OUTER HEBRIDES, Scotland — Almost a decade after the high watermark of Scottish independence, the tide is going out on the nationalist vote.
It was 2007 when the Scottish Nationalist Party first took power in a devolved Scottish government, and 2014 when it secured — and lost — a historic referendum on breaking away from the rest of the U.K.
Support for the independence cause surged even higher in the aftermath of that vote, and many observers believed its eventual success was all but secure.
Yet the movement now faces an existential threat.
A recent Survation poll suggested the SNP could lose almost half the 48 seats it won at the 2019 Westminster election, with Labour picking up 24 — a dramatic improvement on opposition leader Keir Starmer’s current total of one, and a major boost to his hopes of entering Downing Street at next year’s general election.
And with the SNP mired in scandal and internal conflict following the departure of its long-time leader Nicola Sturgeon earlier this year, some sense the party’s era of dominance in Scotland could be drawing to a close.
“When the tide moves, the tide moves,” said Torcuil Crichton, Labour’s candidate for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar islands, better known as the Outer Hebrides, far off the coast of western Scotland. “But it’s not a light switch,” he added. “It’s a tidal wave and it takes some time to recede.”
POLITICO spent a week traveling through Scotland to explore how much trouble the once-indomitable SNP could be in. The answer appears to be significant, with the nationalists having lost an all-powerful leader amid a police probe into party funding, and with other senior figures mired in factional infighting over proposed transgender policy reforms and the over-arching strategy for independence.
The electoral repercussions could be sizable. Many Scottish voters who support independence now seem willing to park the issue in the medium term to back Labour, Westminster’s main opposition party, in an effort to avoid another Conservative government at a national level.
The same poll cited above found backing for independence remains constant despite the dip in SNP support. Backing for Labour, which favors maintaining the union, is on the rise.
“The issue has become deprioritized,” Labour’s Shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray said in Stornoway, the de facto capital of the Outer Hebrides, when asked about pro-independence sentiment. “People have much more important things to think about.”
If the 2014 referendum marked the high point for the SNP in Scotland, the general election in 2015, when it won every seat north of the border bar one, was the crest of its wave in Westminster. Its best showing in the Scottish parliament was in 2021, when it won 64 out of 129 seats — although it hasn’t won an outright majority since 2011.
Nevertheless, since suggestions of financial mismanagement emerged in late 2020, polls for the SNP have been in a downward spiral — made worse after Sturgeon resigned in February 2023, ahead of her arrest as part of the investigation into the party’s finances. She maintains she has done nothing wrong and was without charge pending further policy investigation.
Her successor Humza Yousaf has struggled to reverse SNP political fortunes, and it’s become clear the movement — which counts dead people as one of its principle funding streams — is in financial turmoil.
“The SNP has faced particular challenges,” SNP MP John Nicolson admitted in his office in the central belt town of Alloa, a little north west of Edinburgh. “Obviously the fact there’s a police investigation going on is a backdrop that is incredibly unhelpful.”
But Nicolson pointed out that Labour is still trailing the nationalists in the polls, and argued that as older Scots die and the next generation reach voting age, the demographics will move in favor of nationalism.
“That is not a good basis on which to defend the union going forward,” he said. “And I see no arguments coming from unionists as to why Scotland should support the union. Everything they campaign for is relentlessly negative. There’s no vision of what the union benefits are.”
Nicolson put forward the now well-known nationalist arguments for independence: that a Scotland untethered from Westminster would have greater financial powers to tax, borrow and invest in deprived areas like Alloa.
“The Scottish government would have the capacity to invest in the things we need to make Alloa affluent again,” his staffer and local councilor Jane McTaggart insisted. “Because we do have the capacity to be affluent — if we have the capacity to dictate where our own resources are spent.”
Nicolson also noted that an independent Scotland would seek to re-enter the European Union — after Scots delivered the strongest anti-Brexit vote at the 2016 EU referendum — and he railed against the Labour position to stick with Brexit.
A split among the splitters
That urge to rejoin the EU is not shared among all nationalists.
“The chance to tie those two issues together has passed,” said Neale Hanvey, a former SNP and now Alba MP, during an interview in the Hillend Tavern in Dalgety Bay, a small town across the River Forth from Edinburgh. “Brexit has now happened; we are out of the EU and that is that.”
The difference in approach on such a fundamental issue illustrates the level of factionalism among nationalists.
Former SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond set up Alba in 2021 after falling out with Sturgeon over sexual misconduct allegations he was facing — all of which he was later cleared of in court. Hanvey was one of two SNP MPs to defect, but polls suggest the new group has minimal support across Scotland.
Alex Salmond set up Alba in 2021 after falling out with Sturgeon over sexual misconduct allegations he was facing | Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
The strange thing is, Hanvey is more vociferous in his criticism of his nationalist rivals than he is of Labour — complaining about SNP plans to make legal gender changes easier and its approach to independence.
Asked whether he would prefer Labour to win seats at the next election over the SNP, his answer was telling. “In some respects it might be just what we need to get people to wake up to the reality … this is what you get if you don’t progress independence in a meaningful way.”
Hanvey — whose Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath seat is under threat from Labour — argues an upcoming by-election in the Scottish seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, which Labour is expected to win, could prompt the SNP to “reflect” on its current leadership, as well as its approach to independence and wider policies.
Back to the islands
In Na h-Eileanan an Iar too, nationalist factionalism is having an impact.
Sitting MP Angus MacNeil was ousted from the SNP over differences on policies including the path to Scottish secession. MacNeil is vowing to stand as an independent, which could split the nationalist vote further.
Amid the infighting, as well as neverending spats between the SNP government at Holyrood and Conservative administration at Westminster, Labour’s aim is to convince Scots it can deliver a more joined-up operation to get funding and assistance to the right places.
Crichton, a former Westminster journalist who grew up on the islands, said the hope is for a Labour win in 2024 to show Scots what could be possible if the party takes power in Holyrood in Scottish elections in 2026 too.
He said when he launched his campaign, frustrations about the SNP government — including over a botched replacement of much-needed ferries and environmental plans to restrict fishers — were bubbling under the surface.
But when Sturgeon resigned, the dam broke: “You had this kind of re-establishment of people’s own identities, rather than being all Scotland against England.”
The nationalist turmoil is exciting some of the most senior figures in Labour. “I think Labour is going to do a lot better than in previous years,” former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown told an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival in answer to a question from POLITICO about Scottish electoral prospects.
But the SNP won’t go down without a fight. As well as championing Scottish government changes, such as free drug prescriptions and free higher education, Nicolson argued Scottish Labour MPs would be ignored in a Starmer administration.
“Scotland only ever really gets attention when it sends SNP MPs to Westminster,” he said. “Nobody’s frightened of Scottish Labour MPs.”