Why Scotland’s Political Crisis Could Shape Future of the UK

(Bloomberg) -- The disarray engulfing the Scottish National Party — for years one of Britain’s most effective and dominant political parties — will likely have far-reaching implications ahead of a UK-wide election just months away.

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The latest turmoil was triggered when SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, called time on a power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens, saying it had “run its course.” That left him running a minority government, a significant challenge even before opposition parties weighed in behind a no-confidence motion that could bring Yousaf down as soon as next week.

It’s another illustration of how the SNP has gone in less than two years from a seemingly unassailable position to a party racked by unforced errors. Scotland could suddenly be on the cusp of its first snap election since the reestablishment of the local Parliament in 1999.

The SNP’s struggles are feeding into a resurgent UK Labour Party as leader Keir Starmer tries to oust Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives from Downing Street. Wresting back Labour’s former strongholds in Scotland’s Central Belt, including Glasgow, from SNP control would be key to Starmer securing a robust majority in an election that Sunak has promised in the second half of the year.

The tension between the SNP and the Greens had been bubbling for months on issues from gender recognition to rent control, and came to a head after the government watered down environmental goals. Yousaf acted amid signs the Greens themselves were preparing to pull out of the deal, which was reached in 2021 when the SNP fell one seat short of a majority during the last Scottish election.

But the faltering relationship with their governing partner — the SNP refused to call it a “coalition” — is only one aspect of the party’s troubles. The exit of long-time leader Nicola Sturgeon last year, and the ongoing police probe into the SNP’s finances has led to her husband being charged in connection with embezzlement, have contributed to a significant drop in the party’s popularity.

More broadly, though, the SNP has struggled to adapt after its primary reason for existing — an independent Scotland — became harder to pursue. The party has done best when independence was regarded as closest at hand.

In 2011, the SNP won a landslide in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, the first ever majority in a system that in theory lends itself to coalition or minority government. In the UK election in 2015, a year after Scots voted 55% to 45% to remain in the union, the SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote and 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster districts.

It lost its majority in the Scottish parliament in 2016, although it remained by far the biggest party and Sturgeon dominated as first minister.

The constitutional question still dominates Scottish politics. The problem for the SNP it has no obvious move to get another vote, given the Supreme Court blocked its effort to force one and the government in London — regardless of whether it’s Conservative or Labour after the next general election — is highly unlikely to grant another plebiscite.

When Sturgeon struck the deal with the Greens in 2021, known as the Bute House agreement after the Edinburgh residence for first ministers, the aim was to cement a pro-independence majority in the Holyrood parliament that she could use to press London for another referendum.

It was a seismic moment in British politics, the first time green politicians were represented in government anywhere in the UK. But their shared agenda, including gender recognition reforms and cutting North Sea oil-and-gas drilling, alienated voters who remained pro-independence but were less socially liberal.

The arrangement had critics even within the SNP, amid accusations that it was the minority partner actually driving Sturgeon’s priorities.

That battle was the dominant theme in the post-Sturgeon leadership contest last year. Yousaf won that, though his prospects now hinge on the repercussions of that victory. In a stroke of irony, the parliamentary math means the deciding vote on his future could fall to his defeated rival Ash Regan, who has since defected to ex-First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro-independence Alba party.

“If he survives, the government is fundamentally unstable,” Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, told the UK Politics Podcast on Friday. “He cannot govern essentially in hock to Alex Salmond’s Alba party — there will be people on his own benches who will not be happy with that. So he’s kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

What happens next is far from clear. Though it wouldn’t be binding, Yousaf would widely be expected to resign were he to lose the no confidence vote. The SNP would have 28 days to try to get a new first minister appointed by a vote in parliament. That looks tricky given the party doesn’t have a majority — although it’s not necessarily in the opposition parties’ interests to trigger an emergency Scottish election at this time.

Regardless of how events play out, one party does appear to have a distinct advantage: Starmer’s Labour. As recently as 2010, Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But it has paid a heavy price for losing ground to the SNP, which made it easier for the Conservatives to stay in power.

A YouGov poll this month found he SNP still holds a slender lead over Labour when it comes on who’s preferred to run the government in Hoyrood. The same poll, however, put Starmer’s party marginally ahead in Scotland for the first time since the independence referendum, when it comes to voting intention for the general election.

--With assistance from Alastair Reed, James Woolcock and Caroline Hepker.

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