In this guest post, former Lib Dem councillor and parliamentary candidate Devin Scobie offers his personal view on why the 2024 General Election just might be a little different for Scottish and UK politics.

Like waiting for Christmas, this election has been coming, and coming, for what seems like an eternity.  

Next month’s election will be the first in many years when independence will not be the dominant policy issue.  Yes, the SNP will huff and puff and try and make it so. But a decade on from the referendum that rejected it, the SNP have a bucketload of internal challenges – and possibly even their own survival – to really put enough believable energy into flogging the weary separation donkey yet again.  The SNP remains bitterly divided, and has now had as many First Ministers as the Tories have had PMs since 2019. And the spectre of Alex Salmond with his ALBA indy renegades will continue to make much noise before almost certainly losing their two SNP defector seats to Labour.

It is now 27 years since the last Labour landslide which kicked the Tories out of office – back in 1997 – and every serious opinion poll for many months has been weighing the likely size of Sir Keir Starmer’s majority.  Certainly, the mood at his party’s Scottish conference (where Starmer’s 35-minute guest appearance irritated the media and faithful alike) felt like a weekend long lesson on walking on the very thinnest of ice.  Veteran MSP Dame Jackie Baillie stopped short of saying senior Labour figures had been gagged against talking about policy announcements – but it was clear that caution was the name of the game.

Scotland loses a couple of seats due to boundary changes, and these will impact a handful of highly marginal notionally SNP held seats.  SNP leader John Swinney was elected unopposed as a safe leadership option, but his lacklustre previous term as leader in the early 2000s will haunt him.  His party, of course, won all but three seats back in in 2015, thrusting a small, separatist, left wing party into the spotlight as the third-largest UK party.  It retained that privileged position until the dissolution of the current parliament on 30 May but now looks set to lose it back to the Lib Dems who are very optimistic about a massive increase on the 11 seats won last time round (plus 4 more via by-elections). That, in turn, would hurt the SNP financially as well as psychologically, as its opposition party ‘short money’ would be cut significantly. Stephen Flynn’s future as Westminster leader – assuming he retains his Aberdeen South seat with a majority under 4000 – could be in doubt. 

Returning to the Lib Dems, the UK party is likely to end up with 35-50 seats – possibly even more than the high-water level of 54 under Charles Kennedy. This assumes they will hold their four existing Scottish seats and pick up Mid Dunbartonshire, the slightly changed seat lost in 2019 by then leader Jo Swinson.  Keep an eye on Kennedy’s old seat covering Skye and much of the Western Highlands.  With SNP incumbent Ian Blackford retiring, well-heeled local businessman Angus Macdonald has invested heavily in regaining this totemic northern seat for the LDs.

UK polls will ebb and flow but the key question hanging over this election in Scotland is just how many SNP seats Labour picks up – and all their gains will be from the SNP. One SNP MSP has predicted Labour would ‘sweep up’ every Glasgow seat, with the possible exception of the popular Stewart MacDonald (just) hanging on in Glasgow South. That means the SNP losing heavy hitters like Alison Thewliss and David Linden. Labour is unlikely to need two dozen Scottish novices to ensure the keys to Number 10, but a few new faces like Dr Zubir Ahmed, ex MSP Patricia Ferguson and especially ex Cabinet Minister Douglas Alexander in East Lothian will make sure Scottish voices are heard.

The Tories are defending six seats, discounting the bonus ball gained from an SNP defector (Lisa Cameron) who is standing down.  They are in something of a reverse popularity contest with the SNP who are the main challenger in all of their seats.  With a few exceptions, Scottish Tories tend not to be as ‘right wing’ as their London counterparts and there is a good chance they will hold at least four of their seats – and potentially even pick up a couple.  Keep an eye on Ochil and South Perthshire where the SNP incumbent John Nicholson faces popular ex Tory MP Luke Graham.  Given how long we’ve waited for this election, what on earth will we talk about after 5 July?

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