The party of Union may well end up its gravedigger, says David McCrone, if the battle for independence settles down to a long war between ‘progressive’ Scotland and ‘reactionary’ England with a right-wing government at Westminster coupled with a Scottish Tory outlier and cheer-leader.
1. The benchmark of the BGE (British General Election) 2015 result, a mere two years ago, has provided the standard against which to measure change – whether we like it or not. It was in truth a highly unusual occurrence, in that SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland (that’s 95%) on basis of 50% of the vote. Labour got 24%, and the Tories 15%, with Lib-Dems trailing in at 7.5%. We know that the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system produces such effects so that the % of votes and seats are not in alignment, largely because FPTP only operates ‘fairly’ in two-party systems, and in Scotland we haven’t had such a thing since the early 1970s.
2. The story of the SPE (Scottish Parliament Election) 2016 was the revival of the Tories who won 22% of the (constituency) vote, narrowly behind Labour’s 23%, with SNP on 47% (and Lib-Dems on 8%). Perhaps more significantly, the Tories won more seats (31) than Labour (24), and became the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. This led to speculation that Labour’s decline and Tory’s rise were intimately connected, even that Labour voters were switching to the Tories directly.
3. The plausibility of such an account depended on a number of things: that the Tories fought the SPE 2016 election by forefronting the constitutional question and their leader Ruth Davidson (check the posters); that they used similar tactics in the council elections of 2017 – fighting on opposition to ScIndyRef2 even though that had nothing much to do with improving local services. In short, the Tories made political capital out of (a) ScIndyRef 2014 NO vote; (b) the Brexit vote in 2016 in which 62% of people in Scotland had vote REMAIN, but 38% LEAVE. The strategy has been to focus on the NO+LEAVE bloc of voters (even though Scottish Tories pushed for a REMAIN vote in 2016). Opinion polls suggest that they have banked as many as 50% of NO voters, and 50% of LEAVE voters. This has given them between 25% and 30% support in pre-BGE 2017 polls, in contrast to Labour’s support in low 20s.
4. Perhaps oddly, the Tory strategy has been to oppose having a ScIndyRef2 – at least, not yet – ‘the time is not right’ – in light of post-Brexit negotiations. However, as the political commentator Brian Taylor has observed ‘when Ruth Davidson says “not now” you can tell that she is itching to say “not ever if I can help it” (BBC blog, 31st May 2017). Both Labour and Lib-Dems have followed suit in opposing even having a 2nd referendum, but in less tub-thumping form, given, in Labour’s case, internal divisions. Overall, we get the sense that a ScIndyRef2 is far too dangerous for the unionist parties to contemplate.
5. Why? Because a platform of 45% in favour of a YES vote is far higher than the 30% in early 2014 at the start of that campaign. Although it remains a minority vote, they recall how post-2014 the losers ‘won’ and the winners ’lost’, reflected in that 50% vote for SNP in BGE2015. In short, it seems far too risky to contemplate a ScIndyRef2, as it would only need a few percentage points to convert NO into YES. Of course, none of this is admitted, as it smacks of defeatism. Better to argue that, post-Brexit, the future is too uncertain to allow such a thing.
6. Arguing that Brexit effects are sufficient to be going on with is a curious argument. The case for ScIndyRef2 is built around the significant material and political differences of a Brexit as far as Scotland is concerned. It is hard to justify the view that ScIndyRef 2014 settled matters for a lifetime, in the context of Brexit2016, taking Scotland out of the EU, despite a 62%/38% vote to REMAIN. Indeed, the closeness of the UK Brexit vote – 51.9% to 48.1% - was assumed by all political parties to represent a ‘clear’ mandate. It undercuts, of course, any argument that if something similar was to transpire in ScIndyRef2 (say, 51/49), that this too would be a mandate to leave the UK: as the saying goes ‘one vote is enough’. This, perhaps, adds to the perceived risk as far as Unionists are concerned, and so the better to oppose allowing a ScIndyRef2 at all, for fear of the consequences.
7. Furthermore, the ruling by the UK Supreme Court in January 2017 was that the UK government was not legally obliged to seek Holyrood’s consent before giving the EU notice that the UK wished to leave. The significance of that ruling was to clarify the standing of the devolved parliament vis-à-vis Westminster; that the UK parliament was merely practising a ‘self-denying ordinance’ in allowing the Scottish parliament to make decisions at all: a ‘convention’, it seems, with ultimate legal sovereignty residing at Westminster. So much for claims by devolutionists that the British state had accepted the powers, and the existence, of the Scottish parliament. When push came to shove, the latter is the creature of the former. The obfuscatory veil whereby sovereignty was attributed to Holyrood was thereby removed. No amount of soft words would make it otherwise.
8. Brexit, then, both in its legal-constitutional implications, and the marked differences between Scotland and England in voting outcomes, has been a game-changer in Scottish (and British) constitutional politics. It abruptly brings to an end the long-held strategy of the SNP for ‘Independence in Europe’. ‘Independence in the UK’ has little meaning in a context on which, arguably, the UK government is embarking on a bout of ‘state-building’ around the soi-disant ‘Great Repeal Act’ which would repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster. It is feasible that many such powers – over fishing, agriculture, immigration – would be ‘repatriated’ to Scotland, but the Conservative and Unionist party has a very poor track-record of so doing; dating back to opposition to Home Rule for Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (whence the epithet ‘Unionist’ derives); rescinding the Scotland Act of 1978 despite a (narrow) majority being in favour of a Scottish Assembly; and opposing the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1997 with its PR electoral system. Talleyrand’s comment about the Bourbons that ’they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing’ seems to apply.
9. True, there has not been a surge of support for Independence post-Brexit, but neither has there been a falling back. If anything, the slippage in SNP support from its high of 50% to something like 40+% has not seen a slide in pro-Independence support. The plateau of support for Independence is as high as it has ever been; hence, the threat to the state perceived by the unionist parties.
10. But what of the increase in support in Scotland for the Conservative and Unionist party? Does that not signify a material change in political conditions built upon NO in ScIndyRef 2014 and Brexit in 2016? Are Labour’s fall and Tory rise not connected? It is hard to see a direct transfer of Labour to Tory. Let us consider some evidence. The Scottish Social Attitudes survey carried out post-2016 asked directly about voters’ first and second preferences. The question asked: ‘Thinking about the elections to the Scottish parliament, if you had been given a single ballot paper which required you to give two votes, in order of preference, which party would you have put as your first choice? And which would you have put as your second choice? If Labour voters were indeed transferring directly to the Tories, those questions might have picked it up. In tabular form, the results were as follows:
There is not much evidence there of Lab->Tory (only 1 in 8, or 12.5%). Around 1 in 7 Tories (16%) give Labour as 2nd preference, but they are far more likely to prefer Lib-Dem (25%). Similarly, Labour voters are more than twice as likely to give SNP as their 2nd preference (28%); and Greens are the preferred 2nd option of Nationalists (25%).
11. These are, of course, notional opinions rather than actual practices, but the council elections of May 2017 which used STV provides behavioural evidence, given that votes were transferred between candidates and parties accordingly in the electoral counting system. Analysis of transfer patterns in the four major cities does not suggest it happened very much, at least in the direction of Lab->Tory. This is despite that fact that all four cities involved SNP/Lab/Tory battles for power. In Aberdeen, where SNP was seeking to oust a Lab/Tory administration, there was little Tory/Lab cross-voting; nor in Dundee, where the SNP had run the council previously. In Edinburgh where there had been a Lab/SNP run council, Tories were prepared to vote Labour in a small number of wards, but far more likely to put the Lib-Dems on their list. In Glasgow, the biggest council, where SNP was seeking to oust Labour from power, there is evidence of some Lab/Tory transfers; in six wards, Lab to Tory transfers, and in four wards, Tory to Labour. Tory candidates were far more reliant on UKIP and Lib-Dem transfers than Labour ones; while transfers between SNP and Green votes were common. It is also striking that Tory candidates by and large got elected because they started out with substantial numbers of first preference votes rather than relying on transfers from other parties. Labour/SNP transfers in Glasgow were not very common; understandable if one considers that the main competition for power was between the two parties.
12. Across Scotland, the May 2017 council elections gave SNP 32% of first preference votes, the Tories 25%, Labour 20%, Lib-Dems 7%, Greens 4%, and Independents 10.5%. Given the number of Independent councillors across Scotland, the comparison with other elections, Scottish or British, are not strictly comparable, but we might consider them as indicative.
13. The Tory strategy of appealing to NO voters (ScIndyRef2014) and to LEAVE (Brexit) voters largely accounts for the rise in support. Thus, in a January 2017 poll, over 90% of people who voted NO+LEAVE say they would vote NO (NO2) in ScIndyRef2); while 65% of YES+REMAIN would vote YES2. Around a quarter of people who voted SNP in BGE2015 also voted LEAVE, and it seems that Nationalist pro-Brexiteers are less likely to vote SNP in 2017. And as we have seen, around 50% of LEAVE voters say they intend to vote Tory. The Tory strategy of ‘banging on’ about Independence and the Union in the context of Brexit, regardless of content, seems to have paid political dividends. Labour’s ambiguity about Brexit, and the legacy of ScIndyRef2014, has placed them in electoral difficulties, at least in the short term.
14. So, in BGE2017, will the Tories ‘win’ and the SNP ‘lose’? it looks almost certain that the Tories will easily increase their low vote share (15%) of BGE2015, and that for the SNP the only way is down from a high of half the popular vote. When all is said and done, and the smoke clears from the electoral battlefield, it is likely that the constitutional war will be between Nationalists and Unionists, this time led by the Tories who consider themselves to be ‘genuine’ Unionists rather than ambiguous or ersatz Labour ones who are considered ‘soft’ on devolving further powers.
15. In any case, in the likely event of a Tory government at Westminster, battle-lines are drawn unambiguously. However, the party of Union may well end up its gravedigger if the battle for Independence settles down to a long war between ‘progressive’ Scotland and ‘reactionary’ England with a right-wing government at Westminster coupled with a Scottish Tory outlier and cheer-leader. Perhaps the Union will hold if Scottish Tories use any influence they have to make Holyrood more powerful (rights over fishing, agriculture, immigration), but that would require changing the habits of many lifetimes for a party thirled to a strong Unionist ideology, and a programme of British state-rebuilding. The siren calls of Land of Hope and Glory may be too attractive to ignore.