Scottish Nationalism Is on the Ropes After the UK Election

The Scottish National Party suffered a heavy defeat in last week’s Westminster election. The result leaves Scotland trapped for now inside a British state whose deep-seated problems the new Labour government will be unable to address.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer (L) meets Scottish first minister and SNP leader John Swinney during a postelection visit to Edinburgh, July 7. (Scott Heppell - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

The Scottish National Party (SNP) went into the UK general election on July 4 defending forty-eight out of Scotland’s fifty-seven Westminster seats. By the time all the votes had been counted on July 6, just nine nationalist legislators were left standing.

Of Scotland’s remaining forty-eight seats, thirty-seven went to Labour — including every constituency in Glasgow, the nucleus of progressive nationalist opinion, alongside Dundee — six to the Liberal Democrats, and five to the Conservatives.

The result leaves Scotland trapped in a divided and decaying British state. In his prime ministerial acceptance speech, Keir Starmer promised to deliver a “decade of national renewal,” with a government that would work tirelessly to rebuild, “brick by brick,” the country’s crumbling social infrastructure. Behind such eager rhetoric lies a grittier reality.

The mandate won by Labour was deceptively thin. Starmer secured 64 percent of the seats with 34 percent of the vote. As Richard Seymour notes, this was “the smallest ever vote share” for a party coming into office. Overall turnout was down, too, reflecting the broad mood of public indifference.

Ominously, Nigel Farage’s Reform took 14 percent of the vote, mostly at the expense of the Tories. At the next general election, due in 2029, British politics could look strikingly similar to the emerging European norm, where beleaguered centrist leaders face off against an insurgent far-right force.


But the emptiness of Labour’s victory can’t disguise the scale of the SNP’s defeat. The nationalists had hoped to hold around twenty seats across rural Scotland and the Central Belt. Instead, almost every inch of Scotland’s industrial-metropolitan strip, from Cowdenbeath to Inverclyde, turned red.

In Bathgate and Linlithgow, Labour now enjoys a majority of more than eight thousand. In Hamilton and Clyde Valley, the Labour advantage is ten thousand. Overnight, Scottish voting patterns reverted to their usual twentieth-century settings. In 2015, the nationalists swept urban Scotland. Last week, city-dwelling Scots started voting Labour again, while the SNP was pushed back to its old provincial strongholds in the Highlands, Perthshire, and the North East.

Postmortems of the SNP’s performance have already begun. Alex Salmond was quick to cite the “kamikaze policy” of legislating to allow for gender self-identification, associated with his successor Nicola Sturgeon, as the primary cause of the party’s collapse.

This argument doesn’t convince. If Scotland had an appetite for anti-woke nationalism, Salmond’s splinter group, Alba, would have retained its deposit in at least one of the nineteen constituencies it contested, and Joanna Cherry, J. K. Rowling’s favorite parliamentarian, would have kept her seat in Edinburgh South West.

A more plausible explanation is that Scottish voters were rebelling against the SNP’s record of incumbency. The party has held power at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national parliament, since 2007.

In that time, higher education budgets have been slashed, local councils disempowered, ferry contracts delayed, key climate emissions targets scrapped, and NHS waiting lists endlessly extended. The class attainment gap in Scottish schools is as wide now as it was in 2015, when Sturgeon initially pledged to eliminate it, and Scotland’s overdose epidemic, the worst in Europe, rolls on unabated.

The SNP insists that it has been doing everything it can with the limited powers it has in the context of Britain’s constitutional straitjacket. Yet on issues like council tax, land reform, housing, and the environment — all of which fall squarely within Holyrood’s jurisdiction — progress has been slow to nonexistent.

Sturgeon’s Legacy

The lingering fallout from Sturgeon’s chaotic resignation last spring further depressed nationalist support. In April of this year, Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive, was charged with embezzlement following an investigation into the party’s finances.

The former first minister has thus far escaped formal police action. But the case against Murrell has made SNP leaders in Edinburgh look corrupt; an echo, if not an exact impression, of their Conservative counterparts down south. Against this backdrop, it was easy for Labour to cast itself as an untainted alternative to Scotland’s “two failed governments.”

John Swinney, for nine years Sturgeon’s deputy, was drafted in as Humza Yousaf’s replacement in May. Since then, he has sought to stabilize the party. His election campaign began with a lie.

For weeks, the SNP claimed that Labour’s plan to raise windfall taxes on oil and gas companies operating in the North Sea would cost one hundred thousand Scottish jobs. In fact, Scotland doesn’t have a hundred thousand oil and gas jobs. The figure was drawn from a report written by an investment company, Stifel, with close ties to the oil industry.

As the campaign progressed, Swinney’s messaging grew more assured, insisting that a vote for Labour would be a vote for austerity, hard borders, and the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The SNP was the only major party at Westminster to push Gaza as an election issue. Starmer, compromised by his early backing for Israel’s illegal siege tactics, avoided discussion of the conflict at all costs.

But it came to nothing. After fourteen years of spending cuts and slumping living standards, Scotland wanted the Conservatives gone. From its place in opposition, Labour was better placed than the SNP to harness the country’s historic anti-Tory instincts.

Swinney’s emphasis on constitutional issues added another layer of damage. Voters wanted to talk about the cost of living, not independence. Yet Swinney went into election day arguing that, if the SNP won a majority of Scottish seats, it would have the authority to kick-start separation negotiations with Westminster. The electorate denied him that mandate. By his own logic, demands for independence must now be shelved.

Inflection Point

We can now say that November 2022 was an inflection point in nationalist fortunes. Two and a half years ago, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Scotland could not legally secede without Westminster’s consent. After that point, separatist ambitions hit a brick wall. Sturgeon resigned, making way for Yousaf, and Yousaf withered.

Sturgeon’s tenure was disastrous in other ways. She wouldn’t let nationalism breathe on a civic level. Everything had to be channeled through a series of turgid Scottish government policy papers — on foreign affairs, currency, pensions, etc. — that no one read.

In Sturgeon’s defense, the Catalan option — a unilateral declaration of independence, instantly inviting pariah status on the global stage — was never viable for Scotland. But her obsessive centralizing smothered the democratic energy that developed in the course of the 2014 referendum campaign. When COVID-19 hit Scotland six years later, the independence movement was demobilized, and it hasn’t recovered since.

Privately, SNP leaders hope that a period of concentrated exposure to Starmerism will reinvigorate its support base prior to the next Holyrood poll in 2026. Starmer will no doubt embrace his victory as a license to do as little as possible, even as the country around him decomposes.

In 2022, the Labour leader talked excitedly about abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected “senate of the nations and regions.” By 2023, his advisers were briefing that any overhaul of Britain’s antique political system would be a second-term priority, at best.

Nor is Labour planning to ditch Conservative welfare reforms. Under Starmer, the two-child benefit cap — blamed for immiserating half a million British kids — will stay, as will much of the Tory sanctions regime. “Handouts from the state do not nurture the same sense of self-reliant dignity as a fair wage,” Britain’s new prime minister told the Daily Telegraph recently.

Scottish Labour has likewise done little to justify its revival. Douglas Alexander, a cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (and keen supporter of the war in Iraq), is the new MP for Lothian East. Blair McDougall, who ran the right-wing Better Together campaign against independence ten years ago, was elected in East Renfrewshire.

Fragile Victory

There are signs of weakness in Labour’s Scottish success. This was nothing like 2015, when the SNP won 95 percent of Scotland’s seats on the basis of 1.5 million votes. Labour’s achievement was more muted: 65 percent of the seats on 850,000 votes.

Turnout in Glasgow and Dundee fell by almost 10 percent compared to 2019 levels. Across Scotland as a whole, it fell by 8.5 percent. Labour’s enthusiasm deficit was not as pronounced north of the Anglo-Scottish border as it was to its south, but the deficit was there nonetheless. A chunk of the nationalist base simply stayed at home.

Attention now turns to the SNP’s future. Swinney will remain at his post for the time being, although a succession contest between his hyper-religious deputy, Kate Forbes, and the party’s more ecumenical Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, will soon be underway.

Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar believes he is on course to become first minister in just under two years’ time. He may well be right. Swinney’s job is to manage decline. Forbes would drag the SNP down a rabbit hole of schismatic Kirk politics. Flynn could challenge Sarwar, but would have to find a seat at Holyrood first.

If the SNP can take any solace from last week’s result, it comes from the knowledge that Britain has entered a new era of volatility. Over the coming years, party loyalties will form and malfunction fast. Starmer doesn’t have the answers to the UK’s deep-seated problems, and Farage is waiting in the wings. Scottish nationalism has just been brutally humiliated. But renewal, for Britain, is a thing of the past.