The State of the Union: Scotland – a victory for the Union?

I touched down in Scotland’s beautiful capital yesterday, and whilst the rain has inhibited my exploration of Edinburgh, it has not dampened my faith that the Union will hold firm.

That said it would be fair to conclude that on paper the election result is a blow to Unionists. Unlike in Wales where Plaid made zero net-gains, the SNP ousted fourteen of their Unionist opponents, including seven Tories, six Labour incumbents, and of course Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson.

However, all was not bright for Sturgeon’s party. The suffered defeat in North East Fife, where Stephen Gethins was displaced by the Liberal Democrats. This was in part because of the tactical voting incentives of Scotland in Union. In fact, when looking at the result the Tories lost over 10% of their vote share from 2017, and the Liberal Democrats vote share increased by around the same percentage. This enabled Wendy Chamberlain to overturn Gethins majority of 2, to now command a majority of 1,316.

It is quite clear why Mrs Sturgeon described the election as a ‘watershed moment’. The SNP represent 48 of the 59 Scottish constituencies, and whilst this is not as substantial as their result in 2015, in any other format this would provide a sufficient mandate for a so-called ‘IndyRef2’.

However, when one looks at the popular vote parties that are pro-independence, notably SNP and the Scottish Greens totalled 1,270,502 or 46% of the vote. Compared to the unionist parties who won 1,484,740 or 54%. Unlike in England where tribal party allegiances distort the popular vote for Brexit, Scottish nationalist parties were founded with one objective in mind.

One should add a degree of caution. In the one-percent who backed the Green Party, who in Scotland are nationalist, it would be absurd to envisage that unionist, climate change activist would consider this issue, when the formation of such a party was for such climate issues.

In addition, there is potential that while the core of SNP voters are ardent separatist, a few thousand would have been tempted with the promises of ‘Stop Brexit’ and to keep the Tories out, that were blazoned across the SNP battle bus. The SNP are well aware of this, Sturgeon acknowledged the state of Scottish politics by suggesting that “people may well vote SNP to keep the Tories out, given the crossroads and the prospect of Boris Johnson for five years.” In the last days of the campaign, the Scottish First Minister attempted to reassure would-be voters by adding that “people understand that this election is not going to decide the issue of independence.”

Therefore, unionists should rest easily that they command a majority among Scottish voters and this roughly represents opinion polling carried out on the independence question. Since Boris Johnson dissolved parliament for this election there have been five polls. None of these polls project that Scotland would opt for independence, with the average margin suggesting that 52% of Scots favour the continuation of the Act of 1707.

Unfortunately, Sturgeon’s caution over voters’ conditional support for the SNP has evaporated, and instead she is going full throttle to take the Scottish people to another expensive and divisive poll on independence.

Instead Sturgeon spoke at Holyrood and declared that “people were faced with a clear and distinct choice, and they made their verdict clear.” With regard to the voters won over she adapted her initial reasoning for their support and now demands Westminster to approve of her imminent Section 30 order.

I would suggest that we will only know if Scots want a second independence referendum in the Holyrood elections of 2021. Boris Johnson’s “unwavering commitment” to the Union means that it is all but certain that he will reject any request for a poll on independence. If, unlike in this general election, the SNP stand unequivocally in favour of Scottish independence, alongside the Greens, and they command a majority then a referendum may become inevitable.

The two most successful Unionist parties, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, will campaign against any such measure. Willie Rennie, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh, claimed that “the country has had enough of the division – we need to learn the lessons of Brexit, not repeat them with independence.”

As the interim leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Jack Carlaw, made clear now that Brexit is a political reality, the political dynamics have changed. Those who hope to reverse Brexit cannot place their hopes in the SNP, but the difficult questions over borders that have emerged since Brexit will only complicate the SNP’s cause.

The compelling argument for the Union will win through again. But as will the benefits of Brexit. When Scotland takes back control of her money, laws, borders and importantly fisheries, the Scottish people should realise that they do not want to gift-wrap their own sovereignty and hand it back to Brussels. But for Scottish nationalists I do find these questions as a roadblock for their cause:

  1. Will there be a hard border?
  2. Do you support sterlingisation or adopting the Euro?
  3. Why do you overvalue the EU’s Single Market, when Britain’s is over three-times the size?

Even if Scotland is forced to the polls in the next decade I have the sense that the argument for the United Kingdom far outweighs the one against. As such, while Scotland is verging on a poll I believe that the result will be far more emphatic than a potential border poll in Ulster.

Therefore, unlike in Wales, and similarly to Northern Ireland, the next assembly election will be integral to determining the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom. Whoever is elected to Holyrood will have a substantial say on whether or not the Scottish people will vote again on independence. Unionists will just hope that of the 129-seats, the SNP and Greens will fail to surpass the 65-seats needed to form a majority.

By J Walters

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