The democratic mandate for a Scottish independence referendum has been renewed, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) hailing their victory in the Scottish Parliament elections as a ‘landslide’.
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 a single party in a Holyrood election.
Despite the SNP missing out on 65 seats, the Scottish Parliament has an enlarged pro-independence majority, with the Greens taking 8 MSPs.
The pro-independence parties gained thanks to the increase in turnout, which was upwards of 70% in some areas. But the unionist parties mitigated their losses thanks to ‘tactical’ voting among Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters.
All the parties laid claim to prioritising the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But 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, but could not avoid.
The Tories’ initial reaction has been to deny the reality of the situation, arguing that there is no mandate for an independence referendum, since the final tally shows about a 50-50 split in votes between unionist and pro-independence 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 a strong enough mandate 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, for example, said that they would support a second independence 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 consistent majority support for Yes. And with over 70% of young voters supporting independence, this majority is only likely to keep growing.
In claiming victory, Nicola Sturgeon asserted that it is a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’ a new referendum will be called. The SNP 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 through 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 the Spanish state’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 is attempting to avoid addressing this question. Michael Gove has refused to answer whether the Westminster government is preparing its lawsuit; another Tory 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.
This is in line with the so-called ‘Project Love’ approach – that of ‘going around’ (i.e. circumventing) Holyrood to spend UK Treasury money directly in Scotland, attempting to show the worth of the Union to Scottish voters.
This is the latest Tory strategy for attempting to reverse the growth in support for independence, following the failure of the ‘Union Unit’, and the non-starter that is the ‘Minister for the Union’, Boris Johnson.
There are others in the British ruling class who worry that this will not be enough to overcome the forces and tendencies that threaten to break up the ‘United’ Kingdom.
The Financial Times bemoans Brexit and the rise of English chauvinism, and a Tory Party that shows “contempt for devolution”. In their view, a new devolution settlement, or constitutional reform, is needed to cut across the demand for Independence.
Gordon Brown, meanwhile, 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 is intended to be both “positive” and “progressive”, as well as “patriotic”.
In reality, however, the former Labour PM’s pitch focusses on reviving the talking points of the 2014 ‘Better Together’ campaign’s ‘Project Fear’: the border, currency, pensions, etc. This is coupled with yet more vague calls for constitutional reform.
Reforms don’t wash
The genie is already out of the bottle, however. 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.
But 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 and from Tory governments, you vote Yes.
More than in any other part of the UK, voters north of the border think that Westminster doesn’t represent them, or even actively works against their interests. Offers to change 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 the UK’s process of disintegration.
A contradictory and turbulent era has brought us to this point. Since 2014, Nicola Sturgeon has faced off against three Tory prime ministers. And Scotland – along with the rest of Britain – has been through two earth-shattering events: Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.
With each of these shocks to the system, the SNP have postponed the campaign for independence, waiting for the dust to settle before embarking on their final showdown with Westminster.
The timeline for independence may have been pushed back, creating the appearance of stability, but the underlying tensions have only been heightened. Meanwhile, the consciousness of the masses has become increasingly radicalised.
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 that an independence referendum could act as a spark for working-class anger, which could spread on both sides of the England-Scotland border.
Unfortunately for the ruling class, this anger is inevitable. The crisis of capitalism will push waves of workers and youth into action – in Scotland, across Britain, and internationally. We must build the forces of Marxism, in order to lead these struggles to a revolutionary conclusion.