The gloves are most definitely off now. The Tories decided that they’re going to fight this general election on a platform of implacable opposition to another independence referendum. It’s their sole policy. It’s the only thing that they talk about. The Tories don’t want to mention Brexit or say what they’ll do to avoid the damage that it could do to the Scottish economy. The Tories don’t want to mention of the changes they’ve made to the social security system that have driven untold thousands to despair and destitution. The Tories don’t want to talk about their destruction of the life opportunities and chances of the disabled with their woefully ill-thought out changes to disability benefits. The Tories don’t want to discuss how their tax policies benefit the rich and the powerful while public services are stripped to the bone. The Scottish Conservatives only want to talk about another independence referendum and their opposition to it.
Well fine then. If the Scottish Conservatives fail to achieve a majority of Scottish Westminster seats, if they fail to become the largest party in terms of vote share, then they’ve lost. And that means that the Scottish electorate will have explicitly rejected the Tory platform of opposition to another independence referendum. A mere increase in vote share won’t cut it. An increase in the number of seats the Tories hold won’t cut it unless they somehow manage to secure a majority of Scottish Westminster seats. You don’t win a race by narrowing the gap between yourself and the winner, you win it by overtaking them. Doing better is not the same as winning. Improvement is not victory.
The Scottish Tories have chosen the grounds on which they wish to contest this general election. No one has forced them to obsess over independence. No one twisted their arm and demanded that they make this a single issue vote. So if the Tories wish to establish that there is indeed no support for another independence referendum then they need to win 30 Westminster seats and overtake the SNP in terms of vote share. Anything else is just Ruth Davidson’s tank top puffery. The Tories chose the battleground, they don’t get to choose the terms of victory. They win or lose in terms of their Scottish results, not on the haunners they get from Conservative MPs elected south of the border.
In 2015 the SNP achieved a remarkable result and took all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats. That result was during the fallout from the independence referendum a few months previously. The entire UK media was very much fixated on Scotland in general and the SNP in particular. The Conservatives in England in 2015 based their campaign on defeating the SNP. That guaranteed a huge amount of airtime and publicity for the SNP in the UK media, airtime and publicity that they’re not getting now. For once, Scotland actually mattered in a UK general election.
This general election is a reversion to the mean, both in the sense of a reversion to what usually happens in general elections in Scotland, when we’re consigned to irrelevance and we know that whatever happens here makes no difference to the eventual outcome, and in the sense that the Scottish Conservatives have reverted to meanness. Turn out in this election is likely to be significantly lower than in 2015, and since pro-independence support is concentrated in communities which have a historically lower propensity to turn out to vote, that is another factor which means that support for the SNP is likely to be lower this time.
In a first past the post system as is used for Westminster elections, victory is defined as achieving the largest number of seats. A moral victory is defined as achieving the largest share of the popular vote, although this is secondary because under first past the post it is possible for a party which attains the largest share of the vote not to win a majority of seats. In this upcoming election if the SNP wins 30 seats, a majority of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats, and if it remains the largest single party in terms of vote share, then it will unquestionably and without any shred of doubt, have won the election. If will be equally beyond any doubt that the Scottish Conservatives and their monomaniacal opposition to another independence referendum will have lost. They will have lost even if they somehow manage to take 20 seats from the SNP. They will have lost even if they perform as well as the very best showing they’ve managed in any opinion polls.
What’s more, the SNP will have an unassailable claim to victory if, as seems likely, they achieve a greater percentage of the vote share in Scotland than Theresa May’s Conservatives manage to achieve in the UK as a whole. Theresa May will not be able to argue convincingly that she has a mandate to pursue the Brexit she’s defined for herself while denying that the SNP has a mandate for a second independence referendum if she’s won a lower percentage of the popular vote and a smaller proportional majority of seats than the SNP won in Scotland. Mind you, it won’t stop her trying.
The media and the Tories will try to spin a few losses for the SNP into a rout. But it will just be cant and spin. By any objective standards, by achieving just 30 seats and retaining their position as the largest single party the SNP will have won the general election in Scotland handsomely, and that will mean that in every single election since 2014 the largest party in Scotland will be a pro-independence party. And Scotland’s largest pro-independence party can do a whole lot better than that. If that’s not a mandate for another independence referendum then democracy is a joke.
That’s why the Scottish Government needs to use all and every lever to pressure Theresa May. Scotland’s legitimate and democratically expressed will to hold a second independence referendum must become a part of EU negotiations, and the Scottish Govt must step up its representations to the EU to ensure that it does. If May still refuses to concede that Scotland has a democratic right to a vote, then the vote must be held anyway. There are legal and constitutional routes to another referendum that do not entail asking Theresa May’s permission. There’s the possibility of a consultative referendum which doesn’t require a section 30 order from Westminster, or there’s the possiblity of turning Holyrood elections into a plebiscite election on independence. Theresa May can stamp her kitten heels all she likes, but she can’t prevent either of those from happening.
One way or another, Scotland will have its vote. This is about more than just Scottish independence, it’s about democracy itself. If the Conservatives deny Scotland its right to hold another referendum despite there being the clearest mandate possible for one, then Scottish democracy is dead. By making this general election all about the denial of Scotland’s right to determine its own future, the Conservatives have only made it more likely that another independence referendum will be held. Bring it on, as they say in England and America. Or as we say in Scotland, ‘mon then if ye think ye’re haurd enough.
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