On Thursday the people of Scotland will vote in elections for a new parliament at Holyrood. Few doubt that the outcome will see anything other than the triumphant return of the Scottish National party to power. Last May, the SNP’s landslide in the UK general election — securing 56 out of the 59 seats contested — illustrated its near total dominance of the political landscape north of the border. The latest opinion polls suggest Nicola Sturgeon’s party will romp home again.
Scotland’s first minister is one of the most accomplished performers in British politics, rarely putting a foot wrong in her media appearances. But given the SNP’s poor performance in government, it is puzzling that so many Scots still place their faith in her party.
The SNP’s record over the past nine years, first as a minority government and then in majority control, has been very weak. Scotland’s economy now underperforms the UK. In recent years, Scotland’s economic growth has generally lagged behind the rest of the UK, with GDP rising by only 0.2 per cent in the final quarter of 2015. Unemployment north of the border has risen to 6.2 per cent compared to 5.1 per cent across the UK as a whole.
The SNP’s stewardship of public services is also open to criticism. The party has cast itself as the defender of the National Health Service, but has not increased health spending by anything like as much as in England. On education, the most recent OECD figures show that the performance of Scottish children in reading and maths has worsened since 2003. The SNP’s centralisation of the eight regional constabularies to form Police Scotland has led to allegations of heavy handed policing across the country.
The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism. The Scottish Conservatives, under their impressive young leader Ruth Davidson, are rising in the polls and may even come second this week. But on 20 per cent of the vote, the Scottish Tories are still a long way from challenging for government.