What does the Scottish Parliament election mean for the Union?

Since the 2014 referendum, Scottish politics has been dominated by the issue of independence. The Scottish Parliament election campaign has been no different. The SNP continue to demand a second independence referendum, and in this they have been supported by the Greens. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have managed to stage a political recovery in Scotland through their opposition to a second referendum. Labour and the Liberal Democrats also oppose a second referendum but have struggled to prevent their supporters from defecting to either the Conservatives or SNP in this new political environment.

The SNP have pointed to successive polls that show a majority are in favour of independence. This is only fair, Unionist Parties long pointed to polls showing the opposite as justification for opposing independence. A recent IPSOS Mori poll showed that 49% of Scots would vote ‘Yes’ to independence while 45% would vote ‘No’. However, when you remove the ‘Don’t Knows’ this translates to 52% for ‘Yes’ and 48% for ‘No’. This is a very slim majority, but polls such as this have greatly boosted the SNP’s cause and campaign.

Throughout the election campaign, there has been a great deal of argument about whether the Prime Minister will grant an independence referendum. Throughout the campaign the SNP have insisted that he will be compelled to do so if they win a majority. There is precedent here, the SNP successfully secured a referendum in 2014 after they won a clear majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. However, it is important to remember that the Scottish election system was designed to prevent one party gaining a majority and so actually winning a majority is exceedingly difficult. Polls show their chances of gaining a majority are currently on a knife-edge. By making an SNP majority the qualifier by which an independence referendum will be achieved, they are at risk of fighting an uphill battle and making it easy for Westminster to dismiss their efforts should they fail to do so.

Alex Salmond clearly fears this exact scenario occurring. With this in mind, he disrupted the entire campaign by forming the Alba Party with the aim of securing a “supermajority” for independence that Westminster will find impossible to ignore. However, this interpretation ignores the fact that there is already a majority for independence within the Scottish Parliament through the combined SNP/Green voting bloc and yet a referendum has remained elusive.

For his part, the Prime Minister has continued to stress that the 2014 referendum was “once in a generation” and has publicly said on several occasions that he would not permit a second one. Privately, the Prime Minister has stressed that he does not wish to go down in history as the person who split up the Union. However, there have been reports that senior Conservatives view this position as unsustainable. They are even said to have lobbied for a referendum to be granted in the short term, during the inevitable economic hardship that will follow the pandemic, as this will underline the risks of leaving the UK.

It appears difficult to imagine the Prime Minister granting a referendum when considering the wider party considerations at play here. The Scottish Conservatives have built a successful political recovery based around presenting themselves as the only party that will prevent a second independence referendum. They have given an iron clad pledge that they will prevent this from happening. If the Prime Minister, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, decided to grant a referendum then the Scottish Conservatives would be in deep trouble.

Sturgeon herself has made clear that she plans to hold a referendum in the first half of the next five year Scottish Parliament term. Throughout the campaign, the Unionist Parties have made the

argument that it is irresponsible to hold a referendum during recovery from the pandemic. However, Nicola Sturgeon has countered by saying that Scotland will not be able to recover successfully from the pandemic if key decisions remain in the hands of Westminster. For example, she said that Scotland currently lacks the powers to introduce Universal Basic Income nationwide, which is something that both Willie Rennie and Anas Sarwar have expressed support for in the recovery from the pandemic.

Overall, it remains unclear whether the Prime Minister would definitively consent to an independence referendum even if the SNP were to win a majority, although it appears unlikely. The ball will be firmly in the SNP’s court if this is the case, with suggestions that they will take the UK Government to court or even hold an unofficial referendum. Whatever the outcome of the election, the question of independence has dominated Scottish politics for years, and this looks set to continue.

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