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The Continuing Battle for Scotland

Scotland-map-web2The Continuing Battle for Scotland: Goodbye to British politics and Goodbye to Britain?

The age of perma-campaigning and elections continues in Scotland. Theresa May’s snap election, supposedly to give her a mandate for Brexit which she already had, will be Scotland’s sixth visit to the polls in the last three years.

For some of us, a select few, this is nirvana. For many more it is an unwanted intrusion. But while mainstream media vox pops show us the now legendary Brenda from Bristol say how disgusted she is at having to vote again, a YouGov poll showed that 49% thought May was right to go the country and only 17% disagreed.

The battlelines of the contest, both clear and unclear, are being drawn. This is an election which will be about more than Brexit and independence, but the multiple crises and uncertainties of the UK. It isn’t an accident that there have been a pile up of elections and referendums in the UK recently, because this is one indication of the fading power and legitimacy of the political classes.

Theresa May wants the election to be about Brexit – the number one issue with voters (51%) according to Ipsos MORI. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are clear that they want it to be about practically anything rather than Brexit; the issue that they most have a divided message on. The Lib Dems are clear that they gain from an election about Brexit, where they can position themselves as the one UK political party with a pro-European message. Finally, the SNP are determined to make it an election not explicitly about independence, while knowing that they are playing a longer game towards that end.

What then will this election be about north and south of the border, in Scotland and rUK? For a start this will not be, no matter how effective May’s control freakery politics are, a UK election solely about Brexit. No election is ever a single-issue event. Numerous people have already cited Ted Heath’s February 1974 ‘who governs Britain?’ campaign, when the voters answered: not Ted Heath and his Conservatives.

Voters also have a tradition of turning on politicians who inflict unnecessary elections on them. Examples of this include Harold Wilson in 1970 when he had a massive majority of 97 and lost it, and Clement Attlee in 1951 going to the country in the October after winning an overall majority in February of the previous year.

In Scotland, many mainstream sources are saying this will be an election about independence. Sarah Smith, BBC Scotland editor has been repeating the line ad nauseam that this election will be ‘a referendum on a referendum.’ But this isn’t straightforward, simple, or necessarily true.

The ‘referendum on a referendum’ line is the direct Tory line of Ruth Davidson for whom it is a good campaigning trope. For the Tories this is a good attack point, playing to their troops, speaking for a significant part of Scotland, laying claim to the 55%, and a good gibe at the SNP. It works for them to an extent.

However, taken to its logical conclusion this would mean that the Tory campaign was really saying that this was an election about Brexit and Scottish independence: a rather narrow constitutional menu for a UK election. It also exposes inconsistencies in the Tory view, with an election needed to offer clarity and a mandate (but not supposed division), but a second indyref refused because we need stability and to avoid division.

The 2015 Scottish election was a watershed; the sort of contest which only comes along once in every couple of generations. Clearly, there will be no huge change from such a seismic change, which many observers equated to the impact of an electoral tsunami.

The Opportunities and Challenges to the SNP

The SNP enters this contest with many pluses. There is the strength of the SNP vote and its operation. The party will also more than any other party speak for the 62% majority of Scots who voted to remain in the EU, while the threat of an unwanted Brexit imposed on Scotland aids the Nationalists. Similarly, the rise of the Scottish Tories suits SNP strategists, positioning the party as the leader of anti-Tory Scotland. Related to this the distinct likelihood of a Tory UK landslide with an overall majority of 140-150 seats. This heralds the return of ‘the Doomsday scenario’ big time – Scotland votes anti-Tory, but gets a Tory Government based on English votes.

The SNP’s success though brings with it increased expectations and challenges. The party will be defending 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. Its chances of advancing from this are very slender, as are its chances of increasing its vote from the spectacular 49.97% it won in 2015. Any slippage, no matter how small, will be seized upon by opponents.

There is the cross-class, national ‘Big Tent’ coalition that is the 2015 SNP vote. There were already signs in 2016 in parts of rural Scotland, that some of this was fraying at the edges. There are also the new faultlines and divides which emerged out of the EU referendum, with 36% of SNP voters supporting leave, making any SNP pro-EU message have to have a degree of flexibility about EEA/EFTA membership. And as if this weren’t enough, the party will next month have been ten years in office, has a record to defend, and also faces unease in places about any future indyref.

Ten years of SNP success, winning elections and office, and having a sense of momentum behind them, has defined much. It has in some respects, slowly, but perceptibly, weakened the political antenna and sensitivities of the SNP and its supporters. Some of them now expect automatically political victory along the lines of ‘now we have 56 seats out of 59, what is to stop us winning the last Labour and Lib Dem, seats’, for example.

The SNP have become the political establishment, while still in places having an outsider ethos. The party’s senior leadership more and more look, feel and act, no matter how good their intentions, like an insider class. This is what happens from ten years of incumbency. And in a few weeks the SNP will poll well in the local elections (as will the Tories), and will sweep Labour from most of their last remaining West of Scotland strongholds. All of this will produce increased expectations in supporters, and new attack lines for opponents.

The mini-Tartan Tory Revival

The Tory mini-revival that has been going on is discounted by many in the SNP and independence supporters, but it is real. In 2015 the SNP won 49.97% and the Tories 14.9%: their worst showing at a Westminster election since 1865. In the 2016 Scottish elections, the SNP won 46.5% and the Tories 22.1% of the constituency vote: which was a 3.5% swing from the SNP to Tories from the 2011 Scottish elections, and 5.2% swing from the previous year.

The most recent poll on Westminster voting intentions from Panelbase has the SNP on 47% (-3), Tories 28% (+13), Labour 14% (-10), Lib Dems 4 (-4): changes from the 2015 contest and representing a 8% swing from SNP to Tories. If the Tory vote rises to anything like this level of support then they this is a significant reverse from the bottoming out, consistently under 20% at every Westminster election since 1997. It takes the Tories back to the support they won in 1983, 1987 and 1992, when Thatcher and Major won UK elections based on English votes. But importantly, with the exception of a tiny Tory rise in 1992, then the tide was running away from the Tories. Now they would be experiencing a significant, but small surge towards them. This shouldn’t be underestimated or overestimated, but after years of losing votes, the Tories feel the tide has turned, at least a bit.

“No matter how certain Theresa May and Ruth Davidson may sound in their campaign speeches and on the stump, the Tories have just brought the endgame of the union as we know it and Scottish independence a little closer. No other outcome is really possible from this election.”

The SNP 56 are vulnerable at the margins. The eleven most marginal seats the SNP won have six gains from the Lib Dems and five from Labour. Thus, the party is vulnerable to any Lib Dem recovery where the party still has a presence. For example, the SNP might be under threat in Edinburgh West where Michelle Thomson was suspended shortly after being elected and the party is defending a 3,210 majority over the Lib Dems (5.9% of votes). Similarly, any Tory revival could see the party win in places such as Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk where the SNP are a mere 328 (0.6% of votes) ahead of the Tories. If the Tories revived substantially in parts of rural Scotland, a whole host of other seats could come into play.

The bigger dynamic is that in 2015 the SNP at its peak came near to winning a popular majority. Any slip now in the party’s vote will be presented by the Tories – along with any seat gains – as some kind of vindication, even part of their national mandate. Thus, if the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems finish with more votes than the SNP, and even more a popular majority, the Tories will try to present this as some kind of virtual Better Together coalition. But that won’t wash very long and also risks drawing attention to the inconvenient fact that no matter how big Theresa May’s parliamentary vote is, she will have a mandate based on a minority of voters.

How to mobilise, enthuse and reach out to voters will be a key factor in this election. There are already signs of voter fatigue. Will Theresa May’s call for a Brexit mandate reach out to parts of the 52%, former UKIP voters and disgruntled Labour voters? One former Labour voter thinking of voting Tory, Eric Wood from Barrow-in-Furness, said on the BBC that ‘Tories are the ones with brains … they are a pack of bastards … I don’t think people see the left as being smart’. This was the modern day voice of a very old tradition – working class, deferential Tories who think that the party of privilege has the class and traditions to govern better.

Scotland’s indyref dividend is slowly weakening. In 2015 Scotland’s turnout of 71.0 was 4.8% ahead of the UK turnout of 66.2%. In the 2016 Scottish elections the 55.8% and 55.9% constituency and regional vote turnouts was a mere 5.3% and 5.5% up from 2011. And in last year’s EU referendum, Scottish turnout was 67.2% which was 5.0% below the UK 72.2% turnout.

More important than these aggregate figures is who is turning out and who the voters are. The nature of this contest should play towards the SNP and the Tories in Scotland, and work to disadvantage an already disorientated Labour Party. But the UK national contest will matter, differential turnout, and also generational divisions. UK Labour, for example, are faced with the huge problem not just of overall dire ratings, but the party having derisory support in the over-65s who come out to vote more.

The Twilight Days of Britain

This is going to be a strange British and Scottish election. For one, British politics exists in name only and in the Palace of Westminster. There is obviously a British Government, but there will be no pan-UK political contest. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are in different political orbits from the rest of the UK, and there are several Englands.

Theresa May has illustrated part of the weakness of Tory Britain and England, deciding to go the country as a partisan Conservative and in so doing, revealing the weaknesses and poor condition of unionism. Scotland and even more so Northern Ireland barely got a moment in her electoral calculations, such is the high regard held for the great union that is the United Kingdom.

Instead, she has let obvious short term, tactical advantage override everything else. It seems unavoidable that she will win her own mandate and trounce the Labour Party, but at what wider cost? She has just handed Scotland and the SNP another opportunity to show that we are different and motivated by a different political dynamic. And while this election isn’t formally about independence in the way the SNP’s opponents say it is, everything political in Scotland is for now ultimately about independence. It is as much about democracy and mandates, but these all-lead back to the independence question.

No matter how certain Theresa May and Ruth Davidson may sound in their campaign speeches and on the stump, the Tories have just brought the endgame of the union as we know it and Scottish independence a little closer. No other outcome is really possible from this election.


Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..


Comments (16)

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  1. Crubag says:

    The smart move is for the SNP to concentrate (again) on the mandate for indy2 which then splits the unionist vote (again).

    Trying to work in a Remain angle just risks losing votes. Better to leave that to a referendum on joining the EU, as we’ll be leaving in any event.

    Regarding the wider points, I still think there is room for a social democratic party in Scotland to the left of the SNP, it just doesn’t look like the Labour party.

  2. david kelly says:

    I rather think the smart move is to focus on the Scotland Act, which May must repeal or loose control of “The UK single market” that she goes on about. The repatriation of powers from the EU to Scotland does not really confuse the Brexit negotiating position. This is, I think, a point of weakness. May could just tell us now what powers Holyrood will get. Since the Tory answer must be none, she cannot answer…..

    1. Alan says:

      And if she did answer and the answer wasn’t “none”, who in their right mind would believe her.

  3. MBC says:

    Gerry is right that the Tory revival in Scotland is real, though just very lately there have been signs that peak Harrison has been reached. The more she grimaces and scowls on QT and supports the Tory rape clause, the mask slips, and the ugly snarling face of the Nasty Party is revealed. She got where she is by bonhomie and by kidding on she wasn’t really a Tory. Cut the false bonhomie and there’s nothing of substance there but sourness. There are some late signs that her personal popularity is waning.

    She has however meanwhile attracted younger people to the party, ex public school types, young fogeys, who grew up pampered in the 1990s and were too young to remember Thatcher, even from their parents, who believe all her clap trap about being the party of opportunity and aspiration. Folk who feel entitled. Not necessarily because they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but because they came from middle class families and grew up reading Hello magazine and feel that all that glam and glitz is for them as of a kind of right.

    Her problem is that her party only really has her. The rest of her band are useless. They have all the competence and charisma of a tin of beans.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    The SNP should make this GE a referendum on independence but they wont. A simple one statement manifesto ‘a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence’ (or something similar) would make it clear, that their intention, if they win a majority of seats, is to accept the mandate as their democratic right to negotiate independence with the next Westminster government.
    This GE has been called to cement May’s Brexit negotiating position. Brexit is not the will of the Scottish people. All these constitutional manoeuvers are being foisted upon us. It is the duty of the SNP to make this GE a referendum. It is their responsibility to link the GE/referendum with Brexit.
    Of course they wont. Why? Because the SNP is now a big political Westminster and Holyrood machine. Lots of good jobs depend on their success.
    If the SNP ignore this one off chance and Scotland leaves the EU with the UK the SNP will have betrayed the cause they say they stand for.

  5. Piper says:

    Jimmy,election coming,remember tay vote.

    1. Piper says:

      Has not this maggie clone got them,fucked,the Labour,no care them.look at their fighting,should we rise to pronounce our countries name for her political manipulation.

  6. Alf Baird says:

    Might I suggest that all SNP groups across Scotland propose a motion for their next group meeting: ‘that the SNP campaigns for Scotland’s independence at the GE on June 8th, which would be democratically secured via the party winning a majority of seats and a majority of the vote in Scotland’.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      There is a Margaret Thatcher quote, I am sure, I cant find it but I can remember her saying it, that all Scotland has to do to gain independence is to elect a majority of SNP MPs. Help me find it.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        I think I know the quote you mean Richard.

        Here is another one, meantime:

        “As a nation, they (Scotland) have an undoubted right to national self-determination; thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remaining in the Union. Should they determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure.” (In Margaret Thatcher’s “The Downing Street Years”)

  7. Big Jock says:

    Everything Gerry has just stated backs up the case for making this an independence referendum. Any loss of seats or vote share just cements the lie that May has created about mandates. We don’t need another mandate, when the first and strongest mandate is ignored.

    If the SNP offer independence in an election and the majority back it, then that’s all the authority they need to proceed. May wants to make this an election about a mandate for a referendum. She knows the SNP will likely drop seats. We need to beat them at their own game and make it an election about a mandate for independence.

  8. Big Jock says:

    Richard/Alf – That’s exactly right. The SNP with it’s recent obsession with referendums, has forgotten that the power rests with the people who elect the MP’s, and therefore the MP’s. There is not one route to independence ,there are several. Winning an election is the most obvious and democratic. Why can’t the SNP see that, and be bold enough to take it. Forget endless mandates and devolution governments, the SNP exist for independence.

    We are actually back to the ship of Theseus I am afraid :” The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

    Are the SNP losing their original purpose?

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Big Jock,
      Another reason why the SNP have to make this GE a one issue constitutional question is because that is exactly what Ruth Davidson and the Tories are doing. There campaign slogan has already been heard. It is ‘vote Tory and stop a second referendum’. They see this GE as their opportunity to stamp their authority over EU negotiations and Scotland’s place, as part of the UK.
      The SNP has to throw everything at this GE. One issue. Talk of nothing else but Scotland’s constitutional future. A manifesto with a single simple statement, ‘Vote SNP for the Scottish government to negotiate independence for Scotland with Westminster’. The SNP do not need the approval from Westminster to put that proposal to the Scottish people.
      There will never be a better chance. I have argued over the last 3 years, since 2014 that there will not be another chance. The SNP must up the stakes and put everything they have on this.

  9. Big Jock says:

    Yet another reason the SNP find themselves in this conundrum ,is due to who votes for them. They stopped being a strictly nationalist party when they courted the mainstream vote in order to win seats, and stay in government. So there are a good 5-6% of their voters who don’t necessarily agree with independence.

    They stated it themselves in the GE 2015 that voting for them was not a vote for independence. That’s stuck indeed the dye was cast before that in 2007. So they have become a party of government rather than a strict movement for independence.

    This has led their strategists to look at ways of increasing vote share ,instead of how to win independence. They want to govern and govern well to prove the case for independence. Now that has been achieved ,and was achieved before 2014. They need to stop being a party that governs devolution and focus on independence again.

    The referendum idea has stuck because they realised after 2014 ,that they could have a referendum lose and stay in government. Not many in the SNP would have foreseen that! This is where the Theseus idea comes in. They have lost their way a wee bit.

    If the SNP had this chance in a general election before 2007. They would have used it as an independence vote. Now they see it as a mandate or bargaining chip ,useful but not an absolute.

    The circumstances don’t need to change. The SNP need to change back to the day job of independence!

  10. Jim Bennett says:

    Just wanted to thank Gerry Hassan (and Bella) for a great article. Good, thoughtful stuff. Cheers, guys!

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