The SNP used to look infallible. Now the rot may be setting in
“We’re still going to romp the election but it feels like we’ve peaked. It feels like the sheen is coming off.”
For a long time, the SNP has appeared infallible. An astonishing surge in membership after defeat for the Yes campaign in last year’s independence referendum was followed by an SNP landslide in May’s general election, when the party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys the sort of popularity ratings that should make her opponents weep, and the party is predicted to secure a third election victory (and second overall majority) in May 2016’s Scottish parliamentary election.
Yet, for all the success of the SNP, the veteran activist I quote above believes all is not well. He is not alone in his party’s ranks.
It’s important to put things into perspective, here. The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon is the preference of half of all Scots. Years of Labour dominance in Scotland are now at an end; under Kezia Dugdale, the party is fighting Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives for second place in May.
We cannot possibly talk of the Scottish nationalists being in crisis. But we can, perhaps, discuss what another senior campaigner describes as “the rot setting in”.
Sturgeon has faced the embarrassment of “the 56” becoming “the 55” and then “the 54” as first Michelle Thomson and then Natalie McGarry were suspended by the party over, respectively, allegations surrounding property deals and claims of missing funds from the Women for Independence campaign group’s Paypal account.
The SNP has operated from the moral high ground for years, characterising Labour and Tory opponents as sleazy and self-interested.
Sturgeon now finds herself inside a glass house. The cases of both MPs suspended by the SNP - now sitting in the commons as independents - promise to become unwelcome distractions for the First Minister next year.
But it another issue which stands to cause most damage to the Scottish nationalists.
The closure of the Forth Road Bridge, which links Edinburgh to Fife, has caused commuter chaos. Businesses dependent on the road link for deliveries are suffering and the knock on effect of the closure of such a vital bridge is being felt on the road network across the country.
Transport Minister Derek Mackay - tipped for future promotion - has struggled to defend the Scottish Government over the bridge closure. Meanwhile, critics point out that the SNP’s much trumpeted abolition of tolls in 2007 meant a cut in the maintenance budget.
Some senior SNP figures considered - wrongly - that a good idea might be to attack their opponents over the issue. The nationalists’ deputy leader Stewart Hosie MP tweeted: “Note to Scottish Labour, the #FRB Forth Road Bridge has not fallen down. It's being repaired to make it safe. Diversions today worked well.”
Hosie might believe sarcastic and dismissive is the way to go but, with so many Scots feeling the impact of the closure of the bridge, he may come to reconsider that position.
Such is the weight of expectation on Nicola Sturgeon’s shoulders that failure by the SNP to win each and every one of the Scottish Parliament’s 73 constituencies (leaving other parties to pick up seats decided under a proportional representation system) would be seen as some kind of failure.
If the SNP is to live up to those (unfairly high) expectations, the party will have to find some momentum.
Independence is off the table, there’s misery and embarrassment to come over legal cases, the Forth Road Bridge closure has ministers under pressure as never before, and the nationalists’ domestic agenda is paper thin.
The Labour Party once dominated Scottish politics before falling victim to its own complacency. The SNP may be in danger of doing likewise.