In our note last week – centred on the result of the Hartlepool by-election and emerging English local results – we highlighted the structural shift occurring in Labour’s vote and drew a comparison with post-Indyref Scottish politics. Now that Scotland’s results are in, that comparison is made even more worrying for Keir Starmer and his team. Labour is not making a come-back in Scotland. They are going backwards – still. And whilst Nicola Sturgeon has failed to win an overall majority, the achievement of the SNP last week remains momentous. A fourth election victory in a row – despite a year of scandal and vicious internecine conflict – is not to be sniffed at.
For the time being, the consequences of that result are continuity. Nicola Sturgeon will remain First Minister. The SNP remains in Government. The policies – for better, for worse – remain the same. But in the medium term, of course, this victory promises disruption. Holyrood now has a majority elected on pro-referendum platform and Nicola Sturgeon has no choice but to push hard for a vote on Scotland’s future. That is a given and the pressure will be on the First Minister to demonstrate, quickly, that she will do whatever it takes. There are some in her party and many in her wider movement who worry that she is too cautious and too conservative. For Sturgeon, there are few political incentives to take things slow and significant political risks.
What, then, will the UK Government do? It is unquestionably the case that the power to grant a binding referendum sits not in Holyrood but in Westminster. But politics and the law are not the same thing. Many in the pro-union camp caution the Prime Minister that whilst he can veto a referendum that does not mean he should.
Their argument goes something like this. These election results show that the demand for a referendum is not going away on its own. Therefore a referendum at some point is inevitable. That being the case, preventing Scotland from holding its vote in – say – 2022 is a false economy. It will not prevent the vote happening eventually and the sight of a London Government refusing to allow a democratic vote in Scotland is likely to drive up support for separatism. Therefore we should co-operate with the SNP and begin to work out what the positive case for the Union looks like.
But there are other voices, too. Urging a different approach. Some point to the emerging pattern in the polling and note that support for independence is actually declining. Despite the fact that for most of the period between the Brexit referendum and the first COVID-19 cases Nicola Sturgeon was periodically demanding a plebiscite and being rebuffed by first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson. They also invite the Prime Minister to reflect on his own unpopularity in Scotland and the likelihood that he would become a totem for the separatist campaign. Perhaps we can just keep saying ‘no’, they suggest. Perhaps doing so might put the pressure back onto the SNP. Perhaps the independence camp, frustrated and fraught, will split.
For a pathological avoider of difficult decisions and hard work – such as Boris Johnson – option two is attractive. Certainly, as the pandemic continues to ravage, it will work for a while. But for how long? That is the question. How long can Westminster continue to refuse without offering Scotland something.
It is difficult to imagine two Prime Ministers less alike in personality or in style than Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown but nonetheless the answer to this dilemma may come from him. Today Brown has been across the airwaves calling for a raft of constitutional inquiries and reforms. Whether any of these would actually stem the tide of the independence movement is an open question. But the utility of an inquiry is not always its outcome – sometimes looking busy whilst chewing through time is an end in and of itself. Expect a certain amount of magpieing from a Prime Minister desperate to avoid either accepting a referendum or vetoing one.
In these COVID elections, incumbency has been a significant advantage. Nicola Sturgeon has benefitted from that – as did Boris, Mark Drakeford in Wales and a host of Metro Mayors. But Sturgeon wants to wield that advantage to upturn the entirety of the British constitutional settlement. She believes she has a mandate from Scotland for that. But Boris Johnson is not going to simply hand her the end of the UK on a plate. We are entering a period of toe-to-toe political and legal wrangling and only a fool would tell you that the outcome is either obvious or predetermined.