One of the most striking features of the age of existential political divisions is that a party or government can now endure quantities of political pain which would, in the old normal, have been a death sentence.
We saw this during the last Parliament when Theresa May managed to see her personal authority in Cabinet and Parliament disintegrate without the Conservatives falling below 40 per cent in the polls. We may now be seeing it again in Scotland.
Last week, I outlined the sheer volume of woes which currently beset Nicola Sturgeon’s administration. It’s long-time track record of poor outcomes in key areas such as education and health are now being compounded by the deepening scandal over the Alex Salmond inquiry.
Yet there is not much evidence, at least as yet, that any of this is making much of a dent in the SNP’s re-election prospects. In an electoral system designed to prevent majorities, they remain odds-on to at least secure a pro-independence majority with some combination of their traditional Green allies and Action for Independence.
However a week remains a long time in politics – especially at the moment – and there are still quite a lot left between now and Scottish voters going to the polls in may. Nationalists must be praying there aren’t too many more like this one.
On the Salmond front, Peter Murrell – the SNP’s chief executive and the First Minister’s husband – admitted to sending ‘bombshell’ texts which appeared to suggest an attempt to pressure the police into action. At the same time, Sturgeon herself has maintained an increasingly implausible line about having forgotten a meeting with a senior Salmond aide in which the latter claims to have first informed her of the complaints against her predecessor. Alex Massie has a good summary here.
Meanwhile on Covid-19 the Scottish Government has just unveiled a sweeping new set of lockdown restrictions. Whilst not technically imposed on a national basis, the new measures span the heavily-populated ‘Central Belt’ and encompass some two thirds of the Scottish population. Pubs, bars and licensed restaurants will be closed across Scotland’s Central Belt for 16 days from 6pm on Friday, according to the Herald.
The Nationalists have also taken this opportunity to vent their puritanical streak: hospitality venues in other parts of the country will be forced to close indoor areas by 6pm and not serve alcohol indoors at all. Representatives of the hospitality sector are describing the moves as a ‘death sentence’.
Worse still, after spending the summer telling the world about what it could learn from Scotland about combating the pandemic, Scotland “may now have the highest coronavirus R number and shortest doubling time of any UK nation”.
The SNP have never been shy about being authoritarian, and during the pandemic the First Minister has made an art of appearing to be ahead of the game when it comes to taking action and imposing restrictions. But just as Boris Johnson is facing a growing mutiny from local government figures in Northern England, so too is Sturgeon.
As we noted last week, the leadership of Aberdeen Council are incensed that she locked down their city but then refused to do the same to Glasgow (where her own constituency is), even when the latter appeared to have a much higher incidence of Covid-19. As this second lockdown starts to bite, such charges could take on more potency. Uneven treatment might anger Aberdonians, but if the First Minister’s reluctance to act on Glasgow comes to be blamed for the need for the Central Belt lockdown the political damage could be much broader.
None of this is automatically good news for the SNP’s opponents. The bedrock of its support remains a solid bloc of the electorate which is currently committed to independence and thus not going anywhere, and the Government’s own woeful handling of the pandemic limits the scope for attacking the SNP. But it ought to be an antidote to the counsels of despair attacked by Douglas Ross in his conference speech.