Scotland divided over independence, united over EU


Picture of Duncan Ross
Duncan Ross

Duncan Ross is Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow

On 5th May, the Scottish National Party won an overwhelming victory in the elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament. The SNP received more than 46% of the vote, returned 63 MSPs to the parliament of 129 seats, and delivered a powerful personal mandate to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who had replaced Alex Salmond after the independence referendum of September 2014. Despite increasing both the vote share and number of constituency victories, the party was unable to replicate the overall majority of 67 achieved in 2011. The Conservative Party – long considered the whipping boys of Scottish politics – gained 22% of the vote, 31 MSPs (up from 15) and, in an outcome that had people rubbing their eyes in disbelief, comfortably replaced Labour (down from 37 to 24 seats) as the second party.

After nine years in power, the SNP is now the most popular government in western Europe. Yet it fell just short of an overall majority in an additional-member electoral system specifically designed to prevent such an outcome. An overall majority in 2011, a narrow miss in the referendum of 2014, and the truly remarkable performance winning 56 of 59 seats in the Westminster election of 2015 have created a political narrative of SNP hegemony that commentators sometimes forget has to be maintained vote-by-vote, election-by-election.

This was not a great Conservative surge but a reallocation of unionist votes from Labour

The Conservative Party’s relative success – partly because it was unexpected, and partly because of what it reveals about politics in modern Scotland – is in some ways more interesting. Reviled since the days of Margaret Thatcher, and with only rump representation in either Westminster or Holyrood since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Conservatives fought a campaign of energy and photo opportunities focused on its charismatic, young, female leader, and designed explicitly to become the main opposition in the Scottish Parliament. In this, it succeeded spectacularly, handing the tag of toxicity to the once all-powerful Labour Party. The question is how?

The key explanation is that politics in Scotland is no longer organised on a left-right spectrum. Where candidates or parties sit on the independence/unionist question is what matters now. This is precisely what the Labour Party spent most of the campaign arguing against. Their mantra was that we had to move beyond constitutional politics and focus on the economic and social issues that make a difference in people’s lives – health, education, taxation, etc. The problem was that the electorate either didn’t agree with that analysis or, if they did, couldn’t see what the Labour Party had to offer in those policy areas. Unable to articulate a coherent sense of what they stood for, Labour was left looking divided, bereft of ideas and devoid of ambition.

If voters wanted more powers, or independence, or even if they just liked the government, they voted SNP. If they didn’t want independence, or they wanted an alternative set of policies developed at Holyrood, they voted Conservative. The conclusion has to be that this was not a great Conservative surge but a reallocation of unionist votes from Labour to the party that offered the most convincing and coherent challenge to the SNP. Two other elements helped; first, the Conservatives in Scotland are united in a pro-European position and, second, there is no credible challenge from UKIP, whose leader in Scotland, David Coburn, is a risible buffoon, who admitted during the election campaign to making things up to attract attention.

What does all this mean for the Scottish Parliament? The SNP has a substantial mandate to implement their manifesto, and will seek to do so as a minority government. The Conservatives, with many new faces and a fresh sense of relevance, have a mandate to act as a vigorous opposition. The Labour Party needs to continue its now decade-long search for a convincing political narrative that reaches beyond its declining core support.

Scottish votes to remain in the EU might overcome any slight majority south of the border

Does this mean anything for the EU referendum that will take place at the end of June? The polls indicate that around 70% of Scots, sometimes more, will vote to remain in the EU. The debate is largely taking place within the Conservative Party in the south of England, and has had little northward resonance so far. Our own recent experience of a referendum has shown clearly that people want something to vote for: a principled, clear and positive case. Neither side in England has yet offered such a case, but it may yet emerge – in Scotland, perhaps led by the SNP.

As for the constitutional position of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has consistently argued that there will be no second independence referendum unless there is a material change in circumstances. Scotland voting to remain in the EU, while the rest of the UK votes to leave, is widely understood to be just such a material change. Alternatively, the prospect that Scottish votes to remain in the EU might overcome any slight majority south of the border to leave is a tantalising one. If that were to happen, would it be the English who then demanded an independence referendum?

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