In the time of coronavirus, it’s easy to forget the democratic process which decides who governs our nation through good and bad. The local elections in 2020 were cancelled, with debates remaining over whether they’ll take place as scheduled this May. In America, the Presidential election became so focused on the two candidates running for President that the significant logistical challenges of managing an election were almost placed to one side.
That is unlikely to happen this year. One election likely to receive widespread focus is the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. Originally every four years, they’ve now taken place every half decade. Given the widespread volume of devolved issues held in Edinburgh, these are significant elections affecting millions of people. Even those outside Scotland will undoubtedly be affected too due to the First Minister’s relationship with the Prime Minister.
Before the election and the consequences of its outcome can even be discussed, determining whether the election will even take place must be established. The UK government has ve suggested that English elections are highly unlikely to be postponed. Using measures like proxy voting and postal voting, they don’t believe anyone will be disenfranchised because of shielding or coronavirus concerns. Nicola Sturgeon has agreed with this regarding the Scottish elections, suggesting that their cancellation remains a possible, but unlikely, circumstance.
Indeed, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) have specifically introduced legislation to ensure voting can be made as smooth as possible. By allowing for voting to take place on more than one day and extending postal voting applications, inaccessibility to the ballot box looks unlikely. It will be in Nicola Sturgeon’s best interests for the vote to take place. According to Reuters, the SNP look set to win 71 out of the 129 seats, an increase of six from the 2016 election.
This would give the Scottish National Party a majority in the Scottish Parliament and a fourth term in office. Meanwhile, the unionist Labour and Conservative parties would hold only 21 and 17 seats respectively. Nicola Sturgeon has stated she would use the success of a majority as a mandate for holding a second independence referendum. Again, given that a ComRes poll showed 57% of people would currently vote for independence, the SNP have a strong reason to believe both the election and a future referendum would be successful.
Undoubtedly, the breakup of the UK would be a monumental moment, far bigger than the departure of the UK from the EU; an organisation we had been part of for 40 years. Scotland becoming independent however, would break up a nation state that has existed for more than 300 years. The UK would lose 10% of its population and a third of its landmass. The economic, constitutional, social and geopolitical consequences of such a decision cannot be underestimated. That’s before you account for growing calls for a united Ireland, with 51% of Northern Irish voters wanting a referendum according to one poll. Furthermore, Welsh independence is now at its highest ever level of support, with 33% of voters backing independence.
Indeed, these were all arguments made in 2014. The first – and, to date, only – Scottish independence referendum was held following the success of former First Minister Alex Salmond in 2011. Under a Section 30 order, the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Salmond agreed to hold an independence referendum on 18th September 2014. Though the Scottish electorate rejected independence by 55% to 45%, the increasing support for the ‘Yes’ campaign provided the SNP with a base to perform consistently well at Westminster elections.
Why has Nicola Sturgeon wanted this new mandate for independence? Fundamentally, it defines her party. Though they have held extensive powers in government as part of the United Kingdom, the SNP ultimately want complete autonomy for Scotland as a country in its own right. Whatever the circumstances facing the country, that would always be the SNP’s position.
However, the party has tried to use recent circumstances to further the demand for their positions. In the 2016 EU referendum, 62% of Scots voted to remain part of the UK. The SNP have thus used rhetoric of Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will and would lobby to rejoin the Union as an independent member. Similarly, everyone can agree that the Westminster government has been far from component in dealing with coronavirus. Though health is a devolved matter, the SNP have wanted to portray this as an example of why the country should have full independence.
The growing support in polling appears to stem from Remain inclined voters. While they may have voted No to independence in 2014, the departure of the UK from the EU might have pushed them into the Yes camp, according to the psephologist John Curtice. Even though Curtice also remarks that some previous Yes voters also voted for Brexit and now oppose Scottish independence, there is a far greater pull among Remain voters. This demonstrates how, along with so many other aspects, Brexit has transformed our approach to politics.
It is widely assumed that the SNP will be successful in their election campaign. So what happens then? Under the 1998 Scotland Act, the UK government has to legally agree and empower the Scottish government if it wanted to hold another referendum. Boris Johnson has rejected such calls for a second vote, arguing that independence is not on the minds of voters and that the timetable for another poll should be 2055.
There has always been a tension in the SNP over the route taken to achieve independence. The fundamentalists believe whatever it takes should be done to allow Scottish voters their say. By contrast, gradualists have always supported a slower, more managed process for achieving independence. The rift between the two may be no more. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that a referendum of some form will be held whatever the UK government says – if they are successful this May, that is.
For questions of legitimacy, that would have severe legal implications. The SNP have pledged to fight in court any attempt to stop a referendum from taking place. Such disputes could eventually reach the Supreme Court, which would be quite the showdown. Indeed, attempting to stop such a referendum even if the SNP had a mandate could help to fuel the flames of independence campaigners and the independence cause.
Were the SNP to go through improper channels, the prospect of political and personal disruption could be severe. The party could mirror Catalonia, a region of Spain that has long sought independence. In 2017, Catalonian campaigners held an illegal referendum which was boycotted by supporters of keeping Spain together. Were the SNP to attempt the same, the referendum would not hold the international and geopolitical recognition enjoyed by the first.
It’s important to keep things in proportion. The act of Scotland voting for independence wouldn’t make it independent the following day. Just as the UK didn’t leave the EU for three and a half years after the vote, so Scotland would wake up the morning after the referendum, whatever the result, still as part of the UK. Legal debates over whether Holyrood has the power to initiate a referendum have been long and ongoing in UK courts, with the result significant for the final political outcome.
Given that Nicola Sturgeon would like an independent Scotland to apply to rejoin the EU, the question of legitimacy from the bloc would be significant. If they didn’t see the referendum and subsequent negotiations as agreed, the chances of rejoining would be significantly lower. Alongside questions of new member states having to accept factors like the euro and the free movement of citizens, the questions of whether they would even be allowed entry would be up for serious discussion.
Part of the brilliance of the 2014 referendum, whatever side you were on, was the extremely high turnout. That 84% of people cast a ballot gave the referendum legitimacy and extreme reliability. People were engaged in the democratic process and wanted to have their say. Yet the turnout could be far lower in a future referendum where both sides don’t agree on the terms. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has said a Section 30 order is the only legal route to a referendum and that the Conservatives would boycott any such referendum held outside the legal route.
Whether Starmer decides to take that same move remains to be seen. They are conflicted as a party, with so much of their former support having gone to the SNP. Deciding that, to support a referendum, might be the only way to achieve any kind of support would be significant and impactful. In 2014, whatever your view, all sides agreed on the legitimacy of the poll. That no longer looks as certain.
The oldest tracks are perhaps the best. Labour have decided to take that tactic with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seen as one of the figureheads who kept the union together in 2014, he’s been brought back to attempt the same thing seven years later. Despite writing about fears that the UK is becoming a failed state, Mr Brown clearly believes that all is not lost. Urging Boris Johnson to set up a constitutional commission looking at changes to UK structures, it’s unclear whether his rhetoric will be able to bring back those who have swung over to the Yes camp. As for the Prime Minister, it seems more attention was given to whether his trip to Scotland recently was essential rather than a message of unity.
The SNP look unassailable. That a party who’ve been in government for 14 years look set to win a fourth term points both to their strength and the weakness of their opponents. Much of it stems from an effective PR campaign that manages to mask both Scotland’s poor response to Covid and other domestic challenges they face. However, the Alex Salmond case looks set to be significant. Last March, the former First Minister was acquitted on 12 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault. Salmond has accused Nicola Sturgeon of misleading the Scottish Parliament over what she knew regarding his alleged misbehaviour and when. Both are due imminently to appear before the Scottish Parliament under oath to make their cases and arguments known.
The conflict over independence is something that will not go away lightly. Passions are high, interest is strong and the belief over shaping a nation’s future emotionally and politically captivating. Though the result of departure would be more serious than when the UK left the EU, the arguments, tensions and potential for animosity it would spark could be no different. The success of the SNP as the main party for independence, both at the forthcoming election and in any referendum, would be pivotal for determining the result. How it will affect the UK’s future is unknown except for being extraordinary. Just as David Cameron will be remembered as the Prime Minister of Brexit, so Boris Johnson might be remembered not for the coronavirus pandemic, but for being the leader who broke up the United Kingdom.