Scotland: back on the independence track?

Covid-19 slowed the counting process a little, but results are now final from last Thursday’s Scottish election. They’re generally in line with expectations (see my preview here), but it will take time for their long-term implications to become clear.

It was very much a status quo election. The same five parties won seats as last time – the only newcomer to look at all threatening, Alex Salmond’s Alba, flopped badly with just 1.7% – and finished in the same order with very much the same strengths.

The governing Scottish Nationalists (SNP) remain easily the largest party, winning 40.3% of the vote; that’s down 1.4% on 2016, but because of the interplay between constituency and list seats they actually picked up a seat to finish on 64, one seat short of a majority in the 129-seat parliament. The Greens, with 8.1% (up 1.5%) and eight seats (up two), will again be their preferred partner, although a formal coalition is unlikely.

The three anti-independence parties shared the remaining 57 seats: Conservatives 31, Labour 22 and Liberal Democrats four. Their combined vote of 46.5% was down just 0.7% on last time, with Labour (down 1.2% and two seats) the worst performer. Turnout was up by a remarkable ten points, to 63.2%

Compared to some of the wins incumbents have enjoyed in the last year or so, the SNP’s performance was underwhelming. On the other hand, winning a fourth term is a big achievement for any government, and the lack of change suggests that Scots are generally fairly content with the way things are going.

But is it, as first minister Nicola Sturgeon claims, a mandate for a new vote on Scottish independence? By my calculation, pro-independence parties scored 50.1% of the vote, as against 47.7% for those opposed and 2.2% for those that are neutral or unclassifiable. That’s a majority, but a tiny one: if it’s a fair reflection of the balance of opinion on the independence question – and the polls suggest it’s not far off – then it’s a perilous base on which to rest a referendum campaign. (Or, for that matter, a new independent nation.)

The fact that the SNP again fell short of a majority in its own right will embolden the opponents of independence, and especially prime minister Boris Johnson, to stand firm against another referendum. And in doing so they may well be doing Sturgeon a favor. Defeat in a referendum now could easily set the cause of independence back decades; better to wait until the accumulated inconveniences of Brexit have made a more settled impression on the voters’ mood.

Elsewhere in Britain, electoral fortunes were mixed. The biggest headlines were for a by-election in Hartlepool, a historically Labour seat in northern England that the Conservatives won comfortably. Labour’s vote dropped nine points to 28.7%, setting off a round of angst and recriminations, but the intrinsic significance of a single by-election in the first half of a government’s term is negligible.

Labour also did poorly in most local elections, but better in England’s big cities, holding the London mayoralty comfortably. Labour also gained in the Welsh Senate election, finishing with 36.2% and half of the 60 seats; it will remain in government there, as it has continuously since self-government was established in 1999. The Welsh Nationalists, or Plaid Cymru, were almost unchanged on 20.7% and 13 seats, still a long way short of their Scottish counterparts.

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