The general election puts Scottish independence firmly back on the agenda

Posted On: 
17th December 2019

While Boris Johnson was the big winner last week, Nicola Sturgeon will be equally pleased with her party’s election performance. The SNP’s success has put another referendum back on the agenda in a big way. But, as James Millar reports, a vote for the party does not necessarily herald a shift in favour of independence 

Nicola Sturgeon deserves as many plaudits as Boris Johnson, writes James Millar
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She just keeps winning. Boris Johnson has deservedly taken the plaudits for landing his big majority, but Nicola Sturgeon deserves at least equal acclaim. The SNP have been in power for 12 years in Holyrood. Yet voters still enthusiastically elect them.

And it is Sturgeon’s victory. She was front and centre of the campaign. She went to East Dunbartonshire the night before the election and the SNP took the seat from Jo Swinson by 149 votes. Is an appearance by the First Minister worth 150 votes? Probably.

The Nats I spoke to on election day were cagey. Their verdict was that it had been a solid rather than a spectacular campaign. None of them bought the exit poll that forecast they’d win 55 of Scotland’s 59 seats.

But campaigns are judged by the result. And with 48 seats, up 13 on 2017, it’s now clear the SNP campaign was outstanding.

They didn’t hit the heights of 2015 when they bagged every Scottish seat bar three, but that result will always stand as an outlier coming so soon after the independence referendum. And given last week’s result it’s all but inevitable we’ll have to start referring to that 2014 vote as the first independence referendum.

Because of the circumstances in 2015 there’s a case to be made that this was the SNP’s best campaign and best result ever. And what characterised it was competence. 

Nicola Sturgeon took part in interviews and debates and emerged each time with her reputation enhanced. It was noticeable that the likes of Andrew Neil went for the Scottish Government’s record on health and education. Both are devolved so not up for grabs at a general election. But whereas all the other leaders could be attacked on their personal failings and shortcomings Sturgeon is so solid that interviewers were reduced to talking about policy with her rather than personality.

When the campaign had a wobble with its own antisemitism issue the party acted swiftly. Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath candidate Neale Hanvey was booted and an SNP clean up team descended on his office to remove all party materials. End of. He still won. How the party deals with him as an independent will be worth keeping an eye on.

As will the integration into the Westminster group of a new raft of big names with equivalent egos – Alyn Smith the leading MEP who won Stirling, Kenny MacAskill the former Holyrood justice minister and John Nicolson who won Ochil and South Perthshire despite a notable campaign trail gaffe where he forgot which seat he was standing in.

That basic competence was perhaps best demonstrated by the fact candidates and their canvassers were issued with SNP-branded hand warmers. It’s helluva cold on the campaign trail in Scotland in December. But of course, it wasn’t just a practical step. It showed that party chiefs appreciate their activists and understand what they do and what they need.

And little things like that gave activists the extra oomph to execute an impressive get out the vote operation.

The party lost seats in 2017 in large part not because voters turned against them but because some of their supporters stayed at home on poling day. Not this time. The party pushed their ‘lock Boris Johnson out of Downing Street’ message hard in the run up to polling day. The Tories kept banging on about stopping indyref2. It’s clear which one resonated. In the immediate aftermath of the vote party strategists have identified middle class remainers as the group that proved key to delivering such a big win.

But that does leave the SNP with a problem. For that group don’t necessarily support independence. The smarter minds in the SNP recognise that Scots voters are sophisticated. Many will have rejected the Scottish Conservative message about stopping indyref2 knowing that wasn’t the issue at this election, and knowing that should another independence poll take place they can just vote it down again. A poll that landed during the campaign showed support for independence ebbing away. The next set of polls on the issue will be keenly awaited.

But the result puts independence back on the agenda in a big way. It’s remarkable how yet again the Westminster bubble only cottoned on to the constitutional implications of the election after the event. Lessons have not been learned after largely ignoring Northern Ireland during the Brexit referendum.

In terms of independence this was an election Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t lose. If Labour had won, she would’ve demanded the power to call a referendum in return for parliamentary support. But she’s got something better. A big Tory majority and the prospect of another decade of Conservative rule bring the opportunity to appeal to the unfairness of Westminster rule and stoke a grievance that many Scots will sympathise with. 

Consent will be the key word going into a parliament likely to be dominated by the future of the union.

James Millar is a freelance journalist, author, commentator and podcaster