Why the SNP won’t get a second referendum
Despite Sturgeon’s victory last week, there is little public appetite for another vote on independence.
This was a very good election for the Scottish National Party (SNP). While not quite as stunning as 2015’s election ‘yellow-wash’, when the Nats won 56 of the 59 seats available, the 2019 haul of 48 seats is still an enormous success. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s much-watched wild celebrations, captured when news came through of the SNP beating Jo Swinson in the Lib Dem leader’s East Dunbartonshire seat, were as much about how the whole night had gone as they were about getting one over on a rival.
Naturally, the SNP claimed the result was a mandate for another independence referendum. On Friday, Sturgeon declared: ‘I don’t pretend that every single person who voted SNP yesterday will necessarily support independence, but there has been a strong endorsement in this election of Scotland having a choice over our future; of not having to put up with a Conservative government we didn’t vote for and not having to accept life as a nation outside the EU.’
But what the vote shows is rather more complicated. First, the results show how distorting the first-past-the-post system can be. Across the whole of the UK, the Conservatives got 56 per cent of the seats from 43.6 per cent of the vote. That’s lopsided, but nothing compared to the fact that the SNP won 81 per cent of the seats in Scotland with just 45 per cent of the vote.
Second, the big story was the collapse of the Labour vote. In 2017, the SNP got 36.9 per cent of the vote, winning 35 seats, and Labour took 27.1 per cent, winning seven. The Conservatives came second in Scotland that time, with 28 per cent of the vote and 13 seats. This time around, the SNP went up eight percentage points while Labour fell 8.5 percentage points, leaving Labour with just one seat – the anti-Corbyn Edinburgh MP, Ian Murray.
From those numbers, it looks like many voters who rejected Labour and couldn’t bring themselves to vote Conservative or Lib Dem switched to the SNP. This was hardly a ringing endorsement of the need for an independence referendum. The Conservative vote fell a little – down to 25 per cent, leaving the Tories with just six seats and reduced majorities even in those. The Conservatives were also not helped by the stepping down of their media-friendly leader, Ruth Davidson, before the election.
It is also worth noting that the SNP’s vote share of 45 per cent is exactly the same as the ‘Yes’ campaign got in 2014’s independence referendum. Opinion about independence remains divided, but the majority for remaining part of the UK seems consistent. The overwhelming majority of opinion polls since the EU referendum also show a persistent, if small, majority in favour of staying in the UK. So even if there were to be another independence referendum, it could simply repeat the result of the last one. Despite SNP protestations about Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, Scottish voters seem more inclined to choose the UK over the EU.
Another problem is that, mandate or not, the SNP has no obvious path to independence at the moment. Quite apart from the fact that another referendum would be an insult to voters who took part in the ‘once in a generation’ referendum in 2014 – essentially telling them they got it wrong and must try again – there would need to be approval given for a vote under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998. Though in name a decision made by the monarch, it is really a prerogative power granted to the UK government. With a fully fledged unionist in Downing Street, such an order is unlikely to be forthcoming. Senior Conservative Michael Gove has already confirmed that there won’t be government approval for another independence vote.
The SNP could go to court to see if the devolution settlement does, in fact, give Holyrood the right to hold a referendum. But even if they won that case, everyone agrees that only the UK government can actually grant independence. A unilateral referendum, without permission, would trigger a constitutional crisis. The result of an unauthorised referendum in Catalonia was the jailing of the movement’s leaders, but with no progress on achieving independence.
Moreover, the independence argument gets a lot harder after Brexit. Brexit has been fraught with difficulties, but the relationship between the UK and the EU is nowhere near as intertwined as that between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Just take the question of which currency to use. Sturgeon says an independent Scotland would use the pound while a new currency is created (advisers suggest it could take a decade). In the interim, that would leave Scotland without control over its own monetary policy. And while Scottish banks can issue notes at the moment, that right would disappear after independence. So, the SNP’s vision of an ‘independent’ Scotland within the EU could mean taking rules from Brussels and using the Bank of England’s money for years.
Maybe it suits the SNP to be able to continue to complain about Westminster. Better that than the risk of putting support for independence to the test or taking responsibility for its own failings.
Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.
Picture by: Getty.
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