The Scottish elections are almost upon us, three weeks from today we will know the composition of the new Scottish parliament. And it’s vital that the new parliament has an SNP majority. It’s the only way that we can be certain that when the time is right, Scotland will embark upon a second independence referendum. I was going to say campaign, but that wouldn’t be right, because the independence campaign has never ceased. The reality is that the only way to ensure that it doesn’t cease, that the momentum keeps going, is for us to return another majority SNP government.
If we wake up in three weeks time to discover that the SNP has lost its majority, then the only story in our Unionist dominated press will be that Scotland has fallen out with the idea of independence and the wheels have come off the indy bandwagon. They’ll tell us that Scotland has declared its love for the Union, that we’ve got back into the shortbread tin and into the embrace of Westminster. The prospect of another referendum will become as elusive as an episode of BBC 2’s Scotland 2016 programme that anyone wants to watch. The media narrative will be that Scottish nationalism has lost the election, and that’s what they’ll be saying even if there’s still a majority of pro-independence MSPs.
While I have a certain sympathy for those who argue that the best result is a minority SNP government which attains a majority with other pro-independence parties on its left, all the better to hold the SNP to account, the risks involved in achieving that outcome are greater than the benefits that it brings. Gaming the Scottish parliamentary elections with tactical voting runs the very real risk of allowing Unionist parties to get in by default, because it is by no means certain that your preferred party is going to benefit from your vote. We could discover that instead of producing a parliament with a strong and diverse pro-independence majority, that we’ve just allowed the Anas Sarwars and the David Coburns to crawl in through the cracks in the independence front. And if that happened we’d only have ourselves to blame for it.
This is what happened during the last European elections when like many people I believed that the Greens were better placed than the SNP to pick up the sixth seat, so I voted Green. The result was that the independence vote was split between the SNP and the Greens and UKIP slipped in through the gap, much to the delight of Unionists of all hues who were keen to point out that the entrance of David Coburn into Scottish politics meants that Scotland wasn’t so different from England politically. Oh look, we have our odious right wingers too. We’re just like the rest of the UK and there’s no justification for independence.
Gaming the d’Hondt system of voting which is used in Scottish parliamentary elections is even more fraught with difficulty than the system used in the European elections. You could give your second vote to a minor party only to discover that Labour or, gods forbid, the Tories or UKIP have slipped through the gap and you’ve helped to return another Unionist MSP. It’s a system which was designed to produce minority governments. It was set up by Labour in cahoots with the Lib Dems in order to ensure that Scotland would forever and a day be governed by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. The Lib Dems were always the enablers of Unionism, the prop to whichever Unionist big boy could shower them with shiny beads, mirrors, and ministerial motors.
But in 2011 the SNP broke the system and got a majority government. We’ve become so used to that majority that we risk taking it for granted. That’s dangerously complacent. We don’t currently have a second pro-independence party which has sufficiently concentrated support to take over the role of the Lib Dems as a reliable junior partner to a large SNP. The closest to that is the Greens, but their support is spread too thin. The harsh reality is that if the SNP loses its majority in two weeks time, the cause of independence is lost with it. Then the referendum really will have been a once in a generation event. We have to make sure that doen’t happen, that the flame of hope stays burning bright.
You can argue that the job of the Scottish movement is to make conditions more comfortable within the cage of Union, or you can argue that the priority is to get out of the cage. I believe that the job of the independence movement is to get Scotland out of the cage, not to make the cage more comfortable. After all, if the cage is more comfortable then more people will be happy remaining in the cage. That doesn’t help anyone in the longer term, except for the Unionist parties and the Westminster system.
Once we’ve broken free of the cage, then all bets are off, all previous positions change. There will be a radical realignment of Scottish politics. No existing political party will survive in its current form, and that is as true for the SNP and the other pro-independence parties as it is for the parties that currently support the Union.
It’s in the aftermath of an independence vote that Scotland will have its best chance of rediscovering its radical soul. But we’re not there yet. We’re still locked in the cage. We’re still constrained by the Union. Too many Scots are still hobbled by fear and uncertainty, still shackled to the Westminster devil we know. The priority, the only priority, must be to break those chains, to smash the padlock on the cage, and to escape out into the light of a land that we can govern and define for ourselves.
I want out of the cage, and I’m not going to be distracted by anything that risks keeping us in the cage a minute longer than is necessary. The SNP, with all their faults and limitations, hold the key out of the cage. That is the fundamental reality of Scottish politics in 2016, and that is why we need an SNP majority government in three weeks time.
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