‘NOBODY mention 2017” has become an unwritten rule of British politics. The explanation isn’t com-plicated: 2017 was a General Election which – for very different reasons – all our political parties now feel uncomfortable remembering, given its compromises, its setbacks and the challenges it posed to all the main players’ understandings of their appeal and their support.

In the bright light of morning, the winners felt – and looked – like losers. But the losers lost in a way which it is now inconvenient for the survivors to remember, sitting uncomfortably alongside the stories they now tell themselves about themselves. Almost everybody lost something on election night.

This week – after the SNP’s defeat in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, with the party’s Aberdeen conference in the offing, and all kinds of advice and recriminations flying around about how the SNP should respond in the upcoming General Election – the experiences of 2017 seem worth remembering.

Having done their devil’s deal with the Tories in 2010, the LibDems lost 49 of their seats in 2015. But the Conservatives managed to add 24 to their tally – securing the party’s first majority for 23 years.

And 2015 had also been a good year for the SNP, in a sense – 45% wasn’t enough to win an independence referendum but it was more than sufficient to run the table under the electoral distortions first-past-the-post generates. The SNP’s token delegation of six MPs in Westminster suddenly swelled to 50, sweeping aside the Labour MPs who’d been doing the Slosh in the Marriot Hotel on results night, still unconscious that their referendum win was going to cost them their seats.

But having just lost an independence referendum, it was altogether less clear what this big SNP Westminster delegation could achieve, particularly in a parliament dominated by a Tory majority, where the opposition is largely powerless and the ability to whip government MPs through the voting lobbies in numbers is the only important restriction on what the UK Government can and can’t get away with.

Before devolution, the SNP used to dub Scottish Labour MPs “the Feeble Fifty”. Beneath the sense of displaced jubilation, this historical jibe ought to have prompted reflection on what this new, necessarily feeble fifty were supposed to achieve having annexed the LibDems’ old corner of the Commons.

Just two years after Cameron won his coveted majority and used it to legislate for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Theresa May’s audacious gambit blew up in her face. It would also cause significant collateral damage to the nationalists, now much more firmly entangled in the difficulties of progressing Scottish independence in a hostile parliament.

Hoping for a thumping win to give her a workable majority for her Brexit deal within her own fractious party, May went to the people early. The plan was to “crush the saboteurs” – language which ought to give the lie to May’s attempts to rehabilitate herself as some kind of voice of reason inside the increasingly deranged Conservative Party.

When the polls closed in 2017 and the ballots were counted, it wasn’t the saboteurs who were crushed – but May’s inherited majority. The Tory vote actually increased on 2010 – weighing in at 13,636,684 compared to 11,299,609 in 2010 – but this wasn’t enough to keep Cameron’s slender win intact. May’s remaining time in No 10 was a spray of sprockets and springs.

If 2017 conjures up unhappy memories for Conservatives then it is an even more triggering political event for anti-Corbyn members of the Labour Party. The story we’re now invited to swallow is that Labour’s fortunes lurched from disaster to disaster until the Labour right took back charge of the party after 2020, crushing what Keir Starmer and his allies seem to regard as left saboteurs in their own party having won the leadership on false promises of policy continuity.

But 2017 showed the electoral record isn’t quite so straightforward. Corbyn won more votes in 2017 than Gordon Brown did in 2010, or Blair in 2005 and 2001. The “things can only get better” landslide in 1997 alone recorded a higher popular vote.

Anas Sarwar described his party’s poor performance in the 2021 Holyrood election as the best result the party had achieved in years – scrubbing out the successes of 2017 amid the authorised version that the Corbyn experiment must be understood as an unmitigated failure from start to finish. So for Labour, 2017 has been shoved down the memory hole too, including the fact that the party won Rutherglen and Hamilton West that year – holding on to it until 2019.

The year 2017 was also difficult for the SNP. Just two years in, they lost 21 of the seats gained in the post-referendum wave, prompting a round of anxiety about how far to foreground the independence question in the party’s rhetoric.

Psychologically, I think the SNP and the broader community of independence supporters may now – finally – be fully experiencing the return of the repressed political failures of 2014. As Dr Freud says, we can repress facts we find uncongenial, shoving them into the shadows and putting them at the back of our minds. But the repressed has a sturdy and disturbing tendency to reappear eventually. We’ve now reached the stage of “eventually” – with knobs on. And it isn’t pretty.

Instead of understanding the SNP’s current predicament as a tragedy of circumstances, critics and commentators want to make it a tragedy of character – suggesting that all the practical challenges of having tried and failed in 2014 would disappear if only there was personnel change, drafting truer believers and encouraging more unicorn-chasing all round.

THIS kind of recrimination has a real toxicity to it – pretending there are easy solutions where none are to be found, criticising people’s motives and convictions as if all the practical challenges would suddenly fall away if the right people were put in charge. Spoilers: they won’t. Old timers who left their fingerprints all over the failed 2014 campaign might try learning a little modesty.

We aren’t short of bold prognostications about what the SNP should and shouldn’t do this weekend. But whether you want the SNP to do well electorally or hope they’re swept into the sea at the next General Election, it isn’t special pleading to point out that this by-election took place in a peculiar context which we do our analysis a disservice by ignoring. Wondering how generalisable Thursday night’s outcome was isn’t whataboutery – whether you’re a Labour strategist or an SNP spinner.

I’ve more confidence in the relevant questions than the political answers this weekend. So far, Humza Yousaf has not been a lucky general. Sturgeon’s resignation hit the SNP’s polling hard. The leadership campaign was unedifying and uninspiring. Subsequent arrests – still unresolved – left a prevailing gloom which hasn’t cleared.

Ferrier didn’t go quietly. To pry her free from the seat, it was necessary to mobilise a significant volume of support. For the SNP, the upcoming General Election won’t wear this shadow.

The issue of tactical voting is also interesting. The Tory vote in Rutherglen shrunk to 3.9% – despite efforts from some curious sources to present the Conservative candidate as the salt-of-the-earth working-class representative the constituency was looking for. Do Tory Unionists now hate the SNP sufficiently to vote for anyone in a position to beat them?

If I’m a Conservative sympathiser in a marginal seat, in a General Election pitting Labour against an ailing but incumbent Tory government at UK level, am I likely to prioritise my animus towards the SNP over my reluctance to elect another Labour MP? If not, then what?

Michael Shanks won the by-election for Labour by running a mile from Starmer’s policy triangulations. Will this work for Scottish Labour in a General Election, or can Sarwar be optimistic the punters will ignore the legislative detail and feel the vibes of change?

Between 2007 and 2015, the Scottish electorate showed a striking willingness to split their ballots, returning nationalists to government in Edinburgh while trying to make a contribution to keeping the Tories out at Westminster. Are we about to witness the return of similar impulses? For all of his noises off on anything and everything which is now happening in his former party, Alex Salmond never managed to crack the SNP’s Westminster strategy before 2015. Ironically, it looks like Humza Yousaf may be likely to inherit Salmond’s predicament.

There remain opportunities for a modern answer to this question. British politics is living under a low sky right now. There is a palpable enthusiasm gap in British public life. Bad temper feels general. It isn’t just the weather which is frustrated and glum. Peer up at the heavens – there still isn’t much in the way of hope or change breaking through the clouds.