Left, Winnie Ewing wins the Hamilton by-election in 1967; right Nicola Sturgeon is forecast to play a key role in the creation of any post-election coalition
Turning points: left, Winnie Ewing wins the Hamilton by-election in 1967; right Nicola Sturgeon is forecast to play a key role in the creation of any post-election coalition

When Brendan O’Hara first contested a UK general election for the Scottish National party in 1987, his entire team was made up of “me and my mate Cliffy”.

“The campaign consisted of us taking a fortnight off work, chucking in a week’s holiday pay each to try to cover [the cost of] some leaflets and giving it as good a go as we possibly could,” recalls Mr O’Hara, who, unsurprisingly, lost by a mile.

How times have changed. Now Mr O’Hara is runaway favourite to win a place in the Westminster parliament on May 7. Well-drilled canvassers bustle through his office in a former Helensburgh post office, and the SNP has four more campaign hubs across the sprawling Argyll & Bute constituency alone. Polls suggest the party, which won only six of Scotland’s 59 seats in 2010, is now on course to take well over 40.

It is an electoral revolution set to put a significant block of secessionist MPs in the UK parliament for the first time since Irish independence in 1922 — and at a time when polls point to a parliament hung between the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties. Less than eight months after its referendum for independence was rejected by Scottish voters, the SNP, which polls suggest could be the third-largest party in the House of Commons after the election, could have the decisive say in who forms the next UK government.

The prospect fills opponents of Scottish independence with a mix of dismay and outrage. “We all know why the SNP wants to get to Westminster and it is to continue the project of breaking up Britain,” says Ian Campbell, a Highland Perthshire councillor and member of the group Forward Together, which is promoting tactical voting to stop the SNP’s advance. The referendum vote for union should have been decisive, adds the lobby group’s chairman John Duff. “The SNP are disrespectful of the settled will of the Scottish people,” he says.

The Conservative party has made the threat posed by possible SNP influence over a minority Labour government into a central theme of its election campaign. “I fear for our country,” David Cameron, party leader and UK prime minister, told supporters last week. 

Balance of power

The 55 per cent to 45 per cent victory for the unity of the UK in last year’s referendum has certainly proved less than decisive. Nationalists took heart from the success in mustering unprecedented support to their cause, and from the majorities for independence recorded in the cities of Dundee and Glasgow, where Mr O’Hara suffered a drubbing at Labour’s hands in 1987. SNP activists see the defeat as mere delay — and the party has dropped its past assurances that independence referendums are a “once- in-a-generation event”.

“It was close enough for it to be seen as progress,” says Nicola McEwen of the University of Edinburgh. “The two-year referendum campaign created a pro-independence movement that wasn’t there before.”

The SNP has harnessed the referendum momentum. Its membership has more than quadrupled since September to more than 100,000 people, making it the third-largest party in the UK by membership despite drawing on only 8 per cent of the population — with a consequent surge in income and campaigning clout. The SNP appeal has also been widened by its leader and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a less divisive figure than her predecessor Alex Salmond.

A major factor powering the SNP’s rise is collapsing support for Labour, which for decades dominated Scottish politics. The party has for years been in decline in Scotland, where many traditional supporters felt betrayed by former leader Tony Blair’s adoption of more liberal economic policies and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perceptions that it is little different from the widely disliked Conservatives were reinforced by Labour’s participation in the cross-party campaign against independence.

The pro-independence Yes campaign won over staunch Labour and UK union supporters such as Brian Bailey, a postman from Fife.

Walking his dog in a leafy Kirkcaldy park, Mr Bailey says he voted Yes after “swithering” for weeks and felt “really, really scunnered” — a Scots term for annoyed disgust — by Labour glee at the failure of the independence campaign.

“I’ve always voted Labour but I find it very hard to forgive them for whooping and cheering when the referendum results came in,” says Mr Bailey. “I’m so torn. I’m really tempted to vote SNP, but it’s a big step for me.”

Populist pitch

The SNP’s appeal to ex-Labour voters rests in large part on its claim to be the real standard bearer of social democracy, with policies such as free medicine prescriptions and university tuition, while also pitching itself as the only party able to stand up for distinctively Scottish interests. Such is Labour’s declining appeal that even some past supporters who opposed independence are now defecting to the SNP.

Ms Sturgeon has taken pains to assure voters that victory on May 7 would not be seen as a mandate for a referendum re-run nor open the way for continued Conservative rule, since the SNP can be depended on to vote to stop a Tory government “getting off the ground”. It is a strategy that is helping to maximise SNP support. Elizabeth Wheatley, a Fife teacher, voted against independence and approves of many Labour policies, but probably will not back it on May 7. “I’m edging towards the SNP,” she says.

Gordon Brown, ex-prime minister and Ms Wheatley’s now-retired MP, is stepping up efforts to bring Labour supporters back into the fold. In a speech last week the former Labour leader argued that it was his party not the SNP that offered greater economic equality.

“We get up in the morning wanting to deliver people from social injustice,” Mr Brown told supporters. “They wake up in the morning thinking about how they can achieve independence.”

Labour points to the lack of redistributive policies pursued by the SNP during eight years of running Scotland’s devolved government and at the potentially disastrous implications of the party’s proposal for full fiscal autonomy within the UK.

Slumping oil prices have exposed the SNP's pre-referendum fiscal forecasts as wildly over-optimistic. Other SNP vulnerabilities include health treatment delays, a much-criticised new centralised police force and anger among Scottish universities at its plans to shake up higher education.

But none of this appears to be getting any traction among voters. “Nothing is sticking to them,” says a Labour candidate in a constituency where he beat the SNP by more than 30 points in 2010, but where polls suggest he is now behind. “It all just bounces off.”

The SNP has also been helped by the focus put on its potential influence by Mr Cameron and his fellow Conservatives. The party’s biggest problem in Westminster elections has been appearing relevant, given that it could never form a UK government on its own. The prospect of a hung parliament has changed that and SNP strategists grin at mention of the Tory campaign posters showing Labour leader Ed Miliband in Ms Sturgeon’s pocket. “It’s free advertising for us,” says one.

SNP candidates say their lead could yet narrow, but expectations are growing that the party will indeed win a landslide north of the English border and a high-profile role in Westminster, raising urgent questions about the implications for the future of the 308-year-old union at the heart of the UK.

Paul Cairney, professor of politics at Stirling university, is sceptical about predictions the SNP will seek to pave the way for independence by acting as political wreckers. He says that the most important ingredient in the SNP’s success has been persuading voters that it is competent in government, a reputation that would be put at risk if it fails to live up to Ms Sturgeon’s promise to “play a constructive role in Westminster”.

Indeed, Prof Cairney says the SNP’s decision to issue a manifesto closely aligned with most Labour policies and to rule out any deal with the Conservatives means it may end up with much less influence than voters have been led to expect. “The SNP could end up looking quite peripheral,” he says.

Excitable talk among commentators of the SNP seizing control of the UK neglects the fact that Scotland only accounts for 59 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The SNP will never be able to prevail against a strong English consensus on key policies.

But the heated reaction of some unionists to the SNP’s rise risks straining UK unity. Mr Cameron, and former foreign secretary William Hague, have put increasing stress on the need to restrict the influence of MPs from Scotland over legislation aimed at the rest of the UK, promoting “English votes for English laws”.

Even some Conservative grandees have joined Labour leaders in accusing Mr Cameron of following a short-term strategy that puts the ties that bind the union at long-term risk.

“You can’t just say: ‘Oh, it’s outrageous that Scotland has sent all these nationalists into the House of Commons’,” Lord Forsyth, a former Conservative secretary of state for Scotland, said last week. “We spent the whole of the referendum campaign arguing that we were one family.”

Culture clash

There are also widespread doubts about the effect of new powers for Scotland offered by the pro-union parties under a hasty post-referendum deal. Brokered by Lord Smith of Kelvin, the package gives Edinburgh greater control over tax and some welfare policies, but will also dramatically increase the complexity of dealings between the Scottish and UK governments — making them a source of potential friction.

In the meantime, Westminster faces a culture clash from the likely influx of SNP MPs, many of whom will have little familiarity with its institutions and are determined to challenge established policies from austerity to the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

With Labour and Conservative leaderships united in support of renewing Trident, early success in scrapping the programme seems unlikely. Yet the SNP is used to pursuing distant goals. It is relishing the prospect of finally winning a serious presence in the House of Commons, but its heart is still set on ending Westminster's influence over Scotland. Asked for his priority if he is elected, Steven Paterson, SNP candidate for Stirling, offers what he calls a “flippant” answer but which others will take more seriously. “Abolish my own job,” he says.

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