New polls on the Scottish elections in 2021 and on support for independence have raised the question of a referendum again. The polls show the SNP on course to win 72 seats in the Holyrood election scheduled for next May, an outright majority, while support for independence is at 52 per cent. A slender lead, but after years of ‘Yes’ being narrowly behind it is something to energise the movement.
The National is splashing ‘indyref 2021’ on its front-page, but we should remember what happened to the ‘indyref 2020’ and ‘indyref 2019’ front-pages – they all quietly disappeared. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had continually insisted the will of the Scottish Parliament could not be blocked by the UK Government, until it was – again and again. Before Covid-19 hit, Boris Johnson had delivered a ‘flat No’ in January to the First Minister’s demands for indyref 2020. Little more was heard of it until the pandemic, when the Scottish Government officially stated it would not be proceeding with plans for a referendum this year. There was no reason to believe they could deliver on those plans anyway.
The Scottish Government has had a mandate to hold an independence referendum since the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, when Scotland voted to Remain and the UK as a whole voted to Leave, and it has had a majority in the Scottish Parliament for such a vote, with the support of the Scottish Greens. But a referendum has been on and off twice since then. In March 2017 when Holyrood voted for it and then Prime Minister Theresa May said “now is not the time”, then off again after the SNP lost seats at the 2017 General Election and Sturgeon interpreted that as a lack of desire to push a referendum again, then on again after the SNP won a crushing victory in Scotland in the 2019 General Election, and now off again officially because of the pandemic. Four years of an indyref mandate has disappeared, easily dismissed by successive Tory Governments. The current Prime Minister has a comfortable majority and is bullish about opposing an independence referendum regardless of how the Scottish people vote – why exactly is that going to change in 2021?
The SNP has won six of six elections in Scotland since the 2014 independence referendum; one more electoral victory is not going to turn Boris Johnson into a democrat, at least not by itself. The question of how an independence referendum can be delivered can no longer be brushed under the carpet by the SNP leadership with tough-sounding messages about how the Tories would not dare to disobey the democratic wishes of the Scottish people – the evidence suggests they would, and will continue to do so, as it is electorally advantageous in Scotland for them to take a tough anti-indyref line. That’s why the Prime Minister came north of the border during the December General Election and waved around a manifesto which said in bold letters ‘No to Indyref2’ on the front. Anti-indy is the identity politics of Scottish Toryism. And Scottish Labour is now fully back in line as an opponent of Scottish self-determination, following Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat and Keir Starmer’s ascendancy, competing in a battle they can’t win with the Tories over No voting Scotland.
Scottish politics has become stuck by the self-reinforcing dichotomies of constitutional posturing. The SNP seeks to emphasise its ability to deliver indyref to unite the Yes vote behind it, while the Tories exaggerate nationalist combativity to try to unite the No vote behind it. Meanwhile, both Sturgeon and Johnson know that the deadlock won’t actually be broken. A stable disequilibrium of SNP hegemony and No opposition is maintained for another five years. This comfortable political paralysis from Bute House to 10 Downing Street will have to be shaken up if the constitutional impasse is to be broken.
New strategies will be needed, ones based on a greater determination to pursue the right of Scotland to decide regardless of what the Prime Minister says. If you are only willing to play by the rules of the UK state, don’t be surprised if they are rigged against a political project seeking to break it up. One thing is for sure: one more heave will not get us there.
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