2021 Scottish Election

2021 Scottish Election

The Success of Pro-Independence Parties Renew Claims for Constitutional Reforms in the United Kingdom

05/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

As expected, the 6 May Scottish election ended without surprises. Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party once again become the leading force in the country by a wide margin even though it fell one seat short of the absolute majority. The Conservatives, perceived as the party most likely to defeat the Nationalists, finished second with thirty-one seats. While failing to reach the psychological sixty-five-seat threshold that would mean an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, the Nationalists are clearly in the position of pushing forward with their pro-independence agenda thanks to the Scottish Green Party’s impressive result, since the latter has independence in its manifesto, too. If a majority eventually chose independence in a second referendum and it were granted, Scotland would face the same kind of challenges the UK faced in 2016, meaning that it would leave a union it is strongly integrated into. Meanwhile, unlike the UK, it would also try to join another economic and political union.

As expected, the 6 May Scottish election ended without surprises. Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) once again emerged as the largest party in the country by a wide margin even if it fell one seat short of the absolute majority. The Conservatives finished second with thirty-one seats, and Labour came in third with twenty-four mandates, having its worst vote share in a Scottish parliamentary election in decades. The SNP supported a referendum on the independence of Scotland in 2014 and obtained its best result in Scottish elections, gaining sixty-three seats, two years later. Brexit, however, had not yet happened at that time.

Since then, the demand for independence has increased, mostly because Scotland was pulled out of the EU against its will. So, the SNP is clearly in the position of pushing forward with its pro-independence agenda now: although it failed to reach the psychological sixty-five-seat threshold in the Scottish Parliament, which would have meant an overall majority, it can expect help from the Scottish Green Party, which achieved an impressive result and also overtly supports independence. In fact, with its eight seats (and an additional two from the 2016 election) the Greens make sure that the Scottish independentist forces are now dominant in Holyrood. This means that pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call for a second referendum will surely be more unrelenting.

Interestingly, tactical voting among pro-union voters proved a strong tool in this election, which also had a part in why SNP could not gain an overall majority. The Scottish Conservative Party, perceived as the force most likely to defeat the Nationalists, attracted many voters from the Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, as they decided to cast their vote for the Tories and prevent the Edinburgh parliament from being dominated by pro-independence forces this way. Consequently, even though nationalist parties achieved a majority, the Scottish Conservatives, despite being deprived of their charismatic leader, Ruth Davidson, obtained their best-ever result in this year’s Scottish election and cemented their position as the second force in the country.

Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party
Source: Terry Murden/Shutterstock

It is very likely now that the SNP, after having formed a minority government in 2016, will enter into a coalition with the Greens and prepare the way for a second referendum. At least two important things have happened since the 2014 vote—where 55% of Scotsmen voted against independence—shifting voter preferences and realigning the Scottish along new cleavages: Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. As we know, Brexit has dramatically changed the British election map and resulted in voters coalescing around parties that represent their position on Europe. For this reason, constitutional questions have come to the fore of the British political agenda, and the issue of Scottish independence have once again become dominant since Brexit, for a large majority (62%) in the country opposed the (mostly English) decision to leave the EU.

The strengthening of the Conservative Party in Westminster, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s disregard for devolution, and his failure to obtain a soft Brexit have left many in Scotland—just as in Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales—more alienated from and suspicious of London’s rule than ever. At the time of the Brexit negotiations, the SNP called for Scotland’s remaining a part of the single market and the EU customs union, which could have resembled an arrangement similar to the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, the UK government’s Brexit policy, created mostly unilaterally in London, without consulting the devolved institutions in the other parts of the country, provoked strong criticism in Edinburgh and brought many voters to believe that the country would be better off on its own.

As expected, the SNP dominated the political conversation by promising a new referendum in the case they won the Scottish Parliament election. Moreover, the case of the Scottish independence was reinforced by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year. The British government’ chaotic pandemic-related measures were strongly criticised in Scotland, as the country required stricter measures and clearer communication. During the worst part of the COVID-19 health crisis, the Scottish first minister adopted a more coherent approach towards pandemic management and lockdowns and conducted a very efficient communication campaign. By contrast, Boris Johnson’s communication strategy was a disaster and resulted in declining trust in the central government. These circumstances showed that there are more effective management and better results when certain powers are entrusted to institutions closer to the citizens—at least in the British case. In Scotland, support for self-governance immediately translated into support for independence and the nationalist parties. In March 2021, Nicola Sturgeon’s approval rating was 62%, and over the three-quarters of Scottish voters said that they trusted the SNP to deal with coronavirus.

Britain’s successful vaccination programme, however, helped rebuild the PM’s image in the country (and also in Scotland) and reinforced the position of the Tory government. The Scottish Conservatives, who were often critical of PM Johnson and eager to show themselves as a distinctive party from the English Tories, softened their stance before the election and praised the central government’s efforts to deliver vaccines to the whole country. In the aftermath of the Scottish vote, Boris Johnson congratulated Sturgeon for her success and emphasised that better results can only be obtained working together and not looking for separate ways—a clear reference to the SNP’s independentist positions. The prime minister and his government have already made it clear that they will refuse to allow a second referendum even if a majority in the Edinburgh assembly will require it. From London’s perspective, the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation vote which cannot be repeated. However, this interpretation, although defensible, does not take into account the huge political earthquake caused by Brexit and its disruptive effects on the United Kingdom as a whole.

The last Scottish Parliament election reinforced pro-independence parties’ power in the Edinburgh assembly
Source: Alpix1/Shutterstock

The United Kingdom entered into the so-called devolution process in the 1990s, which means that some regions and countries were granted legislative and executive bodies in order to manage some tasks which are better solved at the local level. This concept is often confused with federalism although, from a theoretical point of view, it is a completely different system. In federal states, local and central entities are equally sovereign in their own spheres of competence, while devolved bodies are, by definition, created by a central authority which is the sole custodian of sovereign powers and can, at any moment, repatriate devolved competences and terminate the devolved institutions. Currently, all the historical parts forming the United Kingdom have their own parliaments and governments, while the Scottish enjoy even more extended powers. Under British law, the Scottish Parliament has competence over a broad range of devolved policy areas including agriculture, fishing, education, and environmental and health issues (e.g., the management of COVID-19) and can decide the rates and the collection of some taxes, while matters concerning the union and the further devolution of powers are of Westminster’s exclusive competence.

Therefore, the authorisation to hold another independence referendum can only be granted by the prime minister as it also happened in 2014 under PM David Cameron. However, the SNP could decide to legislate for a referendum even in the absence of Westminster’s agreement. On the other hand, if the Scottish government declares independence after a positive vote in the Scottish parliament, it could give rise to a constitutional impasse, and the issue would possibly appear in the Supreme Court at some point. It is unlikely that the highest judicial body in the UK would accept that Scottish lawmakers have the legislative competence to approve a secession ballot and rule in favour of the independence. Regardless of the decision in the court, the London government would find itself under tremendous pressure coming from Scotland and Scottish voters if it decided to ignore their demands.

Even if a majority eventually chose independence in a second referendum and it were granted, Scotland would face the same kind of challenges the UK faced in 2016, meaning that it would leave a union into which it is strongly integrated. Meanwhile, unlike the UK, it would also try to join another economic and political union. As it happened with Brexit, not many have today a clear idea of what Scottish independence would really entail and no preparations are currently made for future negotiations. Surely, the SNP’s main aim is to rejoin the EU, and, therefore, the Scottish government is studying how to start the EU accession process immediately after the independence will be granted. However, this would be far from being an easy ride. A recent report anticipates that it could take Scotland almost a decade to leave the UK and join the EU, and this would only happen if London eventually agreed to such a huge and painful constitutional upheaval. After more than three hundred years, Scotland could find an economic border and customs control between itself and the UK with all its financial and political implications.

An independent Scotland would also have to set up the new institutions of its new state, such as a central bank, a foreign ministry, and various regulatory bodies, and it should even join the World Trade Organization before it could begin negotiations with the EU. Treading this path, Scotland should take into account that its main market is still the United Kingdom and around 60% of its exports are directed to the rest of Britain. Leaving the UK would surely have a negative effect on Scotland’s GDP in the long run, reducing it by between 6.5% and 8.7% (almost double the cost of Brexit for Scotland). Moreover, a recent study by the UK-based Institute for Government reported that an independent Scotland risks starting with a much higher deficit than what EU rules would normally allow (or at least higher than what is laid down in the treaties suspended because of the pandemic). A large deficit would immediately affect the SNP’s aspirations to build a strong Scottish welfare state inspired by those of the Nordic states. Currently, a large part of the benefits Scottish people receive is mostly financed by UK-wide taxes. One of the main arguments Nationalists use is that revenues from oil and gas will help sustain an independent Scottish economy. However, even if revenues from natural resources are surely an important part of the Scottish economy, they are very volatile: last year, e.g., they fell from GBP 10 billion in 2008 to GBP 724 million.

The Scottish Parliament in Holyrood is the largest devolved representative body in the UK
Source: Fotokon/Shutterstock

Even if Scotland can eventually overcome its financial problems, the fact of the matter is that its accession could be a politically complicated issue for the EU. Scotland should line up behind other countries—mostly Western Balkans states—which presented their application to join the EU earlier. Edinburgh would most probably receive privileged treatment eventually, Scotland being a fully operating democracy that respects the rule of law and human rights and has a solid market economy. Nevertheless, Scottish accession could create a dangerous precedent, and, therefore, it would not be accepted by some member states, Spain being a prime example of them. If the EU endorsed Scotland’s “secession” from the UK and accepted it into the club, its move could renew claims to independence in Catalonia and many other European regions. Given the fact that starting EU accession talks would require unanimity in the European Council, Spain could use its veto power and irremediably sink Scottish aspirations.

Surely, the best path for Scotland is not looking for a unilateral decision but rather seek a compromise with London. In the long run, the union cannot hold if independence demands are continuously ignored—it would rather reinforce separatist claims in other parts of the UK, too. It is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK as a whole to persuade Scottish voters that they are better off remaining in the union. In order to appease the SNP’s nationalist voters, Boris Johnson might even decide to allocate greater funds for infrastructure and education in Scotland. Moreover, Johnson’s recent commitment to environmental policies and the upcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow could also test the water before entering into a dialogue with the Greens, who are less convinced that a second referendum should be called as soon as possible and argue that greater support should be built for the cause. The British government surely needs a strategy to reconquer Scotland: “re-devolving” the competencies repatriated under the controversial United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and granting new and larger powers to local institutions might represent a good first step.

The opening pic is by EnzoVi/Shutterstock

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