This week, millions of Scots will head to the polls to determine who wins control of the Scottish Parliament and the levers of power over Scotland’s future.
When created in 1999, the Scottish Parliament was Tony Blair’s crown jewel in New Labour’s devolution package, aimed to empower the regions and nations of the UK by increasing representation.
However, during the SNP’s uninterrupted 14-year period of governing Scotland, the country’s parliament and corresponding elections have been consumed by more than the omnipresent diet of bread-and-butter political issues that face governments everywhere. The question of Scottish independence infects all political debate; just seven years after the ‘once in a generation’ referendum, unionists still tout it as a dangerous distraction from the ‘real’ concerns of Scots, whilst nationalists insist it to be the only escape route from an increasingly out of touch Westminster system.
The state of the race
If a majority of Scottish parliamentarians (MSPs) support independence after May 6, this could be Scotland’s last ever election as part of the UK. Such a majority seems not only plausible but rather likely and it is next to certain that the SNP will be the largest party after election day.
The seemingly never-ending resilience of Sturgeon and her party since assuming power in 2007 is virtually unmatched. To explain this support, one might point to debt-free Scottish students, or an NHS without prescription charges, or a first minister who avoided a second COVID-19 lockdown in November while indecision in Westminster plunged the shutters back down on England.
The other side of the story is darker, however. Over a quarter of Scotland’s children live in relative poverty. Men in the most deprived areas of Scotland have a life expectancy of 13 years less than those living in the least deprived areas – for women, it’s 10 years less. Scotland is the drug death capital of Europe, with 1264 deaths in 2019. The homeless death rate is almost three times that of England. It’s quite a charge sheet for a party nearing 50% in some opinion polls.
This SNP dominance means the Scottish elections have essentially become a contest for second place. Douglas Ross is relentlessly reminding people that the Scottish Conservatives deprived the SNP of a majority in 2016 and can do so again. Regardless, Ross’s relationship with Boris Johnson is arguably more fascinating than anything he’s doing north of the border.
When probed by Andrew Marr, he said “of course” the PM should resign if he is found to have broken the ministerial code over Downing Street renovations. Douglas Ross was the only senior member of the government to resign last year following the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle scandal, and Johnson hasn’t even stepped foot in Scotland throughout this campaign.
It begs the question: does Douglas Ross believe Boris Johnson is more hindrance than help when it comes to leading the charge against independence?
Fellow newcomer, Labour’s Anas Sarwar, has strained every sinew to avoid a conversation about independence, emphasising COVID-19 recovery and attempting to appeal to voters regardless of their constitutional views. With Keir Starmer having made several appearances on the campaign trail, it seems Sarwar is aware of the importance of Scotland for Labour if they are ever to win a UK election again – Labour held 41 out of 59 Scottish seats in 2010; they now hold one.
The unspoken alliance between the Scottish Greens (also in favour of independence) and the SNP has been on full display during TV debates, with a strong relationship between Nicola Sturgeon and newbie Lorna Slater.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has delivered numerous attacks on the first minister, accusing the SNP of taking their eye off the ball on drug deaths due to preoccupation with the 2014 independence referendum. He is nonetheless struggling with the age-old Lib Dem fever: a toxic cocktail of indifference and irrelevance in the mind of voters. As for Nicola Sturgeon’s ex-partner-in-crime Alex Salmond and his Alba Party, very little impact on polling day is expected.
Where from here?
In terms of electoral strategy, a legitimate parallel can be drawn between (don’t laugh) Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. Each wants (or wanted) to achieve a policy endorsed by a referendum: Brexit for Johnson, independence for Sturgeon. Whilst aware that public opinion on each of these issues is split virtually 50/50, both leaders have managed to unite supporters of their position around their political party, whilst the opposition remains split.
If you wanted to leave the EU, you voted Conservative in 2019. If you want to leave the UK, you vote SNP. However, if you wanted to remain in the EU in 2019, you had the option of voting Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Plaid and SNP. If you are a Scottish unionist, you have virtually the same plethora of party options in 2021.
It’s simple arithmetic: large numbers of people uniting around one party, leaving their opposition split between multiple parties, will result in a parliamentary majority for those who are united.
These elections will determine the ability of the Scottish Parliament to declare itself as the voice of the Scottish people in favour of another independence referendum. The question will remain whether Boris Johnson will continue to deny another referendum.
The theory that the more he resists, the greater the independence cause grows might be an SNP campaign line, but there is truth in it. Coronavirus, the single biggest threat to the SNP’s progress on securing independence, is in retreat, meaning that soon the arguments of ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ will return for all to see.
This Thursday, the UK will potentially accelerate in its journey towards its second monumental political shock in less than a decade, and until a unionist force that can reckon with the SNP materialises, this journey is unlikely to slow.