The mandate for an independence referendum has been renewed, with the SNP hailing their victory as a ‘landslide’ in the Scottish Parliament elections.
Securing a fourth term in Government, the party fell short of an overall majority of MSPs by one seat, but still gained the highest number of votes ever cast for one party in a Holyrood election.
Despite the SNP missing out on 65 seats, the Parliament has an enlarged pro-independence majority, with the Greens taking 8 MSPs. While the pro-independence parties gained thanks to the increase in turnout, which was upwards of 70% in some areas, the unionist parties mitigated their losses thanks to ‘tactical’ voting among Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters.
Though all the parties laid claim to prioritising the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the election clearly shows polarisation over the national question, with a new benchmark of support for Independence. This is the result the ruling class feared though could not avoid.
The Tories’ first reaction is to deny the reality of the situation, arguing there is no mandate for an independence referendum, as the final tally shows about a 50-50 split in votes between unionist and indy parties. Moreover, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross even claims that not all those who voted Green or SNP are supporters of Independence.
The hypocrisy of these arguments is obvious: the Tories claim their legitimacy from holding a majority of seats in Westminster, despite only taking around 40% of the vote. If this is good enough for them, why is 50% of the vote and 55% of Holyrood seats not good enough for Scottish Independence?
The logic employed by Douglas Ross cuts both ways, too. It is just as likely — in fact, more likely — that many of those who voted for unionist parties in this election do not support blocking a new referendum. Around a third of Scottish Labour’s 2019 voters said they would support a referendum, according to polling from last year.
Moreover, an election is simply a snapshot of one day, and the trend in Scottish independence polling indicates majority support for Yes. With over 70% of young voters supporting Independence, this majority is only likely to keep growing.
Constitutional battle looms
In claiming victory, Nicola Sturgeon asserted that it is a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’ a new referendum will be called. The SNP have already published their draft bill for a referendum earlier this year, and have pledged to pass it once the pandemic has ended.
The argument about mandates is over. The question Sturgeon now poses to the Tories is whether the Union is held together by democratic consent or the force of law. As a “matter of fundamental democratic principle”, this will potentially be decided by the UK Supreme Court if the Tories challenge Holyrood’s power to call a vote.
Sturgeon says a court battle would be an “absurd” situation, but she should not lull the independence movement into a false sense of security. Many Tories have spoken openly about blocking a referendum through legal action, drawing inspiration from Spain’s brutal crackdown on Catalonia in 2017.
Tory MSP Adam Tomkins even proposed a new ‘Act of Union’ that explicitly prohibits self-determination, in the language of the US Constitution: “no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution”!
For now, the Tory Government are attempting to avoid addressing this question. Michael Gove refused to answer whether the Government were preparing their lawsuit; another Minister said it was “not on their radar”. They hope to bury the issue under the ‘recovery’, hence Boris Johnson’s planned ‘summit’ of devolved governments.
Future of the Union?
This is in line with the so-called ‘Project Love’ approach, of ‘going around’ Holyrood to spend UK Treasury money directly in Scotland, attempting to show the worth of the Union to Scottish voters. This is the latest strategy attempting to reverse the growth in support for independence, after the failure of the ‘Union Unit’ and the non-starter that is the ‘Minister for the Union’, Boris Johnson.
There are others in the ruling class who worry this will not be enough to overcome the tendencies that threaten to break up the UK. The Financial Times bemoans Brexit and the rise of English chauvinism, and a Tory party that shows “contempt for devolution.” A new devolution settlement, or constitutional reform, is needed to cut across the demand for Independence, in their view.
Gordon Brown re-emerged this week to reiterate his plans to save the Union. Launching a campaign aimed at “middle Scotland”, Brown sets out a confusing message that will be both “positive, progressive” as well as “patriotic” and focussed on reviving the talking points of 2014’s ‘Project Fear’ (over the border, currency, pensions, etc). This would be coupled with yet more vague calls for constitutional reform.
The cat is already out of the bag, however. Though many unionist politicians insist on beating the dead horse of ‘devo max’, or reforming the House of Lords into an elected ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’, etc, Scottish voters don’t trust these promises. They know that if you want a reformed UK, you vote No to independence. If you want to be free from Westminster, from Tory Governments, you vote Yes.
Over half of Scottish voters think the Tory party is corrupt and that the UK Government has a ‘culture of sleaze’, according to polling. More than in any other part of the UK, they think Westminster doesn’t represent them or actively works against their interests. Offers of changes to the UK constitution — short of a total social revolution — will simply not wash.
Though this election was not a knockout blow to the Union, it has nonetheless opened a new phase in its process of disintegration. A contradictory and turbulent era has brought us to this point. Since 2014, Nicola Sturgeon has seen three Tory Prime Ministers, and Scotland has been through two events of world-historic importance: Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic.
With each of these shocks to the capitalist system, the SNP have postponed the campaign for Independence until after the dust settles. While the timeline has been thrown back, creating the appearance of stability, these events just further add to the consciousness of the masses and the decay of the objective conditions.
The Union, like the capitalist system, is living on borrowed time. What the capitalist class fears the most is not just the infamy of ‘losing Scotland’, but the potential an independence referendum has as a spark for working-class anger that could sweep both sides of the England-Scotland border.
Unfortunately for the ruling class, this anger is inevitable. The crisis of capitalism will push workers and youth into action and the independence movement could be an important vehicle for class struggle. The ideas of Marxism will play a powerful role in this. Join us in our fight for a Scottish Workers’ Republic as a stepping stone to an international socialist revolution.