During the Scottish Parliament elections in May, the question of a second Scottish independence referendum dominated the campaign. It’s a measure of just how important and defining an issue for modern Scottish politics that the independence question has become that it even pushed the covidocalypse off top billing during the campaign. As we all know, the election produced the largest pro-independence majority that the devolved Parliament has ever seen, with 72 MSPs from the SNP and the Scottish Greens (including the Presiding Officer Alison Johnson) elected on a clear and unequivocal platform of support for another independence referendum within the five year term of this Parliament. The anti-independence MSPs combined number just 57 in total, (31 Tory, 22 Labour and four Lib Dem) and are easily outnumbered even when the neutral Presiding Officer, elected as a Green, is taken into account. Indeed the anti-independence contingent is easily outnumbered by the 64 SNPs alone even before counting the Scottish Green contingent, which is in a formal pact of alliance with the SNP in the Scottish Government.
This is the election which the BBC’s Sarah Smith repeatedly told us was on a “knife-edge”. The pro-independence parties between them won 55.8% of the total number of seats at Holyrood, but this is apparently a “knife-edge”. The results of parliamentary elections are decided by the number of seats won by each of the parties contesting the election, there is no other meaningful criterion.
It’s only referendums whose results are determined by the number of votes cast for the respective pro or anti campaigns. Interestingly enough, when the results of the 2014 referendum were reported and it turned out that 55.3 % had voted against independence, the BBC said that this was a “decisive” result even though 55.3% is a decisively smaller number than the 55.8% of seats won by pro-independence and pro-second referendum parties in May. There was no talk of knife-edges then. Funny that.
Of course the Conservatives and their Anglo-British nationalist fellow travellers are now trying to gaslight the people of Scotland into believing that they did not in fact vote decisively and unquestionably for a Scottish Parliament which they charged with the task of delivering another independence referendum within the five year term of the Parliament. This is despite the fact that the Conservatives talked about nothing except their opposition to another independence referendum all the way through the campaign.
The proof that the Conservatives and the other anti-independence parties know now and have known all along that the defining issue of May’s Scottish Parliament election was their desperate attempt to prevent the election of a Holyrood with a pro-independence majority and a majority and committed to delivering another independence referendum, is their tacit collusion in an anti-independence tactical voting campaign for the constituency vote. You could hardly miss the prominent billboards placed in expensively purchased locations urging voters to use their vote in the constituency for the candidate best placed to deprive the SNP of the seat. Although this campaign did secure some significant successes, such as the re-election of Jackie Baillie for Labour on the back of Conservative tactical votes, it ultimately failed, and failed badly.
We now know that this well funded and highly visible campaign was fuelled by an anonymous donor to the tune of £46,000. The donor has no website and is registered to a central London address used by a PO Box provider. The donor, listed with the Electoral Commission as the Centre for Economic education and Training seems to have no existence outwith the Electoral Commission declaration. Despite not seeming to exist beyond a PO Box address at a mail drop, the “Centre” made two donations to the anti-independence from group Scotland Matters totalling £46,000.
In total the spending of seven non party campaign groups was reported by the Electoral Commission, this weekend, all but one are anti-independence campaigns.
Had the anti-independence tactical voting campaign succeeded and between them the Conservatives, Labour, and the Alex Cole-Hamilton fan club had managed to deprive the pro independence parties of a majority they would of course now be insisting that May’s Holyrood election was indeed really all about independence and another referendum, but because their attempts to subvert Scottish democracy with dark money and dodgy donations failed, they are now trying to backtrack.
The episode raises important questions about the integrity of Scottish democracy within the UK. The Conservatives are keen to foster a system where electoral victory goes to the highest bidder. Last year it emerged that the shadowy Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT), an unincorporated association which does not have to report its accounts to Companies House, had handed over almost £22,450 to the Scottish Conservatives in the run-up to the 2019 General Election. In total the SUAT dark money ATM gave the Scottish Tories £318,876 between 2001 and 2018.
The Conservatives have accepted £2.6 million in donations from sources with anonymous funders since Johnson entered Downing Street. In July, the Commons’ cross-party Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that unincorporated associations are a weak point in the elections rules and could be a “route for foreign money to influence UK elections”, The Committee recommended reform of the system. Instead, the Conservatives included a provision in their Elections Bill to abolish the independence of the Electoral Commission and bring it under Government control, giving the ultimate say on whether a political donation is acceptable to the minister for the Cabinet Office. Not only have the Conservatives got no intention of reforming the system to make political donations more transparent, they are introducing measures to facilitate their collection of dark money.
The Conservatives have squandered many of the advantages enjoyed by Better Together in 2014. They have ripped Scotland out of the EU and have destroyed any claims that further devolution or federalism are possible within the UK, indeed they have made it clear that the future of devolution is far from secure. Furthermore with their Brexit, their deceit and their British exceptionalism, they have ensured that international opinion is now far more sympathetic to Scottish independence than it was in 2014.
In the independence referendum campaign to come the Conservatives and their anti-independence allies know that they are on the back foot and will flood Scotland with billboard campaigns and social media advertising paid for with dark money sourced outwith Scotland. They are going to try and buy victory. If they succeed they will buy the death of democracy in Scotland. We must ensure that they fail just as they failed to buy the Holyrood election.
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