LIKE many other observers across the UK, Professor Sir Tom Devine has watched the unfolding SNP leadership election with a mixture of growing astonishment and profound concern for what it portends for the future of Scotland.

The professor, this country’s pre-eminent and most decorated historian, came out for independence just prior to the 2014 referendum in an interview with me. Since then, he has sporadically expressed anger at how the UK Government has embraced a right-wing agenda, signalled in some of the forces which fuelled Brexit.

Yet, he has also oscillated between continuing support for independence as a means of de-coupling from this agenda and some doubts about the ability of the Scottish Government to address the challenges faced by Scots as a consequence of the Westminster Tories’ policies.

Whenever he’s asked about the constitutional issue he often prefaces his analysis with a now familiar apercu: “The future is not really my domain.”

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When I met him this week to solicit his views on the SNP leadership contest he repeated it once more, before adding: “This contest and all that’s come before it can be viewed in a historical framework and I think the SNP leadership should pay heed to this.”

Uppermost in his mind is a single over-arching question. Are we now seeing the death pangs of the constitutional debate? Will we now see a rebirth of Labour in Scotland and a return to the old politics of Left versus Right?

“I think we’re in new territory here,” he says. “And I believe the SNP leadership must concern itself with a troubling reality. The hustings have shown that the SNP could be in deeper trouble than we or they could ever have imagined. Two divergent consequences now loom, depending on which of the two front-runners is elected: there could be a rejuvenation of the path to better governance or an acceleration of existing decline.

“One of these two, Humza Yousaf, represents the party establishment and the continuity of the attitudes and policies of the old guard. The other two, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, are promising a fresh path, including a new economic approach and (with Regan at least) a more pro-active and dynamic route – maybe even a confrontational one – to independence.”

HeraldScotland: Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash ReganHumza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan (Image: free)

Sir Tom is unconvinced, though, despite some polls tracking an erosion of support for the SNP, that the party’s immediate electoral hegemony is about to end.

“Identity politics is still very much alive – it’s a significant part of the SNP’s offering – and the party tends to thrive on it. Moreover, that proportion of the electorate under the age of 45 is still broadly supportive of independence. Support for the Union is still very much the preserve of an older demographic that, as some say, will literally be dying off.

“Also, there is still time before the next Holyrood election in 2026 for a re-awakening of the nationalist movement. Unless that happens, the priorities of the electorate may also show they risk losing their way.

“No political party survives when it begins to ignore the electorate. Historically, in a UK-wide setting, at the beginning of the 20th century the Liberal party was the pre-dominant force in UK politics, right up to the beginning of the First World War. Then it encountered a very spectacular and very sudden collapse which has seen it pushed to the margins of UK politics where it still languishes.”

He sees patterns in recent Scottish political history that carry warnings for the SNP. “Prior to these political apocalypses there is a slow burn evident beneath the surface which may hint at troubles to come. Then, the implosion can happen very quickly.

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“Of immediate concern to the SNP is their own recent history. The period between 2007 and 2011 was a watershed in Scottish politics. This was the time when the Labour Party in Scotland collapsed and the SNP emerged as Scotland’s pre-dominant political power.”

There had been warning signs for Labour before its spectacular demise. Even as late as 2010 it was winning elections. In that year it actually increased its support in Scotland at the general election. Yet, one year later it endured a political earthquake when the SNP won 69 seats and they only managed 31 at the Holyrood election. Soon after that, the David Cameron administration began to realise there might be a possible mandate for a referendum on independence.

Sir Tom recalls Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader at the time stating that Labour’s humiliation came about in Scotland because it had become a political machine that cared more about itself than it did about the electorate.

“For Labour, the catalysts were the move towards a New Labour identity in the UK and its conduct over the Iraq war. For the SNP in 2023 some might argue it could be perceived (and perception is often all in politics) that it has an obsession with ‘progressive’ issues at a time when the country is facing the worst cost of living crisis in half a century.

“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is concerned chiefly with the problems of the NHS; educational standards; transport infrastructure and the wider economy. Are parts of the electorate now beginning to feel sidelined and concluding that the SNP Government has failed to deliver on these vital matters? Johann Lamont’s comments about the root causes of Labour’s problems in the past spring to mind.”

HeraldScotland: Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon (Image: FREE)

He believes too that the SNP has come to a crossroads and that this is true of wider Scotland. The SNP’s membership, depending on how they vote in this leadership contest, will define the future of the SNP and the country for some years to come. He sees another danger for the SNP which can also be glimpsed through a historical lens.

“After its defeat in 2011 the Labour Party in Scotland went into a tailspin of decline,” he says. “Part of this was rooted in a near psychological stubbornness in the Old Guard in finding it difficult to face the future without making necessary changes for its survival. In such circumstances there is the temptation to close ranks and react defensively to anything and anyone who challenge that hegemony.”

Does he see evidence of this in the current SNP leadership contest? “There seems to be overwhelming support among SNP cabinet ministers in favour of one candidate,” he points out. "This is very unusual and perhaps even unprecedented in such a contest, and especially so as the other frontrunner is their ministerial colleague who is widely perceived to have performed well in the second most important and challenging office in the cabinet. Yet she has almost zero support from among her own colleagues.

“The independence project, the rationale of the SNP, is facing a brick wall in Westminster from the stubborn refusal to grant a referendum. The Conservative Government has learned from the experience of 2014. In the course of the referendum campaign support for independence grew from around 28% to 45% and in circumstances which one could argue were less toxic than those which currently surround the current Tory party.

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“No British Prime Minister will therefore grant a referendum, knowing that happened in 2014, unless there is substantial and sustained majority for one in Scotland. There is little sign of that currently. Nor has there been any evidence in the past that ordinary Scots are prepared to take to the streets to demand one.”

Sir Tom believes four key questions will determine whether or not the SNP can maintain its electoral dominance and with it the ultimate success – or not – of their independence mission.

“Does the party have the political stamina for the long struggle necessary to attain the conditions for a legal referendum?

“In the post-Sturgeon era, can the party contain the factional warring which bedevilled it throughout the 1980s and 1990s? There are some early signs of the difficulties which lie ahead.

“Is the SNP membership willing to accept a leader who can attract a broader support beyond the ranks of faithful and committed nationalists, even though they might personally disagree with some of that candidate’s personal views?

“If Labour wins the next UK election what impact will this have on the SNP support base, elements of which are still driven by a deep anti-Toryism rather than by a passionate commitment to independence?”