Technically, the SNP won this week’s general election from a Scottish perspective. Despite this, you will be hard pushed to find any supporters who were celebrating as the results came in. The loss of twenty one seats (including some important figures) and a significant drop in vote share means that any consolation from winning the majority of seats is minimal. Previously, the SNP have grown to dominate Scottish politics through a carefully maintained strategy of competence and stability in government, alongside rhetoric and grassroots organisation more similar to an upstart populist movement. This has always been a difficult balance to maintain, and the 2017 general represented a contest where both sides of the scale were under attack.
As a party of government since 2007, the SNP have always been acutely aware that their record in power will directly influence their long term aim of full Scottish independence. Deliberately cautious policy making and a general tendency to avoid dramatic divergence from UK policy has been part of a measured strategy to erase the ‘single issue party’ tag inevitably attached to them. However, a combination of domestic policy troubles, particularly around education reforms, and the decision to put a second independence referendum back on the table have served to galvanise the anti-independence majority into a coherent voting bloc. Able to distance herself from the deeply unpopular UK Conservative government, Ruth Davidson has acted to undermine the SNPs strategy by developing into a single issue opposition, focussed on opposing a second referendum and demanding that the SNP ‘get on with the day job’. This is a message which has gained traction among the election-fatigued population, which is largely growing tired of the divisive rhetoric that dominates any constitutional discussion.
Alongside this shaken confidence in the SNP’s strategy of ‘independence through competence’, their grassroots organisation (which has made them the campaigning envy of political parties across Europe) came up against an insurgent alternative which stirred progressives in a way that supporting an establishment party of government could not. The ability of the SNP to fight and win elections has a lot to do with their ability to harness and organise a passionate and engaged core base of supporters. These supporters have, up until now, been able to represent a movement for change and tap into the Scottish electorate’s desire to support an alternative to the stagnant politics of Westminster. These anti-establishment voters, with whom SNP grassroots campaigns have previously resonated, are exactly the people who were likely to be attracted to Jeremy Corbyn and his radical policy agenda. For many, the temptation to vote for a genuine socialist alternative across the UK was ultimately too good to miss, particularly as excitement and momentum for Corbyn grew towards the end of the campaign.
With both their administrative reputation and progressive momentum under attack from two very different enemies, the SNP were simply unable to wage war on two fronts. Like most parties, the SNP were caught off guard by this election and their campaign suffered as a result. In any future electoral contests they may be able to devise a more coherent strategy and organise more effectively on the ground. However, their various opponents have now discovered their vulnerabilities, and tasted their first drop of blood.