WHAT a slap in the face it must have been for those SNP MPs and office workers about to lose their jobs to see Nicola Sturgeon on ITV talking about their party as if she’d never led it and had not played an integral part in its downfall.

There she was - 15 months after she resigned with no succession plan in place - pontificating about the inadequacy of John Swinney’s campaign. This despite the fact that Swinney had more or less followed her example by insisting a vote for the SNP was a vote for independence, and that he had taken on the leadership reluctantly just weeks before Rishi Sunak called his snap election.

The ITV panel appearance showcased all of Sturgeon’s worst traits (and none of her best). We saw her imperiousness, her intractability, her lack of humility in the face of an SNP collapse that exceeded the polls’ most doom-laden predictions.

Confronted with Scotland correspondent Peter Smith’s analysis that the loss of seats proved independence was no longer a priority for voters, she smiled a condescending smile, and dismissed it as “a foolish conclusion”. Rather, she argued, the problem was that the party hadn’t talked about independence *enough*.

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When Joanna Cherry castigated her for failing to capitalise on the public backlash to Brexit and Boris Johnson, she pointed out the former MP had been re-elected three times during her time at the helm.

Worst of all, she referred to the party she joined at the age of 16, as “they” instead of “us”, which may have been a slip of the tongue, but gave the impression she was distancing herself from its humiliation.

While across the country, former MPs were accepting defeat, she appeared to be abdicating all responsibility. Worse still, she was doing so at a time when her husband and former SNP chief executive Peter Murell faced charges of embezzlement, and from the comfort of a TV studio in London.




Cataclysmic decline

It would be natural for the SNP to lash out at its former leader in return; to depict Sturgeon - and Sturgeon alone - as the architect of its cataclysmic decline. But using her as a scapegoat for its travails is too easy an exercise; one which would excuse its members and politicians from the unflinching self-reflection essential to save the party from shuffling back to the fringes of Scottish politics.

Though her role in Friday’s rout is indisputable, Sturgeon did possess an appeal and credibility that made her the envy of others. Without her people skills, the party would not have enjoyed the hegemony it has had, nor ever been in the position to take its voters for granted. Unfortunately, the party staked its future on her unassailability which was bound to pass as all things do. Those who should have been providing checks and balances, were so in thrall to her success they stopped challenging her: on transparency, accountability or direction.

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As for independence, the SNP should beware of falling into the trap Sturgeon sets, or failing to look beyond its bubble. While it is true that just under 50% of Scots continue to support separation from the UK, hardly anyone I talked to during the campaign saw it as a pressing concern. That’s anecdotal, obviously. But if Sturgeon is right - if a key issue for SNP deserters was an underplaying of the constitutional question - why did so many of them switch to Labour, whose leader had ruled out a second referendum, rather than Alba: “the only party in Scotland that puts independence at the forefront of everything we do”?

To those who place the blame for the SNP’s misfortunes on the coalition with the Scottish Greens and the mishandling of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill I would add: if this is true, why did the fiercely gender critical Cherry lose her seat, and fiercely “progressive” Kirsty Blackman keep hers?

Equally, if voters were trying to signal their distaste for Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes, and the SNP’s perceived shift to the right, then backing Keir Starmer’s unashamedly centrist vision was a peculiar way to do so.

It strikes me the SNP backlash was driven less by specific policies or ideological considerations than a broader disaffection with a party which had stagnated and splintered; a party which - crucially - had failed to deliver on its promises to improve people’s lives.


FM John Swinney

FM John Swinney


Hunger for change

Let’s imagine for a moment the upsurge of support in the wake of the referendum defeat was rooted, not in an obsession with Scottish sovereignty, but in a hunger for change and a belief the SNP and independence might deliver it. A further decade of Tory rule sharpened that hunger and yet, post Brexit, post Trump, post Sturgeon, post Liz Truss’s trashing of the economy, it failed to materialise. Then along came Labour dangling the prospect of a government that puts Scotland “at the beating heart of the UK”. It stands to reason heads were turned.

It’s the change itself - rather than the mechanism for delivering it - that dazzles voters. And so it goes: from Labour to the SNP and back again; a relentless cycle of hope and betrayal. As I stood at the Glasgow count watching constituency after constituency turn red, I couldn’t help wondering if the wholesale dumping of one party for its rival would ever reap the longed-for dividends. It was sad to see good constituency MPs - including Chris Stephens, Alison Thewliss and Stewart McDonald - being swept out on the same irresistible tide that brought them into power in 2015.

Of course, the Labour MPs who replace them may be just as committed, and Westminster’s loss may eventually prove Holyrood’s gain. But the way in which conscientious individuals became casualties of a national backlash seemed self-defeating. Maybe it’s time we moved beyond blanket SNP good/Labour bad or Labour good/SNP bad dichotomies, and started judging politicians on their own merits.


Scottish Labour celebrate

Scottish Labour celebrate


Accepting defeat

Still, there were grounds for optimism at the Glasgow count. One was the grace with which the incoming Labour MPs greeted their wins and the outgoing SNP MPs accepted their defeat.

Though Anas Sarwar arrived to whoops and cheers, there was less triumphalism on display than I expected. Maybe Labour’s experience in 2015 made the party more sympathetic to the fate of the former SNP MPs and staffers. Maybe the weird symmetry between then and now served as a reminder that all power is ephemeral; it comes and goes, and - even when the shift is seismic - it rarely results in a permanent political realignment.

There was little hint of old Labour entitlement in the victory speeches. Each of the new MPs took time to praise the achievements of those they were replacing. Meanwhile - in London - Starmer spoke of “the fight for trust that defines our age” and of “public service as a precondition of hope”. For their part, most of the outgoing SNP MPs appeared to be committed to a thorough interrogation of the party’s failings; to reforming and rebuilding before the 2026 Holyrood elections.

Perhaps these were shallow sentiments expressed in the heat of election night. But I’d like to think they were harbingers of a future in which all parties keep in mind what one former MP described to me as “the need to earn it every time”. I’d like to think this particular changing of the guard might usher in an era in which the focus of opposing parties is not to wrongfoot each other, but to find ways in which they can work together in the best interests of the country. The country deserves no less, and it’s long overdue.