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View from the Street: The bogeyman next door has gone. What will the SNP do now?

Tom Gillingham

Partner

We’re now a week into a promised new era for Scotland-UK relations, with warm words and platitudes in plentiful supply as two governments size each other up from opposite sides of the Tweed.  

If 14 years of hostility between the Conservatives at Westminster and the SNP at Holyrood was defined by tedious mandate measuring, are there any early signs that the relationship between Labour and the SNP will be any different?  

So far, it seems to have been a competition of who can be the most conciliatory. Keir Starmer advocated a “different way of doing politics” as he toured the nations of the UK and John Swinney extolled their “common ground”, while SNP sources breathlessly played up the fact that they’re both just normal men.  

It’s unfamiliar territory. The SNP used to draw energy from the helpfully delinquent Tories next door to deliver success at the ballot box. But – as this election result proved – voters didn’t buy the nationalists’ contention that Starmer’s lot are just more of the same. Not yet, at least.  

If these new neighbours do prove to be as different as the electorate seems to hope, SNP policymaking may start to reflect an unfamiliar need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in a way that simply wasn’t deemed necessary with the Conservatives. 

If it doesn’t, it should.  

Labour’s general election campaign – criticised in some quarters for lacking detail and ambition – notably had lots to say on the NHS, education, planning and policing. All of these policy areas are devolved to Holyrood, so something has to give.  

A chastened SNP could rebuild its strength for the 2026 Holyrood election by carefully poaching the best new ideas implemented by an energetic new Labour government, differentiating pragmatically only where there is clear cause to, rather than by default.  

After years of the SNP comparing Scotland favourably against perceived Tory failings in England, any turnaround in fortunes or funding under Labour could be problematic in what is a small UK neighbourhood.  

Peering over the fence, what might the SNP see if Labour delivers on its promise to reboot the planning system in England?  

They might witness a house rapidly spawning new-build siblings and overhear much crowing about the fact that any day now, honestly, everything will be powered by community-owned, toolmaker-approved and GB Energy-branded small modular nuclear reactors. 

Of course, the SNP can return to its trusted playbook in the face of scenarios like this. It could fire up the old grievance machine and fixate on the things it definitely doesn’t have a taste for, like nuclear energy. Or it could focus on the good bits and shamelessly rip-off successful policies from south of the border. 

If there is a marked improvement in the planning system down south, this is a fundamental threat to investment in Scotland if the devolved equivalent doesn’t follow suit. 

It’s no surprise then, that the Scottish housing minister was quick to offer warm words for his opposite number on the UK government’s housebuilding plans. However, there will come a point when this is not enough. 

That political reality is by no means limited to planning matters. If Labour scores some quick wins and makes substantive progress in tricky areas like NHS reform, education or policing in England, pressure will increase further on a Scottish government whose ability to deliver change is already under intense scrutiny.  

Of course, we’re in a honeymoon period for the new UK government and the monumental challenges ahead for Labour are well-known. Nonetheless, for a still weary electorate, any small signs of progress might receive outsized attention and plaudits.    

Devolution draws fairly stark lines of responsibility, so meaningful degrees of difference won’t disappear, but the awkward truth for the erstwhile mandate measurers is that 71% of people agreed that “better cooperation between the Scottish and UK governments would be good for Scotland”. 

Whether it results from neighbourly co-operation or healthier competition, Scotland could yet benefit if the era of policy differences at any cost makes way for something more imaginative.