Alex Massie in The Spectator has noted that there are now more members of the Scottish National Party than there are soldiers in the British Army. Which is all well and good (unless he is actually proposing a direct ‘contest’ between the two?) – but that means little compared to actual electoral success. Despite that simple statement, lots of external commentators have taken very different meanings from the result of the General Election in Scotland. The SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats was, for example, presented by Vladimir Churov, the head of the Russian electoral commission, as clear evidence that the Referendum last year was rigged – but that is (to say the least) a simplistic analysis, that ignores the focused media impact in a binary plebiscite, compared with a multi-party election.
Writing provocatively for The Telegraph within 24 hours of the General Election results being finalised, Bruce Anderson had a hilarious piece harrumphing away at the presence of the Scottish electoral choice in Westminster, declaring that Scotland needs time to “calm down”, that Westminster should “stop appeasing the Scots”, and the wonderfully insulting “when the Nats launched their offensive the Labour high command found out that their party was almost extinct. Some Glasgow constituencies had a nominal membership role of a hundred, half of whom turned out to be dead: another quarter, in Barlinnie Gaol. The rest were often some of the most primitive socialists ever known. As no-one had told them that the Warsaw Pact was also extinct, some of them were still hoping for the arrival of Stalinism”. So, no stereotypes or cliches there, then: with such a grasp for politics (and the Labour Party) in Scotland, it is a wonder that Anderson is not considering running for First Minister next year.
In another interpretation, you can also say that in May pro-independence parties secured 51.3% of the vote in Scotland, but – as much as there is an increasing receptivity to the idea – the majority of people understood that the General Election was not a rerun of the Referendum, that this was about opening up a new front in the campaign for Scotland to take charge of its own future. I would argue that this is demonstrated in a number of ways – and not merely by the SNP saying it, because, well ‘they would wouldn’t they?’ What is telling is not the numbers of independence supporters that voted for the SNP, but the ones who are not yet convinced by independence, yet know that the SNP has that long-term objective, and still saw a good reason to support them going to Westminster. In a way, supporting the SNP in spite of – not because of – the longer term goal.
I have referred before to the October 2013 poll that indicated how much Labour support in Holyrood was projected to fall in the event of a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum (47% of their 2011 voters, see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/all-those-wee-things-the-loss-to-labour/ ), and the latest TNS poll of 1,031 makes even gloomier reading for them: 60% of those planning to vote next May would now vote SNP (45% in 2011), Labour would get 19% (32% in 2011, so 59% of that vote rather than the 47% predicted two years ago), which would leave them only marginally ahead of the Conservatives on 15%…and then there would be the LibDems on 3%. This result would mean zero Holyrood Constituency seats for Labour (they currently have 15). For the Holyrood List section vote, the results are lower at 50% for the SNP (which actually might, through the PR system, lead to them losing their majority in Holyrood), with Labour still on 19%, Conservatives 14%, Greens 10%, LibDems 5%, UKIP 2%. Also, the TNS poll (from the end of May, therefore predating Charles Kennedy’s death) shows that among under 35s, 80% say that they will be voting for the SNP, with only 6% going for Labour.
Poll results like this, the successful crowdfunding of the Carmichael money, the continuing popularity of the First Minister as well as sites like Wings Over Scotland, all suggest that the appetite for change is not restricted to elections…and it has not gone away after returning 56 SNP MPs out of 59 possible constituencies, no matter how much the enemies of change might wish to rationalise it otherwise – or be unwilling to countenance the result in other terms such as ‘a political sea change’.
As much as these figures all seem to show that support for the SNP – and trust in them, even from ‘No’ voters – is strong, the bigger question remains what this may or may not mean for the question of independence. Arch-Unionist George Galloway, launching his campaign for London Mayor a week ago, declared that he thought independence could probably ONLY have been stopped from happening within the next five years by a Labour government winning last month. Not exactly the most credible of political commentators, Galloway’s expressed view echoes Salmond’s comment just after the General Election, that (when asked directly) he thought the result in May had brought independence closer for Scotland. At the time, this was seized on with howls by the media in an attempt to show a ‘split’ between him and Sturgeon (who had clearly said that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for independence at this General Election), his successor – in much the same way as they have tried to misrepresent the SNP MPs Sheppard and Kerevan as descrying Full Fiscal Autonomy, when they were very explicitly criticising the idea that FFA could happen overnight as opposed to being a phased process, and supporting the argument that it would take time to change over. After all, we have just seen how badly botched a rushed constitutional modification can be, with the Smith Commission translating into the limp rag of the Scotland Bill. Nobody would be arguing for FFA of all proposals to happen swiftly, without negotiation…but I digress.
When Alex Salmond says that this Westminster result brings independence closer – of course it does: just not in the way that some of the southern commentariat appear to be thinking, not as part of some plan to achieve it through a devious plot enacted by a Westminster bloc of SNPs orchestrating some dastardly scheme. In a post-election poll, almost 50% said that last month’s Westminster success for the SNP made independence more likely, with 39% saying that it made no difference. It brings independence closer in exactly the same way as the SNP becoming the largest party in Holyrood in 2007 brought independence closer, as it led to them subsequently gaining a majority government in Holyrood in 2011 – which again brought independence closer, as that has (along with their performance in the Referendum) in its turn brought this Westminster landslide. Each of these stages is symptomatic of the people in Scotland placing more representational responsibility with the Scottish National Party as their trust in them slowly grew, in the absence of any credible alternative in the wake of Iraq. Last month was another stage in that growth. After a while, there will be few other ways in which the people in Scotland can invest further trust in the SNP – apart from voting for independence. According to a recent poll, 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum on independence, with 58.6% wanting it within the next ten years. It may not be the EU referendum that provides the ‘material change in circumstances’ that warrants another independence referendum within 5 years rather than 10, but perhaps in that regard Galloway might yet prove to be unexpectedly prescient after all.
“I think independence is probably nigh. The only way it could have been stopped is if we had got a Labour government last month and if that Labour government had begun to make a difference. But these next five Tory years are going to be very cold, and the SNP leadership seems to have the ball at their feet and know what to do with it. So I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t another referendum in the course of this next five years, and I’d be very surprised if we managed to repeat the result we got last year. I’d take the same stand that I did last year. But I wouldn’t be expecting to win.” (George Galloway, 14/6/2015)