Scotland's elections and the independence movement

By Ben Wellings
Head of Politics and International Relations, Monash University

Supporters of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom will be buoyed by the results of elections to the Scottish Parliament on May 6.

The secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP) won a fourth consecutive term in government, whilst falling sort of an outright majority by one seat, on a turnout of 63%. The SNP gained 64 seats in the 129-seat parliament (a slight improvement on the previous election in 2016) and 48 % of the vote.

The anti-independence Scottish Conservatives came in second, with 31 seats. The anti-independence Scottish Labour party came third with 24 seats, with the pro-independence Greens in fourth with 8 seats and the anti-independence LibDems on four.

Using a mixed member constituency and list system, the elections returned Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in numbers roughly proportional to votes. It also ensured that there was no outright winner although, unusually, the SNP managed this in 2011.

What this means for the independence movement

Although falling one seat short of an outright majority, supporters of independence have reason to feel cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the elections.

Since the 1990s, the SNP has positioned itself to the left-of-centre in Scottish and British politics. This means that secessionism has support in quarters of the political community that might surprise Australian observers. The centre-left of Scottish politics is nationalist.

It is for this reason that the SNP is able to form a workable majority with the Scottish Greens. With the Greens’ 8 seats added to the SNP’s 64 there is a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament. This will help any enabling legislation for an independence referendum (whatever its legality) pass a parliamentary vote.

Part of this leftward shift has come at the expense of Scottish Labour. Long dominant at the national and local levels, the effort of keeping Scotland in the UK in 2014 exhausted Labour in Scotland. Its vote and seat share collapsed the following year and has not recovered.

Some ground has been made by the Conservatives in Scotland since 2017. Mobilising the pro-UK vote, the Conservatives champion the cause of a United Kingdom, putting the party in a straight contest with the SNP.

Scottish politics is once again turning on the question of independence.

Implications for the United Kingdom

What happens in Scotland matters for the rest of the United Kingdom. In 2014, underestimating the swing to the independence during the referendum campaign, the UK government under David Cameron agreed to abide by the results of the referendum.

This time around, Boris Johnson is not being so accommodating. The post-2019 Conservatives at Westminster have been described as ‘hyper-Unionist’, meaning that English Conservative MPs are rhetorically more pro-British than ever despite the party’s weakness in Scotland and Wales.

Having surrendered Northern Ireland to the greater goal of a hard Brexit for England, Johnson and his party have no intention of letting Scotland go. In this he has the law on his side. The Scotland Act (1998) reserves the right to decide on constitutional matters to Westminster. A Catalan-style stand-off might result as the SNP pushes its secessionist goal forward.

However, a black letter reading of the law may play into the secessionists’ hands: one thing sure to increase support for independence in Scotland is Scots being told by Boris Johnson that they can’t vote on independence.

 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson smiles while standing in front of a body of water
Boris Johnson has no intention of letting Scotland go. Pic: Number 10/Flickr

Furthermore, the politics of Brexit has reconfigured the pro-independence vote in a small but significant way. Back in 2014, one of the arguments for remaining in the UK was that this ensured continued membership of the European Union. This is no longer the case. People who voted to remain in the UK in 2014 and to remain in the EU in 2016 must now consider voting for Scotland to leave the UK in order to re-join the EU in years to come.

But it is not going to be easy for the secessionists. The proportion of people voting for pro-independence parties and pro-Union parties was finely-balanced ahead of the elections at 49% for independence and 51% for remaining in the UK. The rise in support for independence registered in polling, has galvanised the pro-UK sections of the Scottish electorate.

Most of the pro-UK Conservatives’ constituency seats are on the border with England. This support needs to be offset against weakening support amongst fishers in the north-east who feel let down by the fisheries element of the post-Brexit UK-EU free trade agreement.

What's likely to happen next

Nicola Sturgeon’s plan is to bring about a second referendum on Scottish independence once Scotland is clear of the pandemic: provisionally in 2023. Her opponents in Scotland and at Westminster will remind her that she campaigned back in 2014 on the basis that this was a once in a generation opportunity that Scots should not miss.

Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks at a lectern reading 'stay local
Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party won 64 seats in the 2021 elections. Pic: Scottish Government/Flickr

She will reply that Brexit has changed Scotland’s material situation and that Scotland’s unwilling withdrawal from the EU – dragged down in England’s undertow – necessitates a fresh mandate on Scotland’s voluntary union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. She’ll also point to the democratic mandate for independence in the new parliament.

One thing we know from 2014 is that the campaign mattered. Starting from a respectable but modest 25-33% support for independence, by polling day this figure had risen to 45%. If the secessionists start from 49% this time round then it is all to play for. If Scots do vote to leave the EU, Brexit suggests the negotiation phase will be protracted and complex and that voters will feel invested in the outcome. Interestingly, Scottish secessionists may have apathetic support from grassroots English Conservatives, who appeared to have given up on the Union some years ago. The UK government’s British rhetoric may ring hollow as the independence debate heats up.

So, prepare for more Brexit-style contestation over the boundaries of political communities and the loyalties that sustain and legitimise the United Kingdom and its internal borders.

Ben Wellings is head of Politics and International Relations at Monash University in Melbourne and director of the Monash Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree.

Banner image: Lawrence OP/Flickr


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