Tag Archives: Scottish independence

Scottish Politics in Brexit Britain: is independence inevitable?

CAirney Scottish Politics Brexit Dundee CAfe 2017

This is an updated and shortened version of previous posts, designed for my talk at the Dundee Arts Café tonight. I’d like to thank First Minster Nicola Sturgeon for making me look like the best scheduler of a talk ever:

We don’t know much about the second referendum on Scottish independence, but we can be guided by three basic insights:

  1. Most people make up their mind fairly quickly and may not be swayed too much by the campaign, but there are enough undecided voters to tip the result

2. The campaign will come down to who can tell the best story (to stir the emotions, perhaps with a convincing hero and moral) rather than simply command the facts.

3. Brexit has changed the independence story dramatically, but it could support either Yes/ No campaign.

The rest is mostly gut-driven speculation: I think Yes will win, partly because it has a new way to present its case, and a better campaigner to do so, while (as ridiculous as this sounds) No may look like it is banging on about the same old arguments, and it’s less clear who will do it.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour or SNP in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps challenge the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it), or perhaps feel let down by the claim that a No vote in 2014 was to stay in the UK and EU.

Historically, the main response to 1 & 2 came from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism.

This strategy was generally received badly among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, rather, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was misleading, witnessed a reduction in the value of the pound, and seen some hard talking from likely EU negotiators that might be emulated in Scotland-UK discussions (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (see for example the sterling issue).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland:

One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. Ideally, it would wait long enough to argue that (a) Brexit is starting to ‘bite’, (b) the UK Government is stiffing Scotland in its negotiations of future devolved powers, but not so long that (c) it disrupts the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time may not arrive, and the date is not in the SNP’s gift.

On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Who will have the best story?

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. I still think that the result itself will come down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero (Nicola Sturgeon)/villain (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May?) story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin. Who will become the face of No (I reckon it will be Davidson), and how can they repackage the same arguments (who knows)?

 

 

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Racism and Stories in Scottish Politics

Brexit boosts the case for Scottish independence because it can now be framed more easily as the cosmopolitan choice: vote Yes to get away from a ‘little England’ mentality. This possibility was perhaps in Labour’s mind when it described Scottish nationalism as anything but cosmopolitan. For example, Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism, while former Labour minister Douglas Alexander left less room for doubt.

These claims prompted a small number of commentary pieces supporting or rejecting the idea that Scottish nationalism fosters racism, bigotry, and/ or social division:

  • Claire Heuchan welcomed Khan’s intervention cautiously, highlighting a tendency of Scottish actors to assert their superiority over their English counterparts, and using the opportunity to expand the debate, to highlight important issues that we often ignore, from personal stories of racist abuse and examples of more limited education and employment opportunities for people of colour, to the role of Scotland in the British empire’s colonial past built on slavery and exploitation.
  • In contrast, Robert Somynne identified a civic Scottish nationalism far apart from a ‘western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions’, arguing that Khan’s description ‘doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots’.
  • Kevin McKenna ridiculed Khan’s argument, rejecting the idea of nationalism underpinned by anti-Englishness, identifying a more divisive UK politics of which Labour is a key part, and dismissing Khan and others as part of ‘the leftwing intelligentsia’. John McKee argued that current Scottish nationalism is more about rejecting the British state than British people, while Eric Joyce links it more to rejecting more worrying forms of nationalism pursued by parties like UKIP.

The debate rages on in twitter, but the discussion has not been driven primarily by a willingness to listen, engage constructively, or talk about issues that challenge our beliefs. I don’t suppose you need me to explain why, but it’s worth highlighting three analytically-separate explanations that will likely be present throughout all debates like this:

  1. The devil shift undermines debate

People form coalitions with the people who share their beliefs, and they compete with people who don’t. The ‘devil shift’ describes a form of ‘groupthink’; a tendency of actors in those coalitions to romanticise their own cause and demonise the cause of their opponents: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’ (Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin). They question the motives of their opponents but not their allies, subject only their opponent’s arguments to criticism, and think their opponents are more powerful than they are.

If all debates are interpreted through this lens of Scottish independence, you can predict the results: Yes groups will see Khan’s intervention as threatening to their beliefs and aims, No groups will embrace it because it supports their beliefs and aims, and there is little scope for conflict resolution. Indeed, during such debates, we’ll put up with some sketchy characters if they support our cause while denouncing their equivalents in the other coalition.

This dynamic will be apparent each time we interpret each issue. For example, imagine a semi-honest and open discussion about Scotland and the colonial empire. One side might combine two points – Scotland ‘punches above its weight’ in every endeavour, and Scotland was part of the empire – to argue that Scotland played a disproportionate role in colonialism and slavery. The other will remind us of the unequal and coerced alliance of 1707 and/ or blame an unelected elite in Scotland for the Union and empire, to argue that Scottish independence is the best way to reject the colonial past. The same history has a very different villain and moral.

  1. There are two colliding roles of storytelling

We can identify two main roles of personal storytelling: (1) to empower an individual, when they share their experiences of life and feel listened to, and (2) to take forward a political agenda, when they identify a hero/ villain and moral that suits one coalition’s beliefs and aims.

In our case, it is difficult to separate the two, and most people are not willing or able to do so. This may be understandable with Khan’s recent intervention since, although he generally has an important story to tell from his perspective, this specific speech seemed designed to bolster the position of Scottish Labour at its party conference. Heuchan’s experience is more worrying, her motives seemed far less instrumental and her personal story was worth listening to, but almost no-one has simply said ‘thank you for your story’ without adding conditions or objections. There are very few spaces in which people will listen rather than judge.

  1. Some topics are unusually personal

In part, this is because few people like to think that they are racist or bigoted. Some won’t think about the ways in which they benefit from the systematic effects of racism – in which some groups benefit disproportionately from education/ employment opportunities and face a smaller risk of personal abuse – partly because they don’t have to, and it’s generally not an enjoyable experience. Others will flinch at the idea that they are privileged because they are white, often because they have vivid memories of personal experiences of abuse or disadvantage linked to another part of their background, such as their gender, class, religion, or disability.

So, we often want to tell our stories without listing to those of others. If there is no such space in which to exchange the details of such stories, we soon end up with heated, futile debates based on the sense that you don’t understand my experience or perspective before you criticise it. We can’t solve this problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and perhaps be aware that, although the Scottish debate has some unusual features, it is one of many examples of routine divisive politics.

 

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There may never be a good time to call #indyref2, but …

This is a blog post for one of the two talks I offered to give, first at Warwick then Dundee.

I’ll start off with the same admission of hubris each time: these talks take a while to arrange, I suggested the topic in the late summer, and I assumed I’d know something about the effect of Brexit on the future of Scottish politics by now. Instead, I don’t know much more than the stuff I described in June (‘Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence’). So, I’ll focus on what we know now, and speculate wildly (hand gestures at 100%) about what might happen. My gut still tells me that there will be an indyref2 and that Yes will win, but my gut is pretty crap.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour (and now SNP) in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps reframe the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it).

Traditionally, the main response to 1 & 2 has come from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism. Although Khan is reported to have backtracked a bit, former Labour minister Douglas Alexander doubled down:

This strategy has gone down like a fart in a lift among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was mince, a reduction in the value of the pound, and some hard talking from likely EU negotiators (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (the £ issue is bad for the consumer but good for the exporter).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland. One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Can there be a ‘rational’ calculation of when/if to call indyref2?

If we focus on the idea of a rational calculating Nicola Sturgeon, developing a formula to determine the right time to hold indyref2, the timing would involve: (a) waiting long enough for Brexit to ‘bite’ and prompt voters to feel its effects and shift to Yes, and (b) waiting for the UK Government to stiff Scotland in its negotiations of future Scottish devolved powers, but (c) not waiting too long to disrupt the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time has not arrived and, as John Curtice suggests, may not arrive.

Or, will it come down to passion and emotion?

Yet, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. So, why should leaders of the SNP be exempt from a bout of passion, especially if loads of their supporters are keen, see it as a last opportunity for decades, and hope that they can change some minds during the next campaign? The fact that I argue the very opposite in another post is neither here nor there!

I still think that the result itself will comes down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero/villain story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin.

See also: a gazillion posts on the last Scottish referendum (scroll)

 

 

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#indyref2

A version of this post appears in The Conversation.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced a consultation on a new Bill on Scottish Independence. Clearly, it made the audience at the SNP’s conference very happy, but what should the rest of us make of it? My gut tells me there will be a second referendum but wouldn’t yet bet my house on it, because that decision is wrapped up in three unresolved issues.

First, there won’t be a referendum unless the SNP thinks it will win, but the polls won’t tell us the answer before Sturgeon has to ask the question! It sounds simple to hold back a referendum until enough people tell you they’ll vote Yes. The complication is that many people don’t know what their choice will be until they can make sense of recent events. ‘Brexit’ might be a ‘game changer’ in a year or two, but it isn’t right now, and Sturgeon might have to choose to pursue a referendum before those polls change in her favour.

Second, the polls don’t tell us much because it is too soon to know what Brexit will look like. The idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote.

In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the full effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like. If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?

Third, it is therefore too soon to know how different the second Scottish independence referendum would be. The SNP would like it to relate to the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit, basing its case on a combination of simple statements: England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will; the Tories caused this problem; we want to clear up the mess that they caused; it’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused; and, we want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England.

Instead, what if people see the Leave vote as a cautionary tale? It is not easy to argue that our response to the catastrophic effect of a withdrawal from a major political, economic, and social union should be to withdraw from another major political, economic, and social union! This is particularly true now that Brexit has opened up the possibility of more devolution (a possibility that had been closed off before now). A feasible alternative is to push for more autonomy in the areas that are devolved and ‘Europeanised’ – including agriculture, fishing, and environmental policies – as a way to have the UK deal with the Scottish Government as ‘as equals on a range of areas’.

So, I’d describe Sturgeon’s announcement as a short term win: why not give your most active audience something to cheer about while you wait for events to unfold? Predicting the timing of a referendum is more difficult because it relates more to a concept than a date: it will be the point at which (a) we know enough about the meaning of Brexit to judge its likely impact, and (b) we have to decide before it feels too late (in other words, in time to respond to the timetable of the UK’s exit from the EU).

Some people are worrying that the UK Government might scupper the SNP’s chances directly, by withholding consent for a second referendum. Maybe it would be better to be tricksy indirectly, by remaining vague about the impact of Brexit and having people in Scotland worry about making a choice before they know its effect.

 

 

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‘Hard Brexit’ is not yet a game changer for Scottish Independence

The Herald reports that ‘Hard Brexit is not a game changer for SNP’. Based on its latest BMG poll, it describes an even split between those who want/ don’t want a second referendum on Scottish independence, and between those who want an early or late referendum.

These results don’t seem too surprising because the idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote. I think the basic story would relate to a combination of simple statements such as:

  • England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will
  • The Tories caused this problem
  • We want to clear up the mess that they caused
  • It’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused
  • We want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England

In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the widespread effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like.

If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?

image for POLU9SP

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The Scottish Parliament would be crap in an independent Scotland and almost no-one cares

Here is a four-step plan to avoid having to talk about how powerless the Scottish Parliament tends to be, in comparison to the old idea of ‘power sharing’ with the Scottish Government:

  1. Find something the SNP Government is doing and point out how wrong it is.
  2. Have the opposition parties pile in, taking their chance to bemoan the SNP’s power hoarding.
  3. Have the SNP point out that Labour used to do this sort of thing, so it’s hypocritical to complain now.
  4. Convince the public that it’s OK as long as all of the parties would have done it, or if they have been doing it for a long time.

This pretty much sums up the reaction to the SNP’s use of Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLOs) on Scottish parliamentary committees: the MSP works closely with a minister and sits on the committee that is supposed to hold the minister to account. The practice ensures that there is no meaningful dividing line between government and parliament, and reinforces the sense that the parliament is not there to provide effective scrutiny and robust challenge to the government. Instead, plenary is there for the pantomime discussion and committees are there to have run-of-the-mill humdrum scrutiny with minimal effect on ministers.

The use of PLOs on parliamentary committees has become yet another example in which the political parties – or, at least, any party with a chance of being in government – put themselves first before the principles of the Scottish Parliament (set out in the run up to devolution). Since devolution, the party of government has gone further than you might expect to establish its influence on parliament: controlling who convenes (its share of) committees and which of its MSPs sit on committees, and moving them around if they get too good at holding ministers to account or asking too-difficult questions. An MSP on the side of government might get a name for themselves if they ask a follow-up question to a minister in a committee instead of nodding appreciatively – and you don’t want that sort of thing to develop. Better to keep it safe and ask your MSPs not to rock the boat, or move them on if they cause a ripple.

So, maybe the early founders of devolution wanted MSPs to sit on the same committees for long periods, to help them develop expertise, build up a good relationship with MSPs from other parties, and therefore work effectively to hold the government to account. Yet, no Scottish government has been willing to let go, to allow that independent role to develop. Instead, they make sure that they have at least one key MSP on each committee to help them agree the party line that all their MSPs are expected to follow. So, this development, of parliamentary aides to ministers corresponding almost exactly with committee membership, might look new, but it is really an extension of longstanding practices to curb the independent power of parliaments and their committees – and the party in government has generally resisted any reforms (including those proposed by the former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick) to challenge its position.

Maybe the only surprise is that ‘new politics’ seems worse than old Westminster. In Westminster committees, some MPs can make a career as a chair, and their independence from government is far clearer – something that it is keen to reinforce with initiatives such as MPs electing chairs in secret ballots. In comparison, the Scottish Parliament seems like a far poorer relation to its Scottish Government counterpart – partly because of complacency and a lack of continuous reform.

Almost no-one cares about this sort of thing

What is not surprising is the general reaction to the Herald piece on the 15th August – and the follow up on the 16th – which pointed out that the SNP was going further than the use of PLOs it criticised while in opposition.

So, future Scottish Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop – quite rightly – criticised this practice in 2002, arguing that it went against the government’s Scottish Ministerial Code. Note the Labour-led government’s ridiculous defense, which it got away with because (a) almost no-one cares, and (b) the governing parties dominate the parliament.

hyslop 2

Then, in 2007, the SNP government’s solution was to remove the offending section from that Code. Problem solved!

MPAs to PLOs 2003 and 2007

Now, its defence is that Labour used to do it and the SNP has been doing it for 9 years, so why complain now? It can get away with it because almost no-one cares. Of those who might care, most only care if it embarrasses one of the parties at the expense of another. When it looks like they might all be at it, it’s OK. Almost no-one pays attention to the principle that the Scottish Parliament should have a strong role independent of government, and that this role should not be subject to the whims of self-interested political parties.

So, I feel the need to provide a reason for SNP and independence supporters to care more about this, and here goes:

  1. Most people voted No in the 1st referendum on Scottish independence.
  2. There might be a 2nd referendum but it would be silly to expect a Yes vote this time without new and better arguments built more on actual plans rather than the generation of positivity and hope. For a political project to work, you really need to tell people what you will do if you win.
  3. One of those arguments needs to be about political reform. The ‘architects of devolution’ recognised this need to offer political alongside constitutional reform, producing the sense of ‘new politics’ that we now use to show that Scottish politics fell quite short of expectations. The mistake was to assume that they had cracked it in 1999 and never needed to reform again. Instead, institutions need to be changing continuously in light of experience. So, the previous SNP White Paper (p355) was rubbish on this issue because it pretty much said that it would keep things as they were because they were working OK.

p355 Scotland's Future

It is complacent nonsense, treating the Scottish political system as an afterthought, and it might just come back to bite the SNP in the bum. The implicit argument that The Scottish Parliament would be just as crap in an independent Scotland as it is now, and almost no-one cares is poor. Or, to put it in terms of the standard of partisan debate on twitter: shitey whataboutery might make you feel good on twitter, but it won’t win you any votes in the next referendum.

 

See also: Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s Patrick Harvie highlights close links between ministerial aides and parliamentary committees

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable (version 2)?

This is an updated blog post. The original post provided notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the  Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions. I had written it before the vote in the UK to leave the EU, which provided the only realistic chance of a second referendum on Scottish independence. So, the background sections remain the same, but I update the contemporary section with reference to Brexit and its consequences.

The advertised abstract read:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

My aim is to:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.
  • Provide a brief update on the impact of the EU referendum, bearing in mind that I am no less hopeless than anyone else about predicting the future.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

Before the Brexit vote, I tried to sell the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums (2014 and 2024): a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. In the meantime, the SNP and Greens would produce some vague triggers (like a surge in opinion poll support).

Now, if a second referendum is to happen, it is because of the constitutional crisis prompted by Brexit. Overall, most UK voters chose to leave the European Union, but most voters in Scotland chose to remain. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on that basis, with reference to a ‘democratic outrage’. It possesses the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and needs some cooperation from a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change. It is difficult to see why the Conservative government would oppose a referendum under those circumstances (rather than allow it to take place and argue for the Union) even though UK government ministers have rejected the idea so far.

If a second referendum happens, it could happen before 2020. I am hesitant to say when exactly, partly because there is so much uncertainty, which too many people try to fill with needless speculation. For example, Sturgeon confirmed that it could happen as early as 2017, but only because the BBC asked her what she would do if the UK government behaved unreasonably.  In the same interview, Sturgeon also suggested that it may take a long time for the UK to invoke ‘Article 50’, which triggers a notional two-year negotiation period before the UK leaves the EU.

Before we know if a second referendum is likely, and the likely date, we need clarity on two things: (1) the extent to which the UK can (and is willing to) negotiate a deal with the EU which satisfies the SNP and Scottish voters (by becoming Brexit-lite or providing Scotland-specific provisions on key issues like free movement of people); and, (2) the timing of Brexit, since a Scottish referendum would hopefully not take place until we know what we are voting for (which might not happen until near the end of the notional two-year negotiations). Still, it is likely that the vote would be binary, as some version of: stay in the UK out of the EU, or leave the UK and stay in the EU.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

Recent events reinforce the sense that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, until recently, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, before Brexit, we had two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

Now, things are a bit more complicated, since devolution is no longer simply about Scotland’s position in the UK. Scenario two now has to be accompanied by the sense (however true) that the Scottish Government is able to negotiate a distinctive relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK.

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy (although Brexit will remove a level from many of those relationships!)
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

In the original version of this post, I signed off by speculating: ‘maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement that that we are not just killing time until the next referendum’. It already seems like an out of date hope: the constitution is back at the top of our agenda, and I can’t remember the last time I read a story about domestic policy in Scotland.

 

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