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As the salience of independence decreases so too does the relevance of the SNP in this election

John Swinney launched the SNP's manifesto in Edinburgh on Wednesday | Alamy

As the salience of independence decreases so too does the relevance of the SNP in this election

Two years ago, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP would treat this next general election as a de facto referendum. The SNP would campaign on the single issue of independence. Winning over 50 per cent of the vote would constitute a mandate to start negotiations for independence.

It was classic Sturgeon – a bold pronouncement designed to grab headlines but with little thought to implementation.

The Sturgeon approach resembles the Brexit Leave campaign with bold promises, blaming ills on decisions made elsewhere, while evading challenging issues arising from her prospectus. Closing the educational attainment gap was her “defining mission” as first minister. Scotland would have the “most ambitious legal framework for emissions reduction in the world”, she insisted. Pensions in an independent Scotland would rise to the average European level. These and many more were all slogans fit for the side of a double decker bus.

That legacy has overshadowed her successors.

Seven months ago, Yousaf and SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn amended Sturgeon’s policy. Independence would still be the key issue in this election; page one, line one of the SNP manifesto would state “Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country”. This would be, it claimed, a “simple and powerful statement”.

As journalist Peter Smith put it to Swinney, it could just as well state “vote SNP for Scotland to win the Euros”.

If the SNP “wins a majority of the seats at the general election in Scotland”, they insisted then the Scottish Government would be “empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. It remains unclear what is meant by giving democratic effect – another referendum, the devolution of power to hold a referendum, or to start negotiations on independence?

The policy committed the SNP to include “Independence for Scotland” or similar words in the party’s name and logo on the ballot papers, “to make it clear beyond doubt what’s at stake at this election”.

These commitments to prioritise independence have been watered down further under John Swinney. He failed to mention independence in his opening statement in the first Scottish leaders debate in this election, preferring the ambiguous demand that decisions should be “made in Scotland, for Scotland”. This formulation is a variation of “Scottish control of Scottish affairs” which has been used for a century to refer to everything from extending the powers of the old Scottish Office to supporting a devolved Scottish Parliament and independence.

He has also talked about negotiating more powers for Holyrood with a Starmer Government after the election. The manifesto refers to “devolution of new borrowing powers”, the “full devolution” of tax powers, the “devolution of National Insurance” and of windfall taxation. This reads more like a version of full fiscal autonomy than independence.

It calls for powers over energy regulation, pricing and production as well as over the planning system, over immigration and social security. But alongside this are many references to independence. It makes sense to keep all options open but this is cakeism, a manifesto designed by someone who has attended the Boris Johnson school of political campaigning.

But few people read manifestos. The ballot paper does not look likely to include “independence” – though the Electoral Commission gave permission for this change – and that will be seen by all voters.

At the manifesto launch, Swinney described the SNP as a “moderate left of centre of party”, resurrecting a description first made in 1981 by Gordon Wilson, Swinney’s political mentor from his early days in politics. Then, as now, the SNP leader’s task was focused inwards seeking to unite a divided party. Swinney’s claim that the SNP is the most left-wing party is not based on the performance of the SNP in office in Edinburgh but a mixture of populist performative politics and demands that SNP MPs will make on a Labour Government at Westminster. This is all designed to appeal to voters who do not see independence as an end in itself but as a means of removing Tory rule. But a claim to be on the left lacks credibility from a party that has frozen the council tax and from a politician who leans slightly to the right.

SNP MPs will present a Keep the NHS in Public Hands Bill to rule out privatisation and call on the next UK Government to increase NHS spending in England by at least £10bn annually so that Scotland receives a share of additional funding through the Barnett formula. Swinney was finance secretary and in charge of negotiations on more fiscal powers for Holyrood a decade ago. Providing more money for the Scottish NHS is within his gift but instead he wants England to lean to the left to allow the SNP to appear progressive.

The problem the SNP faces in this election is that the wave of support that rose out of the 2014 independence referendum is receding. The SNP has been unable to build on that major increase in support and the exceptionally favourable circumstances for the nationalist cause afforded by the calamitous premierships in the last decade in British politics. Swinney’s task is now one of damage limitation.

John Swinney inherited unrealistic expectations from his predecessors. This made writing the SNP manifesto challenging. Independence might be on the first page but there is little prospect of the SNP coming close to Sturgeon’s 50 per cent target and it is likely to miss Yousaf’s target of the SNP winning a majority of seats.

The manifesto offers a wish list of new powers for Holyrood but little reason why Westminster should pay attention. As the salience of independence decreases so too does the relevance of the SNP in this election and nothing in the manifesto comes close to addressing this problem.

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