At first glance it seems like a strange strategy to go big on another independence referendum when half of Scots would vote No.
First published in November 2019.
Five years on from the independence referendum, the constitutional question around Scotland is once again a major talking point in the UK election. This is mainly due to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is standing with the explicit intention of pushing for a second independence referendum to be held next year.
In the words of Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in the party’s 2019 manifesto:
“At this election there is a choice for Scotland. A chaotic, Brexit-obsessed Westminster could decide our future for us. Or we can demand our right as a country to decide our own future. It’s time to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.”
One question begging to be asked is why the SNP is putting demands for an indyref2 at the centre of its campaign this time around. When the party lost 21 out of 56 seats in the 2017 UK election, it was partly blamed on its support for independence: the SNP’s great 2015 result was achieved by bringing the nation together, accepting that independence was probably off the table for a generation after it lost the 2014 referendum.
But following the UK’s vote to Brexit in the EU referendum of 2016, the SNP said there had been a material change of circumstances that would justify a new independence poll. When it came to the 2017 election, the proportion of SNP voters who were against independence fell to 17%, compared to 25% in 2015 – meaning many anti-indyref voters had abandoned the party. So why, therefore, push so hard for another indyref now?
The first minister’s decision to call for an independence referendum next year comes at a time when support for independence is up in the polls and large marches and rallies are being organised in Scotland by the pro-independence group All Under One Banner.
Independence may have damaged the SNP in 2017 but it has actually been a little more lukewarm on the issue than this time around. There was nothing in the 2017 manifesto to say that a vote for the party was a vote for another referendum. It instead said that winning a majority of seats would contribute to a mandate for indyref2 “when the time is right”.
The SNP went on to win a majority of seats, but its vote share plummeted also among pro-independence voters: down to 70%, compared to 85% in 2015. The toned-down indyref policy might help explain, with some voters apparently choosing to stay at home. In the case of the minority of supporters that are pro-Brexit, it might have given them another reason not to vote SNP. The bold decision to push harder for independence now should keep the party relatively united this time around.
The reason why support for independence has risen is perhaps that a section of Remain voters have switched sides: the SNP’s Remain credentials help the party to distance its brand of civic and cosmopolitan nationalism from the anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalism that we see in a number of countries. As a result, the pro-independence vote which was already largely pro-EU is now even more solidly in favour of Scotland staying in the EU. This could yet attract additional Labour voters who back independence and feel disillusioned with that party’s mixed messages around the EU.
Labour won six seats in Scotland in 2017, several of them from the SNP by just handfuls of votes – including Glasgow North East, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath as well as Rutherglen and Hamilton West. The SNP has a decent chance of winning seats like these and of taking share from Labour elsewhere either to win Tory marginals such as Stirling or to defend SNP marginals such as Perth and North Perthshire as well as North East Fife.
At the same time, the SNP has to be careful with competition for its pro-independence vote. The Scottish Greens are standing in many more seats than last time, up from four to 22 and, while they are unlikely to win any seats, in very tight races they could cost the SNP crucial victories. This is another reason for sounding strong on a second referendum on independence.
On the other side of the balance sheet, perhaps, are the Conservatives. The Conservative Party has been heavily criticising the prospect of a Labour minority government reliant on SNP support, perhaps in exchange for a second independence referendum. The Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson claimed in his head-to-head ITV debate with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn that the Union between Scotland and England was more important to him than Brexit.
The SNP lost 12 seats to the Conservatives in 2017. The hope will be that Brexit has become unpopular enough to push some independence-minded Leave voters back towards the SNP to reduce this haul. On the other hand, tactical voting by unionists could make it difficult to win back those seats – particularly in places such as the North East, where Brexit support is very strong. The latest polling favours the latter scenario, possibly assisted by voters repelled by the SNP’s strong indyref message.
What does a victory on the morning after the election look like for the SNP? As always, there is the challenge of managing expectations. Certainly, an increase in seats is expected. Under first past the post, the SNP is so far ahead that not winning more seats would be a blow. Even if the Conservatives do relatively well and hold most of their Scottish seats, it would be viewed perhaps as a disappointment for the SNP.
On the other hand, a very good result for the party – beating the 35 seats won in 2017 – would put Westminster under pressure to decide whether to allow or deny a second independence referendum after the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. That would be quite different, say, to the recent revival of Bloc Quebecois in Canada, which has been based on championing Quebec values rather than any independence strategy.
In other words, this UK election is supposed to act as a springboard for the Scottish independence movement. Placing the referendum at the heart of the campaign certainly has its risks for the SNP. But there is certainly a decent case that it will give the party the liftoff towards a new relationship with both the EU and the rest of the UK.🔷
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