it becomes about which team we are in rather than what values we care about, then we are on a very, very worrying path. And keeping the faith in the face of reason and facts is certainly something that the SNP is riding on at the moment. It cannot be foreseen right now what could dent such faith, but for the time being, it can be safely assumed to keep fanning the SNP fire, facts be damned.

Sponging off populist discontent

In effect, the SNP is in the enviable electoral position of needing to do no more that be a sponge of populist discontent at the moment. Give the people of Scotland an avenue to shout their concerns, provide simplistic slogans to complex problems knowing they will never have to be tested, and you are good to go. Of course the people of Scotland have many legitimate grievances and concerns, but the SNP line that everything that’s wrong with any Scot’s life is the fault of the UK government at Westminster should be obviously silly to any casual observer. Case in point: despite worsening education levels, social mobility, and quality of healthcare in the National Health Service, all areas that are devolved to the SNP government Scotland, the SNP can still happily blame Westminster for any and all shortcomings.

What the future will bring on May 8, the day after the election, is still unknown. What is certain is that the SNP will be a big part of that future. And the problem with the SNP’s rise is that it highlights some of the more troubling tendencies of what happens when democracy descends into populism. Let us hope that there is an upper limit to British culture’s tolerance of such populist excesses and that the future of the UK, as a United Kingdom, is not swept away on a wave of Scottish nationalist ‘true faith’.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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