The dust is starting to settle after the election campaign, so it’s time for an assessment of the results and what they mean, most importantly what do they mean for independence. I’ve never bought into the conspiracy theory that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t really want independence. She is by nature a cautious person and she knows that irrespective of the outcome, the next Scottish independence referendum will be the last.
Either the referendum will secure Scotland’s independence, or we will lose and Westminster will take legislative steps to ensure that there will never be another. There’s little doubt that the SNP leadership was seriously spooked by the party’s heavy losses in the snap General Election of 2017 and put the issue of independence on the back burner fearing that attempting to force the question would only result in a referendum defeat that Scotland could ill afford. At the time support for independence was still bumping along in the mid 40s % range. Back then independence supporters would have bitten the hand off any polling company showing a 51% figure for Yes. Nowadays we take that level of yes support for granted.
Times have changed. Although support for independence seems to have declined from the high of 58% achieved in one opinion poll some months ago, it’s still higher than it was in 2017 and it is no longer a surprise to see a poll showing a Yes majority. Although Scotland seems fairly evenly split on the question of independence we would be entering an independence campaign with the support of half the country. Brexit has happened. We have a public which has more confidence in the Scottish government’s handling of the greatest global crisis since WW2 than it does in the British government.Nothing can be taken for granted but the independence movement is in a much stronger position than it has ever been.
We’ve just gone through an election campaign in which the issue of another referendum dominated. Despite a concerted and suspiciously well funded tactical campaign from anti-independence organisations , they failed to prevent the election of a parliament with a strong pro-independence majority and failed to deprive the SNP of any seats. Indeed the pro-independence SNP and Greens were the only parties which gained seats in this election. Even with a significant tactical vote the anti-independence parties either stood still or lost seats.
It should not be forgotten that there was no Unionist tactical vote in 2011 when the SNP won a majority. That makes the SNP’s achievement at this election all the more remarkable. Despite significant unionist tactical voting in the constituency vote, the SNP gained seats and came within one seat of an outright majority in its own right. Together with the Greens there’s now 72 pro-independence MSPs versus just 57 who are opposed.
Despite what they say for public consumption, the anti-independence parties and in particular the Tories are very much aware that this election delivered an unarguable mandate for another independence referendum. Former Conservative spin doctor Andy Maciver admitted to STV that senior figures in the party privately accept that there’s a mandate for another referendum and if democracy is to mean anything at all, a referendum will have to take place. Certainly the issue of independence is not going to go away and eventually it will have to be settled one way or another in a referendum.
The SNP leadership is well aware that this election victory is its last chance. This Scottish Parliament and government must deliver an independence referendum within the term of this Parliament. If it does not it’s probably game over for the SNP – and certainly for its current leadership.
This election also saw the first outing for a party born out of anger and frustration at the perceived lack of progress to another referendum and a more widespread dissatisfaction among segments of the independence movement with the SNP. However the Alba party performed poorly and fell far short of the excited predictions made by some of its supporters upon its launch. Some had claimed that the new party could take 30% or more of the SNP’s list vote, The SNP took 40.3% of the list vote and won 1,094,374 votes. If Alba had succeeded in taking a third of the SNP’s list vote the new party could have won over 300,000 votes and around 12% of the total list vote. In the event it managed just under 45,000 votes and 1.7% of the vote share.
Alba is a party founded by independence supporters who are hostile to the SNP. Following its poor performance in the election its supporters have continued to blame the SNP for Alba’s defeat and for advocating SNP 1 & 2 votes. However no political party on the planet is going to advise its supporters to vote for another party – moreover a new party created out of hostility and anger towards its leadership, policies and strategy. It was always naive and unrealistic for Alba supporters to think that the SNP ought to have tacitly supported an Alba vote on the list. You don’t get to piss on someone’s picnic and then complain that they don’t invite you for tea and cake.
In any event voters are not robots. The SNP cannot compel anyone to vote for it. If Alba is to continue as a credible political force its supporters must look past their anger with the SNP and ask themselves why their new party proved not to be an attractive option for the great majority of the independence supporting general public. If they seek to have a significant impact in the independence process , the new party’s supporters need to get past their SNP coulda shoulda woulda and consider how to improve their own appeal to the electorate the next time around.
We’re not going to have an independence referendum while covid remains a serious threat to public health. Realistically it will be 2022 or 2023 before we have a referendum but I have no doubt that a referendum will happen within the next couple of years. If we want to win that referendum it is sensible to wait until we can once again do the sort of grassroots face to face campaigning which did so much to boost the yes vote in 2014. That’s vitally important in a country such as Scotland where the traditional media is overwhelmingly opposed to independence. Alba’s failure in this election proves the point. Theirs was by necessity an almost entirely online campaign, but it clearly failed to break out of its social media bubble. The result proves the limitations of pro-indy blogs , twitter accounts, Facebook pages and websites (this one included.) A social media campaign can only succeed as an adjunct to a grassroots “real world” campaign, not as a replacement for it.
When the referendum happens the parties of British nationalism are going to throw everything at us. They will go into the campaign knowing that there is a serious risk of losing. They will not make the mistakes they did in 2014 when for months their campaign was characterised by arrogant complacency. The task for independence supporters now is to ensure that we are ready for them. It’s time to prepare.
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