Sean Bell: After the election, what comes next?

“Independence supporters face the prospect of explaining and reaffirming the expanded mandate for they have won. Many will not look forward to beating their head against this particular brick wall once again, as the unionist counter-argument will only become more shrill, obstinate and unconcerned with democracy the more they are put on the defensive.”

SOME called it Scotland’s “most important” election – since the last one, at least.

The truth, however, is that we’ve been here before: a victorious SNP, its enemies driven before it, failing to secure the kind of result the Holyrood voting system was designed to make all but impossible; outright success for pro-independence parties, whose unprecedented majority in parliament may be ignored by those who make bad faith their business; a mandate for a second referendum, the worth of which depends upon its recognition by the British state.

And so, we all wake up in the aftermath; the sun still rises and the world still spins. The Union has not crumbled, nor has its safety been assured. As a dream, Scottish independence is neither dashed forever or certain to be fulfilled. Our arguments remain as principled or as poisonous as they were last week. We’re all still here – take from that what you will.

Amidst their understandable jubilation, the victories of the SNP and the Greens serve to highlight the quandries and battles that lie ahead. No one expected Boris Johnson to suddenly agree with Nicola Sturgeon, whose victory speech characterised a second referendum as “a matter of fundamental democratic principle”, the question of which is now a matter of “when – not if.”

And so it was, with ‘Send in the Clowns’ tinkling faintly in the background, that Michael Gove was wheeled out from whatever meat locker they keep him in to imperiously dismiss the idea of another plebiscite as a “massive distraction”. Beyond that, Gove didn’t say much at all, repeatedly refusing to clarify whether the UK Government would attempt to halt such a bid in the courts. This, apparently, is the best that can be produced by the top minds at No 10’s beleaguered ‘Union unit’, the staff turnover rate of which is worse than the fast food industry: “Don’t tell ‘em nothin’, Mikey…”

Johnson and the Tories know this position of non-engagement has its strengths – stymying the SNP and their allies so long as they desire a referendum with the consent of both sides, its legitimacy unquestioned in the eyes of the world – but at this point should also fear that it produces, at best, diminishing returns. Whatever else she needs from the UK Government, Sturgeon does not require a dancing partner in the constitutional debate: there is nothing to prevent the first minister from spending the coming years rebuilding the case for independence – ideally, if she has learned anything, with a new team of architects – and fuelling speculation, as she did while telling Andrew Marr that she “wouldn’t rule out” bringing forward a referendum by spring next year… provided, of course, certain “significant challenges” are overcome.

What Johnson and the Tories may do next in their efforts to kill off the constitutional discourse they so despise remains to be seen, though things do not bode well for them if they can come up with no better notion than inviting the UK’s devolved leaders to a ‘Union summit’ – a prospect marginally less appealing than attending one of Lucrezia Borgia’s cocktail parties.

More immediately, there is the question of exactly how Holyrood’s pro-independence majority will arrange itself. It is always fun to watch the reactionary Right deal with the idea of increased Green influence, not least because of their nightmarish conception of the party as a rampaging horde of eco-Marxists dedicated to the downfall of freedom, family and Western civilisation (don’t threaten me with a good time).

In the realm of reality however, the possibility of a coalition – which the Scottish Greens’ co-leader Lorna Slater indicated her openness to last month – has not gone away and has much to recommend it if the weight of a bolstered pro-independence majority is to be applied with maximum effectiveness. That said, former Green head of media James Mackenzie’s scepticism of such a prospect is not without foundation; as he points out, much distance still exists between the two parties and “neither side is great at compromise on policy matters”.

Even if a coalition was off the table, the Greens are unlikely to follow their best election result yet with infinite patience. Should Sturgeon’s government seek even the informal, issue-by-issue kind of support Green MSPs have provided in the past, they may be forced to realise that certain matters – be it the absurdly overdue replacement of Council Tax, or movement on GRA reform now that many of its most prominent critics have been firmly rejected by voters – will need to be finally addressed.

Longer term, independence supporters face the prospect of explaining and reaffirming the expanded mandate they have won. Many will not look forward to beating their head against this particular brick wall once again, as the unionist counter-argument will only become more shrill, obstinate and unconcerned with democracy the more they are put on the defensive. Yet the hope remains, bolstered by some early reactions from the wider UK Left, that the idea of the Union as a non-voluntary enterprise will accelerate the decline in its support.

Developments occurring beyond Scotland will inform what is yet to come as well. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is still picking through the rubble of its calamitous Hartlepool by-election loss to the Tories. Some ghouls have attributed this to Jeremy Corbyn, who keen political observers may have noticed isn’t around anymore, while others blame Labour’s erstwhile backing of a so-called ‘People’s Vote’, a perpetual source of bitterness for a segment of the Left, but one which encounters the same problem as the anti-Corbynite thesis – exactly how long can you blame the present on the past, especially when there are factors of more immediate relevance to consider?

Speaking on Saturday following the Hartlepool result, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds argued that Covid-19 had “restricted the opportunities” for Keir Starmer to “set out his vision”. This, as a few of the more astute political commentators have noted, is bollocks. The pandemic does not justify the kind of cowardly political ‘caution’ exemplified by Labour under Starmer – on the contrary, the crisis of the past year and a half not only allows for radicalism, but demands it. This should be borne in mind as attention turns to Scotland’s Covid recovery plans, which Sturgeon has pledged to prioritise and are allegedly so vital to the timing of a second referendum.

We are not short of those willing to tell anyone who’ll listen that without independence, any Scottish recovery embarked upon will have one hand tied behind its back; furthermore, all those who campaigned for a Green New Deal will remember how every step of the journey was beset by attempted delays, frustrations, co-option and dilution. Either the SNP can be involved in at least articulating such a plan for recovery, or they may yet learn that Starmer is not the only one who can pay the price for a lack of vision.

This all lies ahead. In the election’s aftermath, let us consider – in some cases, perhaps for the last time – the losers.

What can we say of Alba? Well, short of playing Linkin Park’s ‘In the End’ on repeat and laughing, there’s not much I can add to what I’ve already written about the punctured dinghy that was supposed to ferry the King Across The Water back into office.

In the run-up to the election, both supporters and detractors of Alex Salmond each felt the other was a ridiculous, overblown minority, the true powerlessness of which would be exposed at the ballot box. The final results would seem to indicate which side was correct. Who could have possibly foreseen that a vainglorious personality project launched six weeks before the election and populated by QAnon tribute acts was not destined for greatness?

Alba has already faced calls for its two converted MPs and brace of councillors to step down in favour of by-elections, given that the party to which they have pledged their allegiance has been so overwhelmingly rejected. I somehow doubt we’ll be seeing that – holding onto their few ‘elected’ representatives is one of the dwindling ways in which Alba can distinguish itself from, say, the Scottish Family Party.

Those of us who remember 2016 (“It’s been 84 years…”) may find it interesting that some of those who were so derisive of certain other attempts to launch a new pro-independence party (and their subsequent lack of success) have not only thrown in their lot with an even more disastrous venture, but now seem generally unwilling to consider if they might bear at least partial responsibility for its failure.

Some Alba supporters are already grumbling about the impact a hostile media may have had upon their electoral fortunes. First, I would humbly suggest that it is not the wisest move for any political party to bank on a strategy that requires the press to be nice to them – if you haven’t heard, we’re a bunch of “weirdos and cranks”.

Secondly, much as part of me would like to believe the direction of Scottish democracy lies entirely in the hands of the fourth estate, the failure of several notable independent hopefuls suggests otherwise.

Edinburgh Central’s YouTuber-turned-candidate ‘Bonnie Prince Bob’, for example, enjoyed an inordinate amount of almost universally friendly media coverage, but that proved insufficient to muster more than 363 votes in his favour. Andy Wightman, who chose to leave the Scottish Greens late last year, has since been given the opportunity by a number of sympathetic high-profile journalists to make his case and feel sorry for himself on the record. This didn’t do him much good either in the Highlands & Islands.

In terms of their appearance on the ballot, this was a good election for tiny parties with virtually no public profile; in literally every single other respect, it was not. Scotland may belatedly have come to recognise the difference between ‘small’ parties capable of wielding a balance of power, delivering a pro-independence majority and making competent contributions to discussions of policy, and ‘small’ parties which appear incapable of doing any of those things.

(Speaking of small parties, I just realised – I almost forgot about the Liberal Democrats again. Ah well. So did a lot of people, it seems.)

As for the Scottish Conservatives, they seem to be fairly satisfied, having equalled their best record and maintained the 31 seats won in 2016. Some have interpreted this as proof of the gulf that exists between the Scottish commentariat and the nation’s unionist voters; other, less charitable perspectives might conclude it is no great surprise that Tory voters were unbothered by the accusations levelled against Douglas Ross, and that this election only proves he is roughly as effective a leader as their erstwhile superstar Colonel Davidson. This says more about the latter than the former.

Meanwhile, Anas Sarwar – who distinguished himself from his predecessor Richard Leonard, who many feared would lose MSPs, by delivering Scottish Labour’s worst result since the advent of devolution – has rallied gamely, pledging to spend the coming years building a “credible alternative” to the SNP (better late than never, I guess). In the short term, Sarwar has few reasons to worry – much like Starmer, the Labour Right will portray almost any result achieved under his guidance as either a success or not his fault.  

Finally, never let it be said I don’t give credit where credit is due: George Galloway was right about one thing – for unionists, there is some possible strength in tactical voting. Unfortunately for him, one of Scottish unionists’ chief tactics last week was ‘not voting for anything with George Galloway’s name attached’. Why? Who can say.

The defeat of All For Unity is funny, if you’re so inclined, but does no actual damage to Scottish unionism as it stands. That is because unionism – which claims public support but fears democracy – is no longer enacted through politicians or the people who still genuinely believe in it, but is instead personified in the ancient, immovable fortress of the British state. For those unionists forced to play politics outside of its battlements, life is pain right now, with no salve upon the horizon.

By contrast, that same horizon offers no guarantees for supporters of independence – an uncertainty which could swing both ways. It has become an article of faith for some critics of Nicola Sturgeon that, no matter what she claims, the first minister will not deliver a referendum, and secretly does not even desire one. So convinced are they of this dark suspicion, they warn the next five years will offer nothing to get excited over.

Something that might be worth bearing in mind: in between the last Holyrood election and this one, we saw the fall of Jeremy Corbyn, the accession to Downing Street of Boris Johnson, two General Elections, the phantasmagoria of the Trump administration, and a global plague which has – probably forever – changed all of our lives. As half-decades go, the most recent reads like an unreasonably grim lost verse of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’.

Scotland and its politics have grappled with all of this – sometimes proactively, sometimes desperately, sometimes cluelessly. In light of what we have lived through during the last parliamentary term, the idea that we will potter through the next five years in an entirely predictable fashion seems unlikely. There is no certainty about what is yet to come – be suspicious of those who tell you anything different. We might not expect the unexpected, but we shouldn’t be too shocked if it turns up.

For further proof, we may look to those who make a pretence of certainty where none exists. Whether through hints, inference or outright assertion, a large part of the unionist pitch this time round has been that they know what the Scottish people – not some or even most of them, but the entirety – do or do not ‘want’, or the idea that those same Scottish people are exhausted with politics in general and wish it would all go away. Both of these claims have been proven groundless. Anas Sarwar seemed to think he could rally voters to the banner of disengagement, telling them he did not care whether they were “Yes, No, Leave or Remain…” (an open-mindedness that he evidently does not extend to candidates within his own party). Unfortunately for him, a lot of people do care about these things, and much else besides.

Scotland, for all its faults, is a politically engaged country – there are those who would prefer it were otherwise, but they have so far been unable to reverse that trend. The task ahead for those who not only support independence but are wary of leaving its fate in too few hands is to make Scotland an intellectually engaged country.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell the nation to spend the next year reading theory – not just because I know people who do so for fun, and none of them are exactly near the levers of power, but because the theory of where we’re going is, at best, half-written.

There is an intellectual groundwork to lay for national liberation; stakes and territory to claim for those with the boldness to assert themselves, to do the hard work of developing ideas too big to fit in a tweet or on the side of a bus, and to challenge those who’ve spent so long presenting themselves as the great minds of Scottish politics that they’ve rarely had to prove it.

Independence is supported in our parliament; it must be articulated by those beyond it.

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Government