Crucial Election Looms

In just seven months time, Scottish voters will head to the polls to elect a new cohort of MSPs to the Scottish parliament. From recent polls, the Scottish National Party looks set for a majority of seats and of the overall vote. But we live in highly uncertain times and much could change between now and then – with even the vote not entirely certain to go ahead on 6th May 2021 depending on how the Covid-19 crisis unfolds.

Assuming the vote does (as is most probable) go ahead as scheduled, there are multiple uncertainties and dynamics to occupy voters and politicians between now and then. And despite Boris Johnson’s ‘no’ to another independence referendum, the twin futures of the UK and Scotland are clearly on the line as never before. The upcoming seven months of political debate in Scotland, and the outcome of the May election, are set to be highly consequential.

Independence should be at the heart of the debate as the election draws nearer, with Sturgeon having promised to include a second independence referendum in the SNP manifesto. And the election result will surely show whether the independence train has maintained its current momentum. In one scenario, an SNP majority may either make another referendum unstoppable or set off a big and unpredictable political and constitutional stand-off. In another scenario, the opposition parties and/or wider events could act to limit SNP gains, lower support for independence at least (perhaps at most) back to a 50:50 ‘undecided’ outcome and prolong current constitutional uncertainties. Few currently consider, given the state of the parties, a third scenario of a non-SNP government.

From independence to the Covid-19 crisis to the Salmond affair to Brexit and the UK’s future relations with the EU, there are many vital issues in the mix. The possibility of rejoining the EU is partly behind the current increase in support for independence, so the mounting damage of Brexit (whether deal or no deal) from the start of next year is a plus for the SNP (though hard questions remain not least on borders). And, so far, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish government have come out of the Covid crisis way ahead of Boris Johnson and the UK government. But as the second wave unfolds and the economic impacts grow, another unknown is whether public opinion will start to find more fault with Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis across its multiple dimensions (even if its dismal view of the UK government’s performance does not improve).

Meanwhile, the Holyrood inquiry into the handing of the Salmond investigation is starting to heat up, giving opposition parties new opportunities to critique the SNP – not to mention helping to drive forward the SNP’s own deep internal divisions, labelled an internal civil war by some. How voters will respond as the inquiry continues and finally reports is an open question – but it’s certainly not going to be positive for the SNP.

Overall, for now, the polls – both for next May’s vote and for independence – are on the SNP’s side. And how both Labour and the Conservatives will handle their political positioning in the next seven months to attempt to hold off a sweeping SNP win is not yet clear. But a more strident Conservative rhetoric is already clear – as are UK government attacks on the devolution settlement via the internal market bill (just rejected by the Scottish parliament and likely to go down badly with a fairly large swathe of Scottish voters).

What is clear is that this is a Scottish election that will attract a lot of attention not just from the rest of the UK but too from across the EU (and beyond), many European and international observers wondering how deep and rapid, and perhaps irreversible, the UK’s fragmentation is becoming. It is notable too that England-based media and commentators often struggle to understand the success of the SNP – and frequently assume, too,  that being in favour of the UK union is an impartial stance in face of an ‘SNP bad’ nationalism rather than adopting a more balanced view of the independence-UK choice and debate and the complexities of Scottish politics.

Growing Support for Independence

A number of polls since June this year have shown a marked increase in support for independence. A Panelbase poll in August neatly reversed the 2014 referendum result giving 55% yes and 45% no – a stark reversal. That poll also found 42% of Labour voters supporting independence – highlighting the quandary Keir Starmer faces. A YouGov/Times poll in August found yes at 53%. The combined effects of Brexit, the handling of Covid by Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, and indeed the election success of Johnson last December all appear part of this increase. But the 45% that voted ‘yes’ in 2014 also testifies to a strong wish for self-determination, which has not disappeared.

The demographics of support for independence are not new but also striking, with support growing amongst the middle-aged. YouGov found 79% of 18-24 year olds support independence, 58% of 25-49 year olds, and 53% of 50-64 year olds – leaving only the 65 plus age group clearly against, with only 35% of them supporting an independent Scotland. Opposition parties that are pro-union will not obviously gain support in all these younger age groups by a simply aggressive anti-independence strategy, though more sophisticated strategies are not much in evidence.

Managing the Covid Crisis

Trust in managing the Covid crisis is also strongly skewed in favour of Nicola Sturgeon. Asked in the YouGov poll whether Johnson was handling Covid-19 well or badly, only 18% of Scottish voters said Johnson was doing well to 79% badly, while with an almost mirror image, Sturgeon was seen by 79% to be doing well and badly by only 17% (with even 51% of Tory voters saying she was doing well and 72% of Labour voters). How these figures will shift as the Covid second wave unfolds will be an interesting indicator to follow, with Scotland now embarked on a 16-day circuit-breaker of tighter restrictions and cases rising sharply across the UK.

Next May’s Election

Meanwhile, YouGov found headline voting intentions for the Holyrood vote next May as SNP 57%, Conservative 20% and Labour only 14%. This could give the SNP as many as 74 seats (in a proportional voting system designed to avoid big majorities) – where at present they have 61 MSPs and rely on the pro-independence Greens for a majority.

And if the SNP did indeed get a majority of the vote this would give a strong mandate for another independence referendum (while some in the independence movement would argue such a result should even count as a vote for independence, a ‘plan B’ if Johnson continues to refuse a referendum (as must be likely)). Rather reluctantly, Keir Starmer, while insisting Labour opposes independence, has recently said a majority for the SNP next May would give a mandate for another referendum. This sets up a potentially interesting clash if the SNP do indeed succeed next May – not just of the Scottish government versus the UK government on the right to hold another referendum but with Labour saying, in democratic terms, it would effectively support that demand at that point.

Faced with these polling figures, the pro-UK opposition parties must surely have as their aim to target swing voters bringing the pro-independence figures and SNP majority down.  Equally, the SNP and Greens might be expected to do what they can to sustain and build on the growth in support for independence.

But the Covid crisis has intervened here. Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that managing the crisis is her aim, not politics as usual. But at some point, arguments for independence – and not just arguments for being the next Scottish government – will need to be made. It is notable that the SNP online conference will not be until the end of November – perhaps pushing back more political and policy debates although the Covid crisis will still very much be with us still then too. It is striking too that, while there is some grass-roots pro-independence campaigning, much of the debate amongst independence supporters is not about how to bring more people into their camp but an internal one about how to get rapidly to another referendum, what a Plan B would look like, and whether Nicola Sturgeon is moving too slowly, with much of this debate also rather similarly aligned to the stand-off between the Sturgeon and Alex Salmond camps.

Upcoming Debates

Some of the pro- and anti-independence arguments are well worn. But Brexit and the UK government’s disregard for international law, for devolution, and for a range of UK democratic institutions have changed much of the wider political debate in Scotland.

The internal market bill, as well as breaking the terms of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, represents a major undermining of the devolution settlement. Leading Scottish economic and constitutional experts have suggested that the bill undermines existing devolution practices and processes. Professor David Bell has argued the bill’s state aid provisions may be designed to “circumvent the devolved nations”. And Professor Michael Keating argues the bill undermines the ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution while also, bizarrely, avoiding a clear definition of the concept of an internal market. Amongst many other impacts, the bill may make the Scottish government’s aim of mirroring EU legislation in devolved areas, notably the environment, close to irrelevant since goods from England and Wales will have access to the Scottish market without meeting Scottish rules.

This week the Scottish Parliament voted 90 to 28 to refuse legislative consent for the bill with only the Conservatives voting to support it – but this is not expected to have any influence on the progress of the bill at Westminster (another indicator of the inadequacies of the current devolution settlement).

Meanwhile, the economic and wider fall-outs from the Covid crisis as well as the primary health impacts are already a focus of debate. New Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, hoping to trade his Westminster seat for Holyrood next May, is speaking out on the economy – demanding the Scottish government act to protect jobs. This is rather tricky political messaging at a time when Rishi Sunak is cutting back on the furlough scheme, which benefitted Scottish companies and employees too.

The opposition will, doubtless, make much of the economic challenges of independence as the election comes closer, with arguments about the border, about Scotland’s three times greater trade with the rest of the UK than with the EU, about the deficit an independent Scotland may inherit and about the future currency of an independent Scotland. The pro-independence side need to marshal clearer arguments here than they have so far about the potential economic trajectory and goals of an independent Scotland. But there will be clear contrasts to be drawn too between the option of rejoining the EU as an independent Scotland or staying part of a UK that, from January next year, will have a hard and potentially chaotic border with the EU (even with a basic free trade deal).

A hard-to-handle economic crisis with rapidly rising unemployment would not normally be seen as fertile soil for a push towards independence. But the twin impacts of Brexit and the UK government’s management of the Covid crisis mean these arguments are not by any means all of benefit to the opponents of the SNP.

The most unpredictable factor, as of now, is the unfolding of the Alex Salmond saga. A committee of MSPs at Holyrood are currently holding an inquiry into the mis-handling of the Scottish government’s investigation of claims of misconduct by Salmond – an investigation which the government accepted in 2019 was ‘tainted by apparent bias’ and left it facing a £500k bill for both sides legal costs. This was before Salmond was charged with sexual assault – charges which he was cleared of in court earlier this year.

By September, the committee’s inquiry was starting to create headlines and an intensified political debate. Linda Fabiani, the SNP MSP who is chairing the committee, expressed her frustration at the end of September at the lack of responses from the Scottish government, from Peter Murrell (the SNP’s chief executive and husband of Nicola Sturgeon) and from Alex Salmond. Days later, the committee published some evidence Sturgeon had provided two months earlier, including a series of Whatsapp exchanges between her and Salmond. Two texts from Murrell were also recently leaked where he suggests ‘pressurising’ the police on the Salmond affair. Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has also now accused Sturgeon of misleading parliament over when she first knew of the accusations against Salmond – a crucial question for the inquiry.

As evidence mounts and accusations swirl, where this saga will end up in terms of the conclusions of the Holyrood inquiry, the impact on Scottish public opinion, on divisions within the SNP, and on next May’s election has yet to be seen.

Combining this saga with current majority support for independence, Brexit, the Covid crisis in all its dimensions, and the undermining of devolution, means Scotland’s politics is certainly not on a smooth path to next May’s elections, despite the current polls. Independence as an issue is not going away whatever the outcome of the elections. But whether, amidst this tumultuous politics, the current picture of majority support for leaving the UK, and rejoining the EU holds through intact to those elections is the question at the eye of the storm.

is a writer and commentator on Scottish, European & UK politics. From 2017-2020 Kirsty was Founder & Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations.