A Dangerous Narrative
Lost amid the clamour of ‘Advice for the SNP’ articles – plus, of course, carnage in London, the Brexit fiasco and chaos at the heart of the UK system – one striking event since the General Election has gone almost unremarked upon: the erosion of Scottish democracy.
Make no mistake, the narrative which has been established by the Unionist parties – trialed the very moment polls showed losses for the SNP – sets a dangerous precedent, marking a potentially grave turning-point in Scottish history.
First, a recap.
May 2016: the SNP run for the Scottish Parliament on a manifesto of a second independence referendum, if there is “a significant and material change of the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.” The SNP win that election by a minority, but Green support ensures a pro-independence majority in Holyrood.
June 2016: the UK narrowly votes to Leave the EU but 62% of Scots elect to Remain, triggering the “material change of circumstances”.
March 2017: after various Scottish Government proposals allowing Scotland to stay in both the UK and EU are thwarted by Theresa May, the Scottish Parliament passes a bill for a second independence referendum by a majority of 69 to 59.
May 2017: the SNP publish their manifesto for the UK election which states that “if the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats, that would complete a triple lock [on the referendum], further reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists.”
June 2017: the SNP win 35 out of 59 Scottish seats, a clear majority. The mandate is thus triple-locked.
The legal situation, as we can see, is clear and watertight. At each step the SNP have been open about their intentions, have followed democratic procedures, and have obeyed the wishes of the Scottish electorate. The Unionist parties then, in denying the SNP’s mandate, are engaging in a coup.
Their narrative runs thus: the SNP losing 21 seats in this year’s General Election, combined with a 62% vote share for anti-independence parties, means that, in the words of Ruth Davidson, ‘indyref 2 is dead’. Cue applause not only from the right-wing media but the left. The Observer, with no reference to the facts whatsoever, has declared that ‘the independence question is settled.’ Even when it is accepted that the SNP’s total of 35 of 59 seats is more than that of the Unionist parties’ combined it is done so dismissively, as though such a thing barely matters. Gerry Hassan, in his recent assessment, placed inverted commas around the word ‘won’, implying that the SNP’s victory was ambiguous and not factual.
Of course the General Election was a serious loss of momentum for them. Of course lessons need to be learned about the party’s flawed pitch to the electorate, about how they deal with threats on both right and left flanks. One can agree with this without translating it to a loss of support for independence – which has held steady since 2014 at 45-48% in opinion polls – nor a nulling of the Scottish Government’s democratic mandate.
To do so means that the accepted benchmark for victory under First Past the Post – winning the most amount of seats – and the agreed route of passing legislation in the Scottish Parliament – by majority – have been suddenly and arbitarily discounted in favour of ‘vote share’.
By the Unionist parties’ definition, as James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop has pointed out, the Tories had no right to implement their manifesto after 2015, on 37% of the vote, nor did Labour between 2005 and 2010, on 35%.
Do we now see the absurdity of their argument?
Let’s get the SNP’s 2017 election into perspective. Yes, they lost votes and seats – they were always going to since that impossible high of 2015 – but so did Tony Blair over three elections between 1997 and 2005, despite a weak Conservative opposition and the broad support of much of the press. My recall, however, is that commentators ignored these losses in the face of an unprecented triumvirate of wins for a Labour PM.
Shall we talk unprecedented? 2015, a mere two years ago, was the first time the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish seats in a UK election (equivalent, for Margaret Thatcher, of a declaration of Scottish independence). They have done so again. This comes against the backdrop of three successive victories in Holyrood and a recent council election win, all while facing relentless media hostility plus opposition parties united and co-operating with each other against them. If we are being told this is calamitous for independence then why were three Blair victories on the trot – with reduced vote-share each time – considered remarkable for the Labour movement?
All of this is classic Doublethink: victory is defeat, defeat is victory. The parties which came second and third in the Scottish results this year have been deemed the successful. According to the BBC’s Brian Taylor, Ruth Davidson ‘won’ in Scotland. Julia Rampen in The New Statesman proclaimed Kezia Dugdale’s ‘quiet victory’.
Again, some perspective.
Of 59 Scottish seats these ‘winners’ claimed a mere thirteen and seven respectively. In contrast, two elections ago, Labour held FORTY-ONE. Their vote-share in Scotland has gone up by 2.8% from 2015. The very ‘quietest’ of victories, then?
The Conservatives’ new 28.6% Scottish vote-share meanwhile – hailed as miraculous – is less than Margaret Thatcher won north of the border in 1979, identical to her 1983 result, and only marginally higher than what she managed in 1987 and John Major in 1992, a period which Scottish history books have interpreted as united opposition to Conservatism. Yet such a result for Davidson proves the Scottish Tories are thriving?
It might be easy to write these machinations off as political spin (which they are) were the repercussions not so dire. Short of an impossibly high bar – yet another majority in Holyrood? repeating the 2015 total of Westminster seats? plus an immense share of the popular vote? – Scots are now being told there is simply no way to democratically bring about a second independence referendum.
Pause, go back, and read that again.
The Scottish Parliament has already passed a Bill for a second referendum. If this is being disregarded then we’re witnessing a fatal and historic cancelling of Holyrood’s authority by Scotland’s Unionists.
“It might be easy to write these machinations off as political spin (which they are) were the repercussions not so dire. Short of an impossibly high bar – yet another majority in Holyrood? repeating the 2015 total of Westminster seats? plus an immense share of the popular vote? – Scots are now being told there is simply no way to democratically bring about a second independence referendum.”
It would’ve been such an easy sell for them: “We still oppose independence, and will continue to campaign as such, but we recognise the will of the Scottish Parliament.” This could’ve allowed them to seem proudly British but also respectful of Scotland’s democratic institutions. Why have they chosen not to? Because their goal, quite simply, is to weaken Holyrood as a political force in the eyes of the Scottish electorate, to undermine it forever as a means of enabling independence.
Their talk about the will of the people is a red herring. They were never going to allow another referendum. They’ve told us so. Ruth Davidson was asked before the General Election if a 50%+ vote share for the SNP in Scotland secured their mandate. She said no. Kezia Dugdale, in the run-up to the Holyrood election of 2016, was quizzed by Bernard Ponsonby: ‘If the First Minister in her manifesto seeks a mandate for a second referendum, gets a mandate for it, will you respect that?’ She said no.
Where were the thundering broadsheet opinion pieces denouncing this betrayal of the Scottish people? Their absence should’ve alerted us. The subtle recasting of the SNP’s General Election win into a defeat is the second shoe falling on Scottish democracy.
Of course, Unionists will claim that it is their vote which is not being observed. Scotland said No in 2014, after all, and NO MEANS NO. But this argument is facile (and comically undercut by the Lib Dems demanding a second EU referendum, and Kezia Dugdale calling for the 2017 General Election to be re-run, because they didn’t get the results they wanted). Quite obviously the No vote was respected. Scotland is still in the UK. What Unionists are attempting now would be equivalent to Alex Salmond declaring independence on Sept 19th 2014 after defeat.
Time and the democratic will move on. Whether Unionists like it or not, Scots have voted to have another say on the independence question. Opinion polls (or ones without very leading questions) bear this out.
The Scottish Parliament has decreed that a referendum will be held when the Brexit settlement is clear. That is eminently sensible, given how disastrous Brexit is set to be. Scots may or may not vote No again, may or may not remain in the United Kingdom, but if this referendum does not take place, under pressure from Unionists, then not only will independence be nullified but so too will Holyrood as a forum for Scottish popular will. A ‘quiet victory’ indeed.
We must hold the line.