The candidates for the Labour leadership and the Scottish Conservative branch office manager are lining up to say how much they oppose Scottish independence. Today it’s the turn of Labour leadership hopeful Jess Phillips, who’s relying on her reputation as a media personality in order to mask the fact that she has a poor grasp of democracy. Jess doesn’t think that there’s a mandate for another independence referendum because the SNP won “only” 45% of the popular vote in Scotland in the recent general election. By that logic, there has never been a Westminster government with any mandate to do anything at all.
When the Labour party under Tony Blair won its landslide victory in 1997, it achieved 43.2% of the popular vote, considerably less than the SNP managed in Scotland in December. In the 2001 General Election, Labour won with 40.1% of the vote. In the 2005 General Election Labour won a majority of 31 on just 35.2% of the popular vote. In fact there has never been a General Election within the lifetime of Jess Phillips, or indeed before she was born, in which the Labour party has won an absolute majority of the popular vote.
The 43.6% of the popular vote won by Boris Johnson in the December election is the highest vote share won by the victorious party in a UK General Election at any time since Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election with 43.9% of the vote share. You have to go back to 1970 – 11 years before Jess Phillips was born – in order to find a winning party with a higher vote share than the SNP won in Scotland in December, that was when Ted Heath won with a majority of just 14 but achieved 46.4% of the popular vote. The closest any party has ever come to winning an absolute majority of the popular vote in the post war era was when the Conservatives won the 1955 General Election with 49.7% of the vote.
You have to go back to the interwar era in order to find a General Election where a party took a majority of the popular vote. In fact there has only been one occasion since the introduction of the mass franchise and votes for women that any party has won both a majority in the Commons and a majority of the popular vote, that was the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin in the General Election of 27 October 1931, when the Tories took 55% of the votes.
According to the logic of Jess Phillips and all those British nationalists on social media who claim that there’s no mandate for another independence referendum because the SNP won “only” 45% there has only been one occasion in the UK since the introduction of the mass franchise and votes for women that any party has ever had a mandate for government. That was in 1931. The Labour party has never managed to surpass the 45% vote share won by the SNP in any election during Jess Phillips’s lifetime. The only times they managed it were in the General Elections of 1945, 1950, and 1951 when they won 47.7%, 46.1%, and 48.8% of the popular vote respectively. You may have noticed that all these numbers are less than 50%, which means that according to Jess Phillips logic there was no mandate to create the NHS, the social security system, or to abolish the Poor Laws.
Of course Jess Phillips and other British nationalists know that they’re applying a ridiculous and self-serving set of double standards. They don’t care. They’re desperate to clutch at any fig leaf that allows them to stand in the way of another referendum without appearing nakedly authoritarian. If the SNP had managed to win over 50% of the popular vote, the Jess Phillips of this world would merely be spouting some other spurious reason why Scotland should not be “allowed” another independence referendum.
Mind you, with Jess Phillips we’re dealing with an apparently serious candidate for the Labour party leadership who confesses that she can’t understand how anyone can support EU membership but reject being a part of the UK. So we’re not exactly talking about someone with their finger on the pulse of politics in Scotland, or “up there”, as Jess puts it.
The real reason why the British nationalists are so determined to stand in the way of another Scottish referendum is because they realise that they’re likely to lose it. The more that support for independence builds within Scotland, the more the British nationalists will try to prevent a referendum because it will be ever more likely that they’ll go down to a historic defeat. What this means is that the SNP’s strategy of slowly building on support for independence within Scotland is not by itself going to be enough to get a referendum. What it does mean is that when that referendum does occur, it will be of a confirmatory nature, to confirm the settled decision of the people of Scotland, rather than a contested referendum campaign during which the decision is made and minds made up – rather like the devolution referendum of 1997 when there was little doubt that supporters of a Scottish parliament would win. It appears that the SNP leadership would prefer this second sort of referendum.
It’s the job of the SNP to get a referendum, but it’s the job of the mass grassroots independence movement to win the arguments for independence. That mass grassroots campaign is already losing patience with the SNP leadership, and there are already serious rumblings within the movement which cannot be ignored, rumblings which put in doubt the willingness of grassroots independence supporters to keep campaigning with no other result but to continually pile up mandate after mandate for an SNP which isn’t being seen to proactively pursue a referendum. Those tired and frustrated foot soldiers are unlikely to look sympathetically upon articles like that of former SNP candidate Toni Giugliano in The National today which ask the movement to look to the Holyrood elections of 2021 as the golden ticket to a Section 30 order. That will be a fifth mandate for a referendum for the SNP to put on the mantlepiece alongside the four it’s already got.
The grassroots movement is holding up its end of the deal. Campaigners are out there, persuading, arguing, making the case for independence. With Brexit imminent, they are redoubling their efforts as the arguments for independence are falling on fertile gound. There are groups all over Scotland who have never ceased their efforts, and who have no intention of giving up. However their reservoirs of enthusiasm and energy are not limitless, they need to see some definite progress on the part of the SNP leadership toward achieving its end of the deal, to bring about a referendum.
There have already been, to my knowledge, three separate proposals for another independence party to contest the 2021 Holyrood election. The danger for the SNP leadership is that if there is no substantial progress on bringing about a referendum, and they go into the 2021 election seeking yet another mandate for a Section 30 order, many grassroots independence supporters will not campaign for the SNP, and many in the grassroots will coalesce around some proposal or other for a single issue pro-indy party. That brings about the serious risk of losing a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament as the D’Hondt electoral system used in Holyrood elections is notoriously difficult to game.
What the movement expects from leading figures within the SNP is less talk of using 2021 to achieve yet another mandate that Westminster can ignore, and to see more action to tackle Westminster’s predictable refusal of a Section 30 order. The only way that the grassroots movement is going to tolerate the SNP leadership using 2021 to achieve yet another mandate is if we see alternative plans being put into place this year – plans such as legal action, plans to lay the ground for a referendum irrespective of a Westminster refusal, or plans to use the 2021 elections to win a mandate for independence itself. Above all, we need to see a more robust and assertive challenge to the blanket refusal of Westminster to a Section 30 order and to the assertions of British nationalists that a referendum can only be held with Westminster’s permission. This year isn’t just a crucial year for the independence movement, it’s also a crucial year for the leadership of the SNP.
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