With first minister Nicola Sturgeon returned to power in a resounding election win this weekend, a second Scottish independence referendum is all but inevitable, writes former Glaswegian (and current Scottish politics nerd) Sarah Paterson-Hamlin.
Glasgow isn’t renowned for its hot summers, but 2014 was a scorcher. Knocking doors and speaking to people about the upcoming independence referendum was a sweaty business, the dust of tenement stairs building up on our skin in layers; we were desperate for the reward of a cool shower by the evening. In pubs, homes, streets, and schools that summer, arguments for and against Scottish independence were everywhere. The tone was impressively civil, rarely spilling into aggression. By the end, I felt confident on solo door-knocking trips around what was once a famously violent city to ask people what they thought of Scotland’s future.
The topics of debate covered everything: education, health, finances, culture, immigration, the EU and, of course, the nation’s black gold: North Sea oil. The pro-independence (“Yes”) side were spearheaded by the Scottish National Party (SNP), the centre-left, pro-immigration, pro-EU party, in a loose coalition with the Scottish Greens. The “Better Together” or pro-Union (“No”) side, were led by Alastair Darling, the former Labour MP who had been Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer during the Global Financial Crisis. In a moment of rare unity, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all threw their weight behind the campaign for Scotland to remain a part of Great Britain, governed from Westminster.
Both sides were accused of using fear tactics. The No campaign threatened financial ruin for Scotland: businesses leaving for London en masse, the oil money drying up with no Plan B, and not being able to regain membership of the EU. The Yes volunteers were instructed to remain positive, but the arguments we made on those doorsteps and at street stalls sometimes strayed from that noble goal. “Scotland hasn’t voted Tory in decades yet continues to be governed by Tory governments – do you want that to continue?” “There are more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo than Tory MPs elected in Scotland, yet we could end up with someone like Boris Johnson as our prime minister.” “Scotland could be taken out of the EU against its will if we stay in the UK.” Those last two arguments seemed like little more than fear-mongering at the time. How wrong we were.
Of course, for the Yes side, it was not to be. We came a lot nearer than once seemed possible, though: in the two years leading up to the referendum, the pro-independence side had managed to increase its support from around 35% to its final result of 45%. It was a clear loss, but a result that came remarkably close to concluding the existence of that strange patchwork entity called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In the years since, many of the predictions even we in the Yes campaign didn’t really believe have come to pass. Britain has left the EU following a referendum in which 62% of Scots voted to remain, with a majority in every single council area. The governing party of the UK continues to be the Conservatives, who won only 25% of the votes in Scotland in the 2019 general election (the same percentage National won from New Zealanders in 2020). The threats to the beloved NHS remain a top concern, the pandemic highlighting several worrying instances of health “privatisation by stealth”.
So where does that leave us this weekend? As I write, the results of Scotland’s parliamentary election are all but confirmed, along with those of the Welsh Senedd and various local councils and mayoralties throughout the UK. The Scottish parliament operates in a very similar way to New Zealand’s, with proportional representation deciding who the 129 members of the Scottish parliament will be. These are referred to as MSPs which leads to the fun of having SNP MSPs, not to be confused with the SNP MPs who go to Westminster. The main difference, of course, is that Scotland’s parliament is devolved from Westminster, and is therefore only able to govern over certain areas. London is still where decisions regarding foreign policy, currency, immigration, nuclear policy are made, as well as more fun things like film classification and xenotransplantation. Some of these, like weights and measures, are pretty hard to care about, but others such as emergency powers have become painfully significant in recent months.
This weekend’s results show a clear win for the SNP, which has gained 64 of the 129 seats. This leaves it just one short of a majority, more than double any other party. That the SNP has won is not surprising. Its success can partially be linked to that of the Conservatives south of the border this week, in that a catastrophic failure of the British Labour Party to resonate with its traditional base has sent voters to alternative parties in droves. It also speaks to the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, her record as first minister of Scotland since 2014, and her handling of the pandemic. While net confidence in Boris Johnson’s ability to address Covid-19 has gone down by 30%, confidence in Sturgeon’s ability has increased by 14%, making her the UK’s most trusted leader. Her calm and measured press conferences during the past year have stood out in contrast to those of the bumbling and gaffe-prone .Johnson. Sturgeon’s conferences also garnered accusations that she was using the crisis to her political advantage, however, and of attempting to become a Jacinda Ardern carbon copy.
So it is not the SNP’s victory itself but the convincing nature of it which is worth highlighting. In the context of Scottish elections, this is the first time that a party has won a fourth consecutive term, the highest ever share of votes, and the highest number of votes full stop, due to an unexpectedly high turnout. New Zealand has had an MMP system for longer than the Scots – just – and last year was our first experience of that thing that isn’t really supposed to happen with proportional representation, a majority government. Last time that happened in Scotland was 2011 when the SNP won 69 seats, and it was that which led to the independence referendum of 2014. This time, the SNP have fallen tantalisingly short of the 65 seats required to pull off the implausible once again. But hold onto your haggis, because the Scottish Greens have been breaking records of their own, winning their highest-ever total of 8 seats. The Greens and the SNP’s loose alliance in 2014 against that of the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats continues, meaning that the pro-independence parties currently comfortably outweigh the Unionist ones in the Scottish parliament.
For New Zealanders, there’s something very familiar about the SNP’s unlikely creation of a progressive majority government enabled by the popularity of a female leader’s visibly competent handling of the pandemic. Pro-independence Scots have long pointed to New Zealand as an example of what an independent nation-state of around 5 million can look like, and Sturgeon has leaned on this particularly heavily in the Ardern era. The two leaders share much in their politics, leap-frogging each other to world firsts; calls for wellbeing to be considered alongside GDP, leading the charge on combating period poverty, and anti-hate speech legislation. Following our November election, Sturgeon tweeted that Ardern’s “words resonate and perhaps they hold a lesson for Scotland too”.
Congratulations on your resounding re-election @jacindaardern. In a fine victory speech, these words resonate and perhaps they hold a lesson for Scotland too –
“As a nation, we can listen, we can debate…we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective” https://t.co/F4XnWJ6tI0
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 17, 2020
Before the Scottish votes were tallied, professor Liam McIlvanney, Stuart chair of Scottish studies at the University of Otago, suggested that a resounding SNP win would be another watershed moment in the Scottish constitutional journey, all but forcing a second independence referendum to take place. Sturgeon has proven McIlvanney right, noting in her victory speech on Saturday that a second independence referendum – or IndyRef2, as it’s increasingly widely known – is now inevitable:
“The SNP and Scottish Greens both stood on a clear commitment to an independence referendum within the next parliamentary term…Given the outcome of this election, there is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future.”
Sturgeon is known for being a measured politician, accused by some of being too “feart” – afraid – and not pushing the independence agenda aggressively enough. So these words mean business. But despite having come through the same Eton-Oxford PM-training dojo as David Cameron, Boris Johnson is a very different leader. While Cameron seems to have approached constitutional referenda with the same cavalier “what could possibly go wrong” attitude that I eye a packet of Tim-Tams, Johnson has been sending very clear signals for months now that he will not be as easily swayed. As the election results emerged over the weekend, Johnson stated it would be “irresponsible and reckless” to hold a second Scottish independence referendum, claiming there had been “an eloquent testimonial during the pandemic to the power of the union”.
But could Boris stop this runaway train from crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct if he wanted to? Or are we going to be seeing some choice new slogans on buses in the near future? By far the best outcome, as far as the SNP is concerned, would be for Westminster to work with them on a new version of the Edinburgh Agreement which made the 2014 referendum binding. So far, the signals from Westminster are hardly “get out the tartan bunting” for that one. Sturgeon could do what the Catalonians did in 2017, and just go ahead and hold one anyway, but that would result in some very messy and protracted court proceedings if the result is a Yes for independence (92% of votes were for independence in the Catalonian equivalent and, spoiler alert, they are still part of Spain). Johnson has made it clear he wouldn’t agree to a Section 30 order, which would enable the transfer of power in the event of such a referendum. Likewise, Sturgeon made it clear that if her mandate was significant enough she would pass legislation in the Scottish Parliament for a referendum to take place without the necessary Section 30 order. Either one of them shifts, or a lot of law clerks are going to have to put together a lot of ring-binders.
After the weekend’s result, it seems that neither Sturgeon nor Johnson has a definitive upper hand here. Johnson must know that refusing to allow a referendum at this point will cost the Unionist cause, but the SNP has also been judged for calling 2014 a “once in a generation” opportunity before then continuing to push for a second chance within a decade. The UK public is referendum-weary, and who can blame them?
The 2021 Scottish election results are achingly close to decisive – but just not quite thorough enough to prevent Johnson wiggling out of it like my four year-old wiggles out of cleaning his teeth. Clearly, the gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK is widening into a chasm that even the patriotic dump truck of another Olympics-royal anniversary combo will struggle to fill. Westminster must acknowledge this and make the Union viable, or Hadrian’s Wall is going to have to be staffed again following the world’s longest smoko.
In terms of what this could mean for New Zealand’s relationship with Scotland/the UK/Great Britain/England/Wales/Ireland/Northern Ireland or whatever format they all end up in, the position of each after such a protracted period of constitutional kitten-herding will probably work to our advantage when it comes to trade negotiations. As discussed on The Spinoff’s Gone by Lunchtime podcast last week, the UK has demonstrated a staggering – if predictable – arrogance when it comes to post-Brexit trade deals, particularly with those colonised partners who suffered most when the UK joined the EEC in the first place. Perhaps an independent Scotland would show more humility towards the Commonwealth, but that’s pure speculation at this point. When it comes to Kiwis travelling, living, working, and studying on that sceptered isle (post-Covid of course), the electoral support of the SNP also speaks to a less isolationist and more immigrant-friendly attitude in general, in contrast to wider Britain’s famously draconian Home Office. The UK has made it gradually harder for New Zealanders to spend extended periods of time there, though reciprocal travel arrangements and working holiday visas remain comparatively generous. A Scotland-free UK might continue to reduce these options in contrast to a more xenophillic northern neighbour. Who knows, perhaps in future the legions of Australasian wait staff traditionally associated with London will flood the restaurants of Dundee, Milngavie, and Arbroath instead.
As with any election, there have been some firsts and some glorious moments, which is what I’ll leave you with before returning to my Irn Bru. In her own Glasgow Southside seat, Sturgeon faced down an extremist opponent, Jayda Fransen, calling Fransen a fascist and a racist, and confidently claiming that the voters would reject her.
Sturgeon comfortably kept her seat with over 19,000 votes, while Fransen managed 46. Glasgow Southside has certainly spoken. Meanwhile, on election day, the SNP’s Humza Yousaf was confronted by supporters of a fringe party giving Nazi salutes while wearing giant yellow stars they later claimed were “sheriff’s badges”, not symbols of the Holocaust. Members of all rival parties were united in their denunciation of the incident, with Yousaf noting it showed that “voices of good outweigh voices of hatred”. This was also the first election in Scotland where refugees and foreign nationals from outside the Commonwealth have been allowed to vote, making the outcome all the more significant. Labour list MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy is the first wheelchair user elected to the Scottish parliament, and the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart has become the first woman of colour to be elected in Scottish parliamentary history (yes, you read that correctly).
It’s been a long, sleepless weekend for me and the tiny handful of other people obsessed with Scottish politics in this time zone. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what comes next. I’ll be there with my cullen skink-flavoured popcorn on the sidelines, forcing everyone I know to look at electoral maps as Sturgeon and the SNP attempt to form a government. So for their sake if no one else’s, let’s hope there’s an outcome soon.
New Zealander Sarah Paterson-Hamlin holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow on the subject of literature and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. She lives in Auckland.