Chris Bambery looks at the results of the Holyrood elections, the majority support for independence, and what this means for the movement
There was never any chance that Nicola Sturgeon would be booking a removal van to remove her stuff from Bute House, the Scottish First Minister’s official residence in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. The Scottish National Party was always going to return to government, either with the support of the Greens or in coalition with them.
As the results came in it seemed the SNP might win an overall majority – something the voting system, put in place by New Labour, is designed to prevent, in particular to stop the pro-independence forces gaining a majority. The SNP did achieve that, against the odds in 2011, but it’s a mountain to climb. The SNP this time came near, very near, as they romped home on the first, first past the post constituency vote, winning 62 out of 73.
The electoral system gives you a first past post vote for a single candidate in the constituencies. So Edinburgh has six constituency seats (the SNP took four, in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen they took all). You then get a regional vote for a party list. So Edinburgh is part of the wider Lothians region. This vote is to designed to compensate those parties which got support but not enough to win outright in the constituencies – discriminating against the winner of the constituency vote in some ways.
So in terms of the regional list the SNP received over a million votes, far more than anyone else, but gained just two seats.
The London-based media, especially the BBC, seems to think that the SNP’s narrow failure to secure an overall majority equals defeat and the new Scottish government, accordingly, has no mandate to call a second independence referendum. Many too don’t seem to grasp this is not a simple Westminster style first past the post-election.
In response I repeat: the voting system is designed to block one party gaining an overall majority and the SNP never said they would achieve that. And, most importantly, the pro-independence SNP and Greens won, the pro-union Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems lost. The incoming parliament has a majority of pro-independence MSP’s and will elect a pro-independence government.
Further, the SNP has won the number of votes in a Scottish Parliament election, the highest vote share of any UK party for more than half a century and the highest share of constituency seats of any UK party since modern democracy began. If Boris Johnson and the Tories secured that they’d declare war over France!
That the SNP has governed Scotland for the last 14 years makes that remarkable. I can only think of German Chancellor Angela Merkel doing the same. When the SNP first took office in 2007, George W. Bush was in the White House and Tony Blair in Downing Street – that seems eons ago.
The increase in voter turnout is remarkable too given the pandemic and the difficulties of campaigning. It reflects the polarisation between the majority pro-indy camp and the minority pro-union one. It also reflects the fact that for very many folk Boris Johnson reminds them of all the reasons why they want to end Tory rule over Scotland. In contrast during the Pandemic Nicola Sturgeon has demonstrated humanity in contrast to Boris’s bombast, inefficiency and difficulties with the truth.
These election results leave the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon looking hegemonic. Internally many of the key left and radical activists left to join Alex Salmond’s Alba. So that has split the Common Weal SNP Group which came near to capturing the SNP NEC.
Sturgeon now has a natural looking successor in Angus Robertson, who won Edinburgh Central from the Tories – the outgoing MSP was former Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, who’s scuttling off to the House of Lords. Robertson was described to me as “the perfect neoliberal candidate.”
The neoliberal wing of the party has emerged strengthened and more confident. During the campaign two Westminster MP’s, Alyn Smith & Stewart McDonald, told Foreign Policy Magazine that “Unlike Ireland, Scotland will seek to be a reliable Nato partner.” Aside from what is wrong with Ireland not being in Nato, why trash the Republic with which the Scottish government has been striving to build a close relationship?
The party’s Growth Commission, written by pro-business, neoliberal enthusiasts, advocated austerity measures post-independence and keeping both Sterling and the Bank of England’s control of fiscal matters for a lengthy period.
Much of the social democratic policies the SNP implemented in office came soon after their 2007 breakthrough – a year after, in the case of the best known, free education, enacted in 2008. Under Nicola Sturgeon, it’s been more a case of “steady as she goes”, with the emphasis on proving that the SNP is the natural party of government. That makes this election success even more remarkable.
The truth is Sturgeon faces no real opposition and if the Greens enter government, I suspect they’ll be swallowed up.
The Conservatives are the unionist party in Scotland – that’s the label they stood under when I was a kid, but the union they referred to then was with Northern Ireland. They staged something of a recovery in the 2017 Westminster general election but there is a limit to their appeal. Johnson adds to their problems.
It is hard to see a road to recovery for Scottish Labour. The by-election result in Hartlepool and the mayoral and other results in England demonstrate how unappealing Keir Starmer is, but also cast a long shadow over Labour winning a Westminster election.
The trouble for Scottish Labour is it has few MSPs, one MO and few councillors which means reduced funding and small numbers of full-timers. Its activist base is reduced and ageing.
On the other side, the results are fatal news for Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party. Launched just weeks before the election it was never going to be easy but I predicted they could win five or six list seats. I was wrong. Their campaign could not make up lost time, was too focused on Alex Salmond who had just emerged from a bruising case of alleged sexual harassment, and the SNP was ruthless in the final weeks in concentrating its campaign on appealing for both constituency and regional votes to be delivered their way.
It’s hard to see where Alba goes. It clearly has a good activist core of former SNP members but it faces five years before another Holyrood election. Next year’s council elections will not appeal and contesting Westminster seats is hopeless. A lot depends on how these activists respond. Do they drop out or can they sustain local activity in support of independence and on other social issues. I cannot see them sustaining Alba.
On Alba’s central argument, that a vote for the SNP on the regional list was a wasted vote, they were proved correct. The SNP fought hard for “Both Votes SNP,” obviously to do over Alba but also because it’s hard to go on the doorstep to ask folk to vote you in the constituency poll but for another party on the regional list. One answer would be to change the system to a more equitable one like the Single Transferable Vote used in the Irish Republic.
But while Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP appear hegemonic, there is a problem. She has made clear it requires a legally binding referendum to achieve independence. That means agreed to by Westminster. But Johnson has already said no claiming it was ‘irresponsible and reckless.’ After Hartlepool and the Tory success in local elections, including increasing vote share in supposedly “red London”, why would he grant the Scots that vote?
Why the media, the Tories and Labour, focus on the SNP “failure” to win an outright majority, is so they can claim there is no mandate for a fresh referendum – ignoring the democratic expression of the Scottish people.
What is the strategy if Johnson says no? Sturgeon has suggested a legal challenge. My feeling about going to the UK Supreme Court is “good luck.” Since 2014 and the first indy referendum, leading SNP politicians have asserted one would be held in the coming year and to remain silent when it doesn’t materialise. At party conferences the leadership promises great public campaigns in support of independence which never happen.
The SNP leadership have great hopes of European Union support, ignoring its complicity in repression in Catalonia, and the veto Spain would deliver if any such support materialised.
Meanwhile Sturgeon also said in the election that recovery from the pandemic would have to take priority over a new referendum. That could be as long or short as a piece of string.
There is no place in this for mass mobilisation and non-violent direct action. Prior to the pandemic, the turnout on All Under One Banner’s pro-indy marches showed the appetite for this was there. Many of its key figures were involved in launching Now Scotland as a Scottish version of the grassroots, mass membership Catalan National Assembly. Unfortunately it looks like it may be a victim of the SNP/Alba divide.
The danger is that in five years’ time is a referendum is not achieved, demoralisation can feed into the indy camp. We cannot look at Hartlepool or even Madrid with complacency. Ordinary folk need a sense of hope. Without that, other political forces can grow.
As elsewhere in these islands we have seen great local campaigns over issues like housing, Living Rent being the case in point, and a modest but real increase in trade union struggle.
The disparate forces of the radical left need to throw themselves into this but maintaining a focus on independence as a potential solution to Scotland’s ills. It means we could be in for a long haul. If so, so be it.
Meanwhile, All Under One Banner has called an Indy Ref Now rally on 22 May, complete with all necessary precautions including social distancing. It must be built.
And to end; what’s driving support for independence is, at root, a deep, organic crisis of the British state. Not only is that an ever-present it has grown in scale. So if Irish unity happens, Scottish independence can follow, and if Scottish independence happens, Irish unity can follow, plus in both cases Wales will move nearer the exit.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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