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How Scotland saved Theresa May


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Nothing has been stranger in this bizarre election than what has happened in Scotland. As shades of red, blue and orange burst through the previously yellow covering of the country, it is clear that the issue of independence is still deciding how votes are cast north of the border.

Britain's vote to leave the European Union 12 months ago forced First Minister Nicola Sturgeon into formally calling for a second independence referendum in March of this year, but she was quickly slapped down by Prime Minister Theresa May, who rather condescendingly told her and the country that 'now was not the time’ for a second plebiscite.

The Prime Minister had at that moment yet to announce her intention to hold a snap general election, one that has not only rebounded on her personally, but has profoundly shaken the fortunes of both the Tories and SNP. They have both ‘won’ this election, and yet have both lost in many other ways.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party took 35 of the 59 seats in Scotland, losing 21 from 2015. Back then, the country was still living in the aftermath of the first independence vote, and the vast majority of the million and a half voters who supported breaking free of the union went straight to voting SNP. The two million who were against succession fractured across several different parties, giving the nationalists a clean sweep.

This time, the unionist parties have been much more organised, with each of them focusing on where their vote is strongest: The Tories in the Borders and the East Coast, Labour in the Central Belt, and the Liberal Democrats in the affluent suburbs and Highland strongholds. They all did extremely well, and all at the expense of the SNP, who have seen their vote drop by a whopping ten percentage points.

The clear figurative, if not statistical, winner of the night is Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, who has turned the party’s long dismal Scottish record on its head, booting out SNP titans Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson in the process (Mhairi Black hung on in Paisley and Renfrewshire South).

The bullish Davidson was always more comfortable in Cameron’s Conservatives than in May’s, but with her clear message – no to a second independence vote – she scooped up the unionist vote with considerable panache. Astonishingly, Scottish Tories have now saved the bacon of a British Prime Minister, who wouldn’t be back in Downing Street today were it not for those vital extra Caledonian seats.

Scottish Labour's success seems to be down to Jeremy Corbyn and not the beleaguered Scots party, which with its hapless leader Kezia Dugdale, still struggles to find a voice north of the border. It seems many independence voters decided to back Corbyn this time, with Nicola Sturgeon herself admitting as much at a press conference on Friday lunchtime.

The First Minister went on to chastise what she called Tory 'recklessness and arrogance' in calling this election, but seemed more defensive when asked about another independence referendum.

Sturgeon's plan for a second vote has not been shelved, exactly, but it has certainly been complicated. The emboldened unionist parties can now reasonably claim that the country has told the SNP to ‘get back to the day job’ of governing the country.

Sturgeon herself is surely aware of the growing electoral fatigue on the part of the electorate, and how patience with the SNP is waning in the country, even if support for independence remains strong.

Finally, there is the national picture – the spectre of a Tory government voting through a hard Brexit with a stonking great Commons majority has been banished, which further diminishes the case for a second independence vote.

Theresa May had an absolutely horrific night, but she can at least reflect on the triumph in Scotland, for so long a toxic place for her party, and the fact that, for now at least, the union between the nations is a little more, how should we say, strong and stable?

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