In BBC’s Scottish leaders debate a frustrated First Minister turned on Tory leader Ruth Davidson when the latter accused her of obsessing about independence. “She’s the one going on about independence all the time,” suggested Nicola Sturgeon. “I can’t get a word in edgeways.” It is not the least of the curiosities of the UK general election in Scotland that all the opposition parties advise the electorate to vote for them to stop another independence referendum. It is “Indyref2” not Brexit which dominates the campaign north of Berwick.
The Scottish Tories, now the main opposition in Holyrood, have concluded their trump card in a discernible rise in their electoral fortunes is to portray themselves as the only solid defenders of the Union. Labour, weakened by a disastrous showing in 2015 is trying on the same garment for size.
One Labour billboard shouts “Vote Conservative and get her” under an image of Sturgeon. (Would be quite a clever trick since the First Minister isn’t standing.) Scottish Labour’s manifesto repeats wholesale opposition to another poll on independence, a high risk tactic after their vote in 2015 haemorrhaged to the Nationalists. They lost 41 of 42 seats.
Backstage council deals with Tories following the local elections have also antagonised many core Labour supporters – not least after going into coalition with the Conservatives had been expressly forbidden by the National Executive,The SNP has made much of the fact that many Labour pledges are already facts of Scottish life. Prescription charges have been abolished, as have tuition fees. There is free personal care for the elderly – albeit of uneven quality – and no hospital parking charges outside 3 premises with particular historical contracts. The NHS pay review was honoured, the “bedroom tax” mitigated by central funding and there has been a wholesale push for renewable energy.
Its own manifesto launch delayed by the Mancunian tragedy, the SNP will set out its stall in Perth, perhaps an acknowledgement that Conservative gains in the local elections were most visible in Perthshire and North East Scotland, a region once a traditional Tory stronghold. An area too where the Conservatives would dearly like to take a major scalp – former SNP leaders Alex Salmond, and John Swinney, plus Westminster leader Angus Robertson all hold seats in that area.
The SNP manifesto will include a £118bn anti austerity pro growth plan for the UK economy, Nicola Sturgeon said at the weekend. It’s also likely to include a 50p top rate of tax, but targeted cuts to business taxes aimed at encouraging investment.Her campaign has proved vulnerable to attack in areas like stubborn education attainment gaps; despite education, like health, being a devolved issue. And, having achieved 50% of the vote in 2015 and 56 of the 59 seats on offer, there is nowhere to go but down. Which is where the Brexit factor comes in,
Upwards of a quarter of SNP supporters voted Leave, which may well have an impact on their vote. Current polling suggests that four fifths of No voters in 2014 also voted for Brexit. Perhaps the most startling statistic is the suggestion that 15 per cent of Labour voters are now considering defecting to the Tories – the Scottish equivalent of Celtic fans suddenly finding Rangers an attractive proposition.
The SNP has underplayed the independence issue despite announcing their intention, prior to the snap election, to hold a second referendum. Though they insist that a subsequent majority vote in the Scottish parliament, backed by the Greens gives them the necessary mandate.
Yet the unexpected General Election poses them fresh problems. Ms Sturgeon proposed a new poll between October 2018 and Spring 2019, when the Brexit deal was clearer, but there was still a window to pursue a discrete Scottish Single Market arrangement. That may have to be re-thought – not least in terms of voter fatigue and supporters resisting serial calls to arms.Regardless of all that, the view from the south often baffles those of us plying our trade north of Hadrian’s Wall. One commentator on these pages confidently asserted that linking Brexit to independence would prove a tactical disaster for the Nats, and that the Tories acquisition of 7 or 8 Scottish seats would kill off independence.
An alternative analysis is that the prospect of another two or three Tory terms with little hope of a left of centre administration might prove a potent recruiting agent for a Yes vote. Current support for Independence remains at 45%. as it was in 2014.
Another columnist suggested notions of EU membership or Scottish independence had little weight alongside the core political beliefs of progressives. This is a constant mantra – just make common cause and we can get rid of these pesky Tories’ punitive policies. It fails to take note of two salient factors – Scotland voted by almost two to one to stay in Europe. That matters. And independence, civic independence, is no longer a matter of dry constitutional debate.
Many Scots have journeyed to the belief that as a small European nation with an aspirational agenda more closely aligned to Scandinavia than a Brexit infested England, Scotland can help hold the line against the current right wing direction of travel in other parts of the UK. An independent Scotland would not be some kind of tartan utopia. Oil prices, currency issues, uncertain trading agreements make the economic case for independence challenging.
But what our friends in the south need to grasp is that Scottish voters do not exist purely to make pacts with English parties desperately trying to stem the blue tide, and restore belief in a fragmented Labour Party. We share your pain. But we need to find a way not to share your likely fate. Given a choice of still being a social democratic, egalitarian European nation or living under an increasingly racist, right wing administration, what would you do?
*An edited version of this article is published in today's Comment is Free Guardian Opinion.