How did we get here? The SNP’s unravelling political strategy and the 2024 UK General Election. With an image of the author Mark McGeoghegan, and an yes and no sign from the independence referendum.

How did we get here? The SNP’s unravelling political strategy and the 2024 UK General Election.

Published: 3 June 2024

By Mark McGeoghegan

For the first time in eight years, Scotland will have an election that is not first and foremost about Scottish secession from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, understanding the dynamics of the constitutional debate in Scotland, and particularly the SNP’s failure to secure a second secessionist referendum and the disarming of the SNP’s most powerful electoral narratives, remains crucial for understanding how we came to this place in Scottish politics.


The SNP came to power in 2007, forming a minority government, by pursuing a ‘gradualist’ secessionist strategy, downplaying secessionism, and campaigning on core political issues like the economy, education, and healthcare. Between 2007 and 2011 they focused on projecting a sense of competent government, in line with the theory that support for secession could be built by proving that a nationalist Scottish government could govern the nation better than UK governments.

They then campaigned in 2011 on their record in government, and the argument that a nationalist government would be best placed to protect Scotland from the policies of the new Conservative-led UK Government. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, in January 2007, immediately before the SNP took office, 30% of Scots supported independence and by October 2011 that figure was 32%, having fallen as low as 23% in during the SNP’s first term. But the SNP’s constituency vote grew from 32.9% to 45.4% between the 2007 and 2011 elections. The SNP won a historic majority in May 2011 on the back of their competence and ‘standing up for Scotland’ narratives.

This majority, in the SNP’s eyes, constituted a mandate for a secessionist referendum. After internal wrangling, the UK Government agreed. It is critical to understand that the UK Government’s agreement was not based on a principled belief that a secessionist majority in the Scottish Parliament constitutes a mandate for such a referendum. Rather, it was rooted in a counter-secessionist strategy that conceived of a referendum that the state expected to win – after all, only between one-quarter and one-third of the Scottish population supported secession – as a concession that would contain Scottish secessionism.

While many factors contributed to the result, a key element of the secessionist campaign was the argument that only with independence could Scotland be permanently free of the policies of Conservative-led UK governments – playing on both folk memory of deindustrialisation under the Thatcher governments in the 1980s, and strong opposition in Scotland to the contemporary fiscal austerity of the Cameron-Clegg Government.

The Scottish secessionist movement that sprung up around the SNP and its campaign apparatus, Yes Scotland, came much closer to winning the referendum than the UK Government anticipated. While Scots voted by 55.5% to 44.5% to remain part of the UK, this represented a substantial increase in secessionist support that would upend the Scottish political landscape.

Secessionist supporters first formed a coherent voting bloc in the 2015 general election, ironically the one UK general election in which Scotland’s secessionist parties did not advocate for a secessionist referendum. The SNP reverted to their successful ‘standing up for Scotland’ narrative, arguing that only the SNP could stand up for Scottish interests at Westminster, particularly against a re-elected Conservative government. They won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats on the back of this narrative and the desire of the post-2014 secessionist voter bloc to maintain momentum.


Before the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum, the SNP and the wider Scottish secessionist movement had largely accepted that secession had become a long-term political ambition. The SNP in particular had seamlessly reverted to the political strategy that had guided the party to its electoral successes in 2011 and significant growth in public support for secession in 2014.

Scottish Parliament elections were held that May, the month before the EU membership referendum, and the SNP took the opportunity to weave a more secessionist narrative into their campaign and bind their pro-secession voter bloc closer to the party. They argued that if the UK voted to leave the EU, it would constitute a material change in circumstances from those in which Scotland voted to remain in the UK, and that Scots ought to be given the choice between an independent Scotland within the EU and a Scotland within the UK but outwith the EU.

Concurrently, competition over pro-union voters between the Conservatives and Labour shifted a significant proportion of voters from Labour to the Conservatives, with a roughly nine point swing between the two. The Conservatives ran on a hardline anti-referendum platform, with Labour adopting a more nuanced position on the circumstances under which they would find a referendum acceptable and being punished as a result. The Conservatives thus became the second-largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the first time.

The SNP won the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, and alongside the Scottish Greens formed a pro-secession majority in the Scottish Parliament. The morning after the UK voted to leave the EU, Nicola Sturgeon, then SNP leader and First Minister, announced her intention to hold a second secessionist referendum. The request to transfer the powers needed to hold such a vote from the UK government at Westminster was rejected and would be persistently rejected following SNP victories in Scotland in the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections, and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

This post-2016 period is marked by dynamics that are arguably rooted in a fundamental misapprehension of the political environment and British power structures on the part of the Scottish secessionist movement collectively (if not on the part of every individual secessionist). The error lay in perceiving that the opportunity structure for secessionist contention opened following the EU referendum – in other words, that electoral mandates won on manifestos promising a referendum, in combination with normative appeals, would be sufficient to secure the transfer of power from London to Edinburgh, enabling a referendum.

In reality, the UK Government was under no obligation to recognise such mandates and did not share Scottish secessionists’ understanding of the norms dictating the circumstances under which a secessionist referendum might be granted. The 2014 referendum was granted when support for secession was relatively low, and a referendum was perceived as a concession worth making to manage the secessionist threat to the integrity of the state. With support for secession much higher, that calculation no longer held true. Moreover, the Conservatives had realised the potency of a hardline anti-secessionist stance in Scotland – remaining Scotland’s second-largest party throughout this period – and were incentivised to maintain that position.

Through successive election cycles dominated by the constitutional question, the electorate polarised into pro- and anti-secession camps, neither large enough to break the stalemate by establishing substantial majority support for or opposition to secession. The SNP and the Conservatives became locked into electoral co-dependence, reliant on their respective constitutional positioning to maintain popular support. This was not a situation that could persist indefinitely.


Throughout the 2010s, the SNP came to dominate Scottish politics thanks to three factors: perceptions that the party provided competent government; desire to have a strong bulwark against the Conservative UK Government in London, and polarisation on the question of Scottish secession. Since 2022, each of these have unravelled.

Firstly, the party is no longer considered to be substantively more competent than the alternatives. A More In Common poll conducted shortly after the general election was called found that 43% of those who voted SNP in the 2019 general election believe that had Labour been in government in Scotland since 2007, they would have done as well as or better than the SNP.

In addition to evaluations of the SNP’s performance in government, this perception may also have been shaped by the SNP’s ongoing leadership crisis beginning with Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation in February 2023, followed by the arrest of several leadership figures including Ms Sturgeon as part of Operation Branchform, and by the collapse of the SNP’s power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens, precipitating Humza Yousaf’s resignation as First Minister in April.

Secondly, in the aftermath of Liz Truss’s premiership, the Conservatives have become politically toxic across most of Great Britain, not just Scotland. There is very little prospect of a Conservative government after July 4th, and many secessionist voters do not perceive a Labour UK government as a threat in the way they perceive the Conservative government.

Most importantly, given the continued refusal by the UK Government to grant a secessionist referendum and following the UK Supreme Court’s decision that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold an advisory referendum on its own, the causal link between support for Scottish secession and support for the SNP has largely been broken. The salience of secessionism has declined, and the structural relationships that ensured SNP-Conservative electoral co-dependence have shattered.

The Labour Party has naturally been the major beneficiary of these shifts, gaining voters from both the SNP and the Conservatives. The SNP’s political strategy has been deprived of its key pillars, and while the polls remain close, their 26.4 point lead over Labour at the 2019 general election has been replaced by a Labour lead of around six points over the past month.

The campaign remains to be played out, and the SNP may manage – as they did throughout the 2000s and 2010s – to innovate a new set of narratives to combat their decline and Labour’s resurgence. But time is short, the roots of that decline run deep, and the broader political environment is unlikely to shift in a way that aids an SNP recovery.