So what does it all mean? The first thing to bear in mind is that more than one thing may be true at the same time. This is, then, both a historic and thumping victory for Nicola Sturgeon and a mild disappointment. Historic because, after 14 years in power, Scottish voters have handed the SNP a fourth consecutive term in office; a modest disappointment because the SNP made little progress on their 2016 performance. Five years ago, Sturgeon lost the majority – albeit this was an accidental majority – she inherited from Alex Salmond and she failed to regain it this week.
Doing so would have required everything to fall into place for the nationalists. They would have needed to pick up seats such as Dumbarton, Edinburgh Southern, and Aberdeenshire West to have a real crack at a majority. Wins in East Lothian and Ayr were of no great use, being offset by a consequent decline in SNP representation on the South of Scotland regional list.
Even so, as failures go this is a pretty hefty success. 63 seats – assuming Sir John Curtice’s projection is confirmed – is a mighty triumph. The people of Scotland have made it clear they wish Nicola Sturgeon to remain as first minister. She, and she alone, is trusted to lead the country through the next phases of the coronavirus emergency.
But what of the national question? There is little point in denying that the nationalists’ case for a second referendum is a strong one. A manifesto commitment to such a project, aligned with a comparable Green pledge to pursue a referendum, endows the demand with a certain moral authority. There is a compelling case that a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament, combined with the undoubted material change in circumstances wrought by Brexit, means a fresh plebiscite is not only reasonable but necessary.
This truth may also be countered by another truth. The Scottish electorate is split down the middle on the question of independence and there is no evidence of any overwhelming clamour for a new referendum. Polling confirms that little more than one in four voters like the idea of a referendum in the next two years and no more than 45 percent wish one at any point in the next five.
That matters; just as it must count that when Sturgeon was asked what a voter who wants her to handle the pandemic but doesn’t want a referendum should do, she had no hesitation in arguing that they should give both their votes to the SNP. Obviously those votes are now enlisted in support of a referendum those casting them do not actually want.
On something more than a mere technical matter, the SNP’s failure to win a majority makes very little difference. The votes for independence will be there whether the nationalists have 68 seats or only 60. But in terms of how the election result may be interpreted, the failure to secure a majority – however difficult doing so might be – does make a difference. It checks the sense of momentum upon which the SNP were relying and it leaves Scotland standing more or less in precisely the same place it was five years ago. All that huffing and puffing and performative outrage and much else besides and, in the end, it appears not very much has changed.
A pro-independence majority at Holyrood is certainly a necessary condition for a referendum but it is not always a sufficient one. If it were, there might be no reason not to hold a referendum every five years – or even more frequently than that – until such time as the correct result was delivered. Even SNP diehards would, I think, allow that repeatedly asking the question in this fashion would be neither feasible nor desirable. This being so, if follows that a majority at Holyrood is not enough for a referendum in any or all circumstances.
2011 was different because – wait for it – the referendum question had never been asked before. Salmond’s majority earned the right to put the question on the table precisely because it had not been put before. A decade later but only seven years since the 2014 referendum, the situation is clearly different. The consensus which existed in 2011 perished long ago, but that it once existed – that it was appropriate to have a referendum – was important. It ensured that the process was respected even by those who would have preferred it not to take place at all. That, more than anything else, contributed to what Nicola Sturgeon called a ‘gold standard’ process for going about these things. If that was the gold standard, what’s available now is made of brass.
For as long as half the country opposes a referendum (and for so long as the 2014 plebiscite remains a matter of recent memory), the British government will enjoy the cover it needs to avoid a referendum. ‘Now is not the time’ is plainly, however, a policy of steadily diminishing returns. The more time that passes, the harder it is to argue that not enough time has passed before a referendum could be considered seemly. It is a line that will hold for now – and the success of the Tory campaign in this election is a story of its own that has not yet received the attention it merits – but it will not hold forever.
The nationalists will hope that Johnson’s refusal to countenance a referendum will persuade Scots who do not currently desire one to change their mind and begin agitating for it. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out. This is very crooked timber, after all. It is obvious that, as a moral matter, there is a great difference between a situation in which more than six in ten people demand a referendum and one in which not much more than four in ten do. At that point, too, any referendum would most likely confirm a choice already made in the privacy of voters’ minds.
But we are not there yet and so while the mandate wars will be exhausting – not least on account of the amount of performative stupidity on display – they will not be resolved any time soon. Both sides have a compelling and reasonable case to make and both sides enjoy the support of half the electorate. Until something changes on that front, this stalemate will endure.
It is not Boris Johnson blocking the SNP just as it is not the British government refusing the consent needed for a second independence referendum. It is the half of the Scottish people which refused to vote for SNP candidates that are blocking the nationalists’ aspirations. Their voices, being equal in number to those who desire a referendum, should be heard too. So, yes, the SNP have a point but so, in equal measure, do their opponents.
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