Tag Archives: SNP

#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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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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Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence

image for POLU9SP

My gut says that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence and that Yes will win comfortably. Yet, predicting political events and outcomes right now is like predicting the weather. The result is not inevitable, largely because the key factors prompting people to vote No have not gone away – and, in some ways, the No case is now stronger. I’ll explain this by (a) comparing the likely Yes and No stories during the next campaign, and (b) speculating wildly about the extent to which key parties will campaign as hard for No in the second referendum.

Brexit is a Godsend for the strongest Yes stories: 1. only independence can remove the democratic deficit and guarantee that we make our own decisions.

It sounds like the Brexit ‘take our country back’ story, in which a remote government in a remote city makes decisions on our behalf without us having any say (it’s ‘London’ for Scotland, whereas in England/ Wales it can be London or ‘Brussels’).

Yet, there are key differences: the SNP is pro-immigration (its nationalism is ‘civic’, not ‘ethnic’) and the ‘democratic deficit’ means something else. When applied to the EU, it means that (a) few people know how it works and who, if anyone, is accountable, and (b) that it is difficult to vote for EU policymakers in the same way as we vote for national governments.

When applied to Scotland, it means that most voters in Scotland have tended to vote Labour or SNP in Westminster elections, but they often get a UK Tory government. So, a government with no legitimacy in Scotland makes decisions on our behalf, and there is nothing the Scottish Government can do about it.

In the campaign for devolution, this story developed in opposition to the Thatcherite imposition of things like the poll tax. In the campaign for independence, the poll tax became the bedroom tax.

In the next campaign for independence, the Brexit vote will become an important symbol for this argument: we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and we are being dragged out against our will by England (and Wales).

I think this argument will win the day, for two reasons. First, most of the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 seem like a sure bet for the next vote. Second, there are some people who voted No on the assumption of remaining in the UK in the EU. They now have to choose between (a) in the UK and out of the EU, or (b) in the EU and out of the UK.

  1. Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice

Crucially, the Brexit is a godsend for the argument that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. It was too easy for opponents to argue in 2014 that nationalism was parochialism: by focusing on Scotland, you are removing yourself from the world. The counter-argument – let’s become independent to play a more positive role in that world – was relatively difficult to make.

Now, the door is open to argue that the Brexit vote reflects a Little England mentality, and that only Scottish independence offers the chance to cooperate fully with our European partners. In Scotland, cosmopolitan voters will share a campaign with nationalist voters.

Put these parts together and you have this story: independence is the only solution to being ruled from afar by the Tories who are determined (with the help of UKIP) to turn us into a Little England state which blames immigrants or the rest of the world for its problems.

Yet, the No story remains powerful too, for two original reasons and one new reason.

The No story: 1. Economic damage, uncertainty, and the currency issue

‘Better Together’ campaigned hard on the idea that a Yes vote will be economically damaging, producing a major government deficit in the short term with no guarantee of improvement in the long term (note that the rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, and we need their partnership). They also argued successfully that Scotland could no longer use Sterling if independent (which really meant that the Scottish Government would no longer enjoy the same crucial relationship with the Bank of England).

Most No voters will have felt good about their decision because the price of a barrel of oil plummeted after 2014, giving the impression that Scotland’s short term economic deficit would have been even higher. Further, the currency issue remains unresolved, and the main alternatives to using the pound with the UK Government/ BoE’s blessing (Sterlingisation, a Scottish pound, joining the Euro) still won’t seem like brilliant prospects to undecided voters.

The No story: 2. The Yes vote meant all things to all people.

A further No argument related to the idea that all sorts of people were making all sorts of claims about a future independent Scotland, and that they couldn’t all be right. The Scottish Government’s ‘White Paper’ was more sensible, but was still built on hope more than expectation. So, if you don’t share that optimism, it just looks like a long document designed to look professional and reassuring without really providing a blueprint for action or a measured set of expectations.

A third new part of the story: we now see what happens when you vote to leave (and it’s bad)

The biggest effect of the Brexit on the No story is that we can already see what happens when people vote to leave a political union:

(1) We immediately see that people were making all sorts of promises that they couldn’t keep, and/ or that key people backtrack very quickly (examples after the Brexit vote include the ridiculous £350m for the NHS claim, and the now more modest claims about immigration). It’s easy to say what you are leaving behind, but not what you will do instead.

(2) We immediately see some frightening economic consequences.

(3) We are about to discover how our former political partners will react, and it doesn’t look like they’ll simply hug us and wish us all the best.

So, (4) the No campaign will be about emphasising this uncertainty and the poor consequences of political divorce as they are happening in real time.

In the end, it comes down to who will tell these Yes/ No stories and how well they do it

The main problem for a new No campaign is that I don’t think it will have the same backing. In the first campaign, almost all of the main parties against independence signed up to a common project. Yet, it was damaging to Scottish Labour and I doubt they’ll sign up a second time to represent the ‘Red Tories’, particularly since many members will vote Yes next time.

It will be largely down to Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives, who campaigned in 2016 as the SNP’s main opposition and the defenders of the UK. Although they did pretty well in the Holyrood elections, pretty well means 23% of the vote.

In contrast, the SNP is a highly professional outfit, which lost a referendum but gained a huge membership, has a very popular leadership, and still enjoys an incredibly strong image of governing competence (particularly for a party in government for 9 years).

If you want to put it more simply and to personalise the next campaign, I simply say this:

Nicola Sturgeon has already perfected the look of someone pissed off with UK Government incompetence, reluctantly proposing a second referendum to deal with the mess, and able to reject most arguments about economic and political uncertainty as bloody rich coming from the people who just voted to leave the EU. Salmond might have looked too (‘I told you so’) smug to pull it off, but Sturgeon looks genuinely annoyed rather than opportunistic.

Who can perform the same function for the No side? There are almost no London-based politicians that could generate the same kind of respect that Sturgeon enjoys. Ruth Davidson is the next best thing, but she will spend a fair amount of each debate being a bit embarrassed about the situation in which she finds herself, through no fault of her own.

So, the irony may be that No has, in some ways, a stronger case in the second referendum but a far lower chance of success: it will lose because there will be no-one out there able to tell the No story.

This emphasis on telling simple stories well matters more than we would like to admit. The facts don’t speak for themselves: you turn them into a story to engage with people’s existing biases and tendency to base decisions on very little information.  So, who will tell and listen to the No story the next time around?

See also:

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

Heresthetics and referendums

I also wrote a million posts on the last Scottish referendum

 

 

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

This post provides 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.

The advertised abstract reads:

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.

I’ll begin my talk by apologising passive-aggressively for not being a specialist in this field. I know some things about Scottish politics, but specialise in public policy rather than elections, referendums, social attitudes, and the future. On that basis, I’ll:

  • 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.

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)

I’ll try to sell you the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums: a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. We now have 5-yearly elections, so it would be a commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election to hold it in 2024.

However, it’s no more than an idea because nothing about this process is inevitable:

Even a second referendum is not inevitable

In the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote this month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the main obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

In the absence of this constitutional crisis, is difficult to see how the SNP could justify – and, more importantly, expect to win – another referendum within five years of the first. This problem is reflected in the SNP’s manifesto and Sturgeon’s defence of its vague position. It appears to want to keep independence on the agenda for the long term without proposing a referendum within five years. So, its idea is that, in the absence of a Brexit crisis, the only other prompt is a major and sustained upswing in support for independence:

the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people’ (Scottish National Party, 2016: 23).

Sturgeon confirmed that this measure would be from opinion polls – ‘We would have to see, in a range of polls over a period of time, that independence had become the preferred option of the majority’ – but without stating how many polls, what level of support, or how sustained (BBC News, 2016b).

The unsatisfactory nature of this position seems reinforced by the SNP’s electoral position in 2016: the last referendum was fairly recent, it lacks a strong statement of intent in its manifesto, it now relies on the Scottish Greens (2016: 35) to produce a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the Greens’ trigger for a second referendum – a petition by maybe 100,000 voters – seems equally vague and problematic.

Don’t assume that we can predict the future (revisited)

These limitations are not problematic in the longer term: the SNP can afford to wait until the time is right for a second referendum. Yet, think about some of the other conditions that need to be met before a second vote is worthwhile:

  1. There is a sustained rise in support for Scottish independence. From opinion polls, the SNP would be looking for levels of sustained support (high 50s, low 60s?) that are not present even in single surveys.
  2. The SNP sustains a Holyrood majority, or it has enough pro-independence allies in Holyrood. At the heart of our short-term discussion is the assumption that the SNP continues to do remarkably well in elections. Yet, Scottish Labour provides a cautionary tale, or the evidence of how quickly a party’s support can disappear. Further, the SNP wouldn’t even have to lose much support to give the sense that it lost ‘momentum’.
  3. The SNP can recreate 2011. Instead, it would just have to lose the sense of moral victory that it secured in 2011: the appearance of its Holyrood ‘avalanche’ election victory made a referendum difficult to oppose; its opposition lost ground, and the UK Government struggled to explain why it would not support a referendum. This feeling is difficult to recreate even if (as in 2016) it secures a similar proportion of votes.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

It is possible that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, 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, we have 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).

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.
  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).

So, maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement, and that we are not just killing time until the next referendum.

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Early thoughts on the SNP conference: 2 speeches postponing independence and social democracy

The SNP describes itself as ‘a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence’. However, two key speeches at the SNP’s annual conference in 2015 suggest that both aims will have to be postponed. Instead, the political dynamic in Scotland and the UK will continue to contribute to a strange and often inconsistent social and economic strategy that would not be chosen in a fully reserved UK or fully independent Scotland.

The first speech, by Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed that, although she believes that support for Scottish independence may have risen since the referendum, she does not foresee a second referendum in the near future (unless the UK population votes to leave the EU on the back of votes in England and opposition in Scotland). Instead, Scotland will enjoy further devolution in some areas, such as a greater ability to set income tax rates and vary some social security benefits, and continue to deliver most public services, without having complete control in either.

Consequently, it is not possible for the Scottish Government to take a ‘social democratic’ approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through taxation. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive.

These issues arise infrequently on the Scottish political agenda, partly because Scottish independence has drawn attention away from serious debates on budget priorities. Further, a continued sense of constitutional uncertainty – built on the SNP leadership’s short term acceptance of devolution, but long term hope for independence – may help minimise economic debate and maintain an economic system that few would design.

The second speech, to be delivered by John Swinney, Scotland’s equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, confirms that the SNP likes to combine ‘social democratic’ ideas on spending, but strategies on taxation that would generally not look out of place in George Osborne’s Red Box. Swinney will propose to give local authorities the power to reduce rates of business tax (well in advance of Osbourne granting the same powers in England). This initiative follows a series of speeches by Alex Salmond, while First Minister, which suggested that the SNP would also like to reduce corporation taxes and airport charges, to increase economic competitiveness and encourage inward investment. It also reinforces the SNP Government’s decision to (effectively) ‘freeze’ the rates of council tax, which remain the more regressive option than its previous plans to introduce a local income tax, and likely aversion to raising income tax (the most toxic taxation instrument) in any meaningful way (although compare my account with John Swinney’s).

In that context, the economic lines between a Conservative UK government and SNP Scottish Government are far less clear than we might deduce from the vociferous debates that took place during the referendum debate in 2014 and were repeated in the run up to the UK general election. Indeed, the biggest dividing lines were in areas that the SNP knew it could not control – when it argued for an alternative to ‘austerity’ and a slower rate of budget cuts to allow for economy boosting investment – which make the differences seem more rhetorical than substantive.

In cases where the SNP has demanded more powers successfully, its actions tend to relate to ‘hot button’ issues, such as its intention to mitigate the effects of the ‘bedroom tax’. Rather than propose a major reform of tax and benefit provision to get to the ‘root causes’ of socio-economic inequalities via redistribution, it talks instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects. This strategy relies largely on public service reforms, localism, and the idea of ‘prevention’ policies – to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances, through interventions such as parenting programmes – which are also promoted by the UK Government. Further, these strategies generally come in second place behind the higher profile spending decisions which often exacerbate inequalities. For example, the SNP Government maintains free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the continued presence of an attainment gap, doubly reinforces major inequalities in education.

These decisions sometimes receive critical attention, but from opposition parties which remain remarkably unpopular in Scotland, and a media that many supporters of the SNP or independence view with incredible mistrust. As long as independence remains the main reported story of SNP conferences, and the SNP remains unusually popular, few will pay meaningful attention to these socio-economic policy issues.

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Two first drafts of the SNP 2016 manifesto

People have begun to speculate about how the SNP will incorporate a second referendum into its 2016 Scottish Parliament manifesto. So, I’ve had a go at drafting two different versions.

The first one is easy to write but won’t happen.

The second, more realistic one, is harder to write. In particular, it will be hard to get the wording right when the SNP (in effect) promises a referendum in the next manifesto but not this one.

So, we might expect a lot of coverage of the opposition parties trying to pin down Nicola Sturgeon on the detail. Ordinarily this might be sensible, but not while the SNP remains almost immune to that kind of criticism. Maybe it would be better to focus on what the SNP will do, instead, in the next 5 years. Who knows?

The one that won’t be written:

Nicola Sturgeon stated in 2015 that: “Something material would have to change in terms of the circumstances or public opinion before I think it would be appropriate to have a proposal for a referendum.”

Since we gubbed Labour in the 2015 UK General Election and it looks like we’ll do the same in the Scottish Parliament, we believe that material circumstances have changed and we will have a referendum as soon as possible. Loads of Yes supporters joined the SNP straight after the referendum, and they think we were robbed and that loads of people regret voting No. There was also that poll which suggests that we’re hugely popular even though people don’t think we’re doing a brilliant job, so independence is all we want to talk about.

The more likely one that is longer and trickier to write, and doesn’t quite scan:

Nicola Sturgeon stated in 2015 that: “Something material would have to change in terms of the circumstances or public opinion before I think it would be appropriate to have a proposal for a referendum.”

In the period of the next Scottish Parliament, the biggest potential change of circumstances regards Scotland’s membership of the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon has called on David Cameron to ensure that the UK leaves the EU only if all four nations agree. He has rejected this call. If the UK prepares to leave the EU, despite a majority of voters in Scotland voting to remain, it will cause a constitutional crisis. Under those circumstances, we believe that we should hold a referendum on Scottish independence as soon as practicable (this paragraph seems relatively easy to write).

We are heartened by the surge of support in our membership, to over 100,000 members, and in electoral support for the SNP, which produced 56 of 59 SNP MPs. However, this alone does not represent a change of public opinion towards Scottish independence. It does not guarantee that the majority of voters in Scotland would vote Yes in a second referendum on Scottish independence (this one is tricky to get right, and would be used by opponents).

Instead, the electorate also supports us because we present a strong vision to deal with austerity and support essential public services. They do not support the austerity agenda of the Conservative party, and nor do they find Labour to be a credible alternative (bread and butter stuff).

We believe that, in time, support for our positive vision, and a growing belief that the UK parties’ austerity agenda is damaging Scotland’s economy and widening inequalities, will help produce a clear majority in favour of Scottish independence (also bread and butter).

If that change of public opinion becomes clear over the next five years, we will include a firm commitment to a second independence referendum in our manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election (no, I can’t get that one to work!).

 

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