Independence support in Scotland is now at critical levels. The ball is in the UK prime minister’s court.


First published in December 2019.


The UK general election has been an emphatic success for the Scottish National Party, which won 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland – 13 more than two years ago. The scale of its victory was not far off its best ever UK election result in 2015, when it won 56 seats. The party now controls four-fifths of the Scottish seats – a much higher proportion than Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won across the UK.

The SNP’s 45% share of votes at this election is not as high as the 50% it garnered in 2015 in the aftermath of the independence referendum, but it takes it eight points higher than in 2017. It also now has 11 seats with a share of the vote over 50%, or 20 when you add on the vote shares of the pro-independence Greens.

An SNP surge had been predicted beforehand, even if it outperformed on the night. And it creates a major headache for the UK prime minister. It is reminiscent of 1987, when Margaret Thatcher won big across the UK but lost more than half the Conservative seats in Scotland – the doomsday scenario as it came to be known. That year the Conservative number of seats fell from 21 to 10 in Scotland; this time it’s down from 13 to six. Once again, we can expect much from the SNP about how the Conservatives have no mandate north of the border.

Unionist misery

For the Conservatives this election is bittersweet in Scotland. The party’s focus on stopping a second independence referendum and getting Brexit done can hardly be claimed to have been a success: its vote share is down from 29% to 25%.

For Labour the election was dreadful at UK level, but absolutely disastrous in Scotland. The party retained only one of its seven Scottish seats, and its share of the vote is well down in seats it had not held. From being the most dominant party in Scotland for decades until 2015, the Labour vote has effectively collapsed in much of its former heartlands.

Where the party arguably suffered at UK level for having such an ambiguous position on Brexit, in Scotland it also blew hot and cold on an independence referendum. It never sounded as stridently pro-unionist as the Conservatives, but nor was it able to attract back pro-independence voters who abandoned the party in 2015 for the SNP. Until Labour sets itself a more coherent position on these issues, it looks set to remain a marginal diminished force, a pale shadow of its former self. Recriminations will begin and the role of Scottish leader Richard Leonard may be called into question.

The Liberal Democrats had a terrible election. Jo Swinson started off predicting she would be prime minister, but ended up losing her own seat in East Dunbartonshire.

The Lib Dems did offset this by winning one extra seat in Scotland – North East Fife. But the party, like all the unionist parties in Scotland, still has to come up with a way to challenge the dominance of the SNP. Certainly if there was unionist tactical voting to stop the nationalists, it did not materially impact upon the overall result.

The untenable stand-off

The SNP can legitimately claim that this result reinforces the mandate it already has for an independence referendum from the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election, in which together with the Greens they took more than half the seats at Holyrood. The party made no bones about its intentions during the campaign, putting a second independence referendum front and centre.

Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy on independence has no doubt energised SNP support and increased the turnout of their voters. It appears to have essentially made the difference in the campaign in Scotland compared to 2017. Now comes the battle over a second referendum. As the first minister said as the result in Scotland became clear:

“I don’t pretend that every single person who voted SNP yesterday will necessarily support independence, but there has been a strong endorsement in this election of Scotland having a choice over our future; of not having to put up with a Conservative government we didn’t vote for and not having to accept life as a nation outside the EU.”

The Conservatives, in turn, will be hoping to focus on the share of the vote. Yet not only is the SNP share higher than expected, the party has never won more than 85% of the pro-independence vote at previous Westminster elections – as the psephologist John Curtice discusses in this book, for instance. Intriguingly, most of the remaining pro-independence supporters vote for unionist parties.

Assuming that has happened again, this should worry unionists. It would also reflect what opinion polls have been saying in recent weeks, which is that support for and against independence is now virtually neck and neck. More broadly, it would chime with previous research that has documented the steady rise of Scottish people’s sense of Scottishness in recent years.

Scottish independence polling / What Scotland Thinks

The scale of the Labour defeat suggests that another decade of Conservative government beckons. But realistically, the staunch unionist position that the Conservatives committed to in Scotland is producing diminishing returns, and looks unsustainable in the long term.

If the new Conservative government at Westminster is not going to allow a second referendum on independence, it is now going to need to develop another constitutional position on Scotland – such as a new devolution settlement. Otherwise, the survival of the union looks extremely precarious.

The more that London keeps saying no to a referendum without offering anything in return, the more it potentially strengthens Scottish nationalists by allowing them to accuse the prime minister of being undemocratic – ignoring yet another mandate on top of the 2016 Remain vote and the pro-independence majority in Holyrood. It also forces Scottish unionists to have to choose between the status quo and independence, which risks driving more into the independence camp. For these reasons, the ball is now firmly in Boris Johnson’s court.🔷

The Conversation



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[This piece was originally published on The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 15 December 2019, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/The SNP. - Nicola Sturgeon. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)