Chris Stephens says the populace is behind the SNP’s prospectus for a socially just independent Scotland.
Seven days after Scotland went to the polls to elect the most diverse parliament in its history and on the morning that new and re-elected MSPs were being sworn in, Home Office removals officers were carrying out a dawn raid in the city of Glasgow. Whatever motivated the timing and location of the attempt to evict and detain two asylum seekers, it was crass and insensitive to the point of stupidity to choose Pollokshields, one of the most multi-ethnic communities in Scotland where many of the residents were celebrating Eid. There has been speculation that it was a deliberate decision to attempt a forced removal on the day when the local MSPs’ attention was elsewhere and that a political point was being made to underscore the limits that the First Minister has over immigration policy. However, it’s more likely that ignorance and lack of political nous informed the action and serves as a classic illustration as to how divergent the politics of the UK have become.
There is a narrative that anti-immigration messaging plays well with a section of voters to explain Brexit and why ‘red wall’ seats turned and appear to be staying blue. When out campaigning, I encountered one woman who said she ‘just wanted things to be the way they used to be in the 1950s’, a hefty dose of nostalgia for a golden era that never was (especially for women). But on inquiring what she meant, sadly she said she wanted to see fewer black faces on the streets. I do believe that’s a minority view and it didn’t stop over 133,000 people voting for a high profile, former asylum seeker, Roza Salih who headed up the SNP list in Glasgow at a time when other parties were trying to gatecrash the SNP’s ‘Both Votes’ strategy. Nor did it stop the voters of Glasgow Kelvin electing the first woman of colour to Holyrood on constituency vote, Kaukab Stewart.
The key ‘take’ over the Battle of Kenmure Street, is that it was not a battle in the physical sense, but a battle of ideology, between the UK state which believes it can ride roughshod over human rights, and the people, who sought to defend those human rights. As it turns out, there are occasions when social media works as a campaigning tool, rather than just a means to reinforce opinion and mobilise party members in an election campaign. Activists had already prepared themselves by halting evictions of asylum seekers by Serco and had the networks in place to ensure people would gather to prevent this dawn raid. It also turns out that the practice of freedom of peaceful assembly also works.
The main lesson, however, is that as well as political representatives and activists, trade unionists, and campaigners gathering to prevent this raid, it was the reaction of the local people who turned up in large numbers to protect their neighbours that demonstrates the strong community spirit, anger, and determination to prevent the injustice that should make the Home Office and the UK Government rethink its ‘dawn raid’ strategy.
So how does this narrative of divergence from UK government policy sit within the context of the 2021 Holyrood election and do the results strengthen the case for independence?
There were a variety of opinions and counter-arguments about the best route to secure an independence referendum for months before the election. We saw the emergence of smaller ‘fringe’ independence parties, borne out of impatience and offering a very different vision of how best Scotland’s people should be offered the option to decide their future. These parties attracted people who had felt let down by internal squabbles within the SNP, and global pandemic notwithstanding, were anxious that Covid was being used to push independence as an option off the table.
Ultimately, though, these smaller parties such as Alba were never going to succeed and cut through with the average voter. This election came down to a straight choice for the people of Scotland. It was a choice between two futures. Were they going to put their trust in Westminster and Boris Johnson’s man in Scotland, Douglas Ross, or would they again put their trust in Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to secure our recovery and, ultimately, deliver the commitments in the manifesto – including a second independence referendum? So, it’s fair to say this election was one of the most important since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and it’s important to look back at where the SNP has come since then.
Up until the 1999 election, all votes were by ‘First-Past-The-Post’. In the last pre-devolution election, Labour gained 56 out of 72 seats from 46% of the vote, whereas the SNP got only 6 seats from 22%. A ‘fair’ proportion for the SNP would have been 16 SNP MPs. It was normally the case that MPs got elected with less than half of the vote, and organisations like the Electoral Reform Society described the remainder as ‘disenfranchised’ or, even, as ‘wasted votes’.
Fortunately, the Scotland Act 1998 legislated to include some form of proportional representation for the new Parliament – a principle and policy long supported by the SNP and Liberals. Labour supported this with some reluctance – mainly as a means of achieving consensus and with an expectation of securing an ongoing Lab/Lib centrist majority that would squeeze out the left and the SNP. The law of unintended consequences meant that SNP and Green activists became full-time politicians/staffers, and although it was a slow start eventually public debate on Scotland’s future was amplified, not stifled by the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Nor should it be forgotten that proportional representation for local government elections in 2007 created even more opportunities for hundreds of local campaigners in the Greens and SNP to become semi-professional activists for independence.
The fortunes of the SNP fluctuated in the Scottish Parliament, but in 2011 it won 53% of seats on 45% of the constituency vote (44% on the list vote), and in 2016 it won 49% of seats on 47% of the constituency vote (42% on the list vote). This year, it won 49.6% of seats on 47.7% constituency vote (40.3% on the list vote).
In the last three elections, the SNP has, therefore, been proportionally over-represented in its results. Nonetheless, many people described the non-SNP list votes as being ‘wasted votes’. Taken along with recent polling showing a ‘Yes’ vote hovering around 50% – and the fact that the pro-independence parties got 56% of MSPs – it would appear that we have an even better majority than the polls or votes would indicate. We are not under-represented and that, therefore, takes us on to the ‘supermajority’.
An aim of the new pro-independence parties was to gain a ‘supermajority’ by winning even more regional MSPs, standing only on the list. This begs the question: Why? Even the UK’s unwritten constitution recognises a majority vote as a decision. Seeking a ‘supermajority’ only risked setting the bar unrealistically high for a mandate. Fortunately, the electorate – and much of the international community – seem to understand that a legitimate mandate has, indeed, been achieved, and a few more list seats were not needed to enhance that.
The question now is: where does this leave the pro-independence movement? Is it hopelessly divided and directionless? Far from it! It should now be apparent that there will be another referendum within the first half of the new term, possibly as early as summer next year. Local and national ‘Yes’ groups will become very busy with Covid restrictions now easing, and the Scottish Government will have a lot to do in preparing the legislation and re-writing its ‘offer’ to the voters in that referendum. Nothing concentrates the mind more than being busy on essential projects. The overwhelming majority of the ‘Yes’ movement’s members did not fall out with each other, simply recognising that there were different views on priorities and how to achieve them. A busy movement should easily put most of that aside, whereas our unionist opponents have clearly become more rattled and divided on how to respond. Both the Scottish Government and the broader ‘Yes’ movement have preparatory work to do before framing the ‘offer’ to the electorate. It is clear that the ‘offer’ of 2014 must change substantially. The interim suggestions of the Sustainable Growth Commission – on, for example, currency, austerity and debt – have now been overtaken and appear to be withering on the vine.
It’s important to recognise that this election saw the highest ever turnout in a Holyrood election. However, the Scottish election was not only the highest ever turnout, it was an election with the widest voter franchise of any UK election in history. The simple reality facing our opposition is that a pro-independence majority was returned with the promise of delivering a second referendum. No Westminster politician can, or should, be allowed to stand in the way of that.
The wishes of civic society need to be at the heart of a new prospectus for independence, proposing more credible and palatable answers to the currency issue, and proposing positive solutions to the economic and social quagmire that the Tories would impose on post-Brexit Britain. Workers’ rights need to be restored and enhanced, rather than trashed. Pensions must start moving towards the European norm. Scotland must become a place where all who live here feel at home.
Chris Stephens is the (SNP) MP for Glasgow South West since the 2015 general election