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Scottish politics

The SNP is facing an existential crisis

Forbes: the SNP’s “most gifted young minister”. Ken Jack/Getty

In Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War Sword of Honour trilogy, the Scottish nationalists were “a tiny fringe group of anti-English plotters living on remote islands in draughty castles”, says Iain Martin in The Times. They were “dotty dreamers, high on romantic tales of Jacobitism and Bonnie Prince Charlie”. Until the 1960s, when the SNP began its long march to power, this portrayal of Scottish nationalism had a grain of truth to it. The party was seen as a “twee tartan joke”, and how unionists laughed. They’ve had little to laugh about since. But now, after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation last week, they’ve been cheered by the “farcical spectacle” of seeing the SNP’s most talented leadership candidate – 32-year-old Kate Forbes – all but out of the running after saying she opposed same-sex marriage because of her devout Christianity. “How on earth has the party managed to ostracise its most gifted young minister?”

It’s a reminder of the SNP’s fatal flaw: it is simply too broad a church. Members share just one basic belief – independence from England. Beyond that narrow obsession it is “deeply divided”, encompassing candidates from everywhere on the political spectrum, from the radical left to the socially conservative right. Without a “strong, cult-style leader” like Sturgeon, this unnatural coalition cannot hold. It all stems from the SNP’s “peculiar history”. What started as a largely rural, conservative grouping – mocked by Labour in the 1970s as “tartan Tories” – became “obsessively progressive” in order to win over Scotland’s increasingly secular urban areas. In doing so, it totally isolated itself from the middle ground. The SNP isn’t finished, but its grip on Scotland may be. “Eras do end. And the nationalists are in the process of being found out.”