Why Scotland is still trapped in limbo-land

Constitutional deadlock has become a familiar state for Scotland, perhaps even the nation’s “settled will”.

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However expected, a fourth consecutive victory is a stunning achievement for the SNP. For Nicola Sturgeon to gain votes and a seat after 14 years in government, and months of lurid scandal, is almost eerily impressive. The story of progressive Scotland she seeks to embody receives a much-needed boost. For the first time, Scotland has elected women of colour to Holyrood (the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart and Conservative Pam Gosal), and its first MSP who is a permanent wheelchair user (Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy).

A clutch of dynamic socialist and ecological campaigners, mainly women, are becoming MSPs on an expanded franchise which gave votes to legally resident foreign nationals (but not to asylum seekers, as the Greens had proposed). Largely by coincidence, many of Holyrood’s loudest voices against trans inclusion have left parliament, and the new reactionary party actively campaigning on the issue – Alex Salmond’s Alba – was a resounding flop. Fans of sturdy social liberalism will continue to marvel at Scotland, seemingly coalescing against the anti-woke culture war being waged by the UK government.

Beyond the headline sheen, what has changed? The Scottish Parliament of 2021 is almost identical to 2016’s, with only a handful of seats changing hands. Turnout jumped from 55 to 63 per cent, but it was a nondescript campaign, with a record showing of yawns and shrugs. Whether the SNP could reach an outright majority – fiendishly difficult in Holyrood’s proportional system – was the central question, drained of its tension by counting the vote over two days.

On paper, it was a nail-biter: the SNP fell a single seat short, and the UK government was quick to argue it has no mandate to call a second referendum on independence. Sturgeon plans to call one anyway, because the SNP and the Green Party – up two seats to eight – make up a comfortable pro-independence majority. In truth, even the what-ifs are underwhelming: had the SNP reached the magic number of 65 seats, very little would be different in London’s response, or in the resulting political dynamic. It’s not that nothing can change in Scottish politics, but that what little does change tends to be a by-product of intractable deadlock.

In a number of marginal seats there were wide Labour-Tory swings (or vice versa) depending on which pro-UK party was best-placed to foil the SNP. Though concealed by the final seat tally – Labour losing two and the Tories unchanged – the scale of anti-nationalist tactical voting is the most significant development of the election. It points to a deepening integration among pro-UK voters, though neither party has a stomach for merging into a formal unionist bloc. (This would pyrrhically weaken each party’s cross-UK identity, risking what is increasingly their main selling point, especially for the Conservatives.)

Tactical divergence was the story on the nationalist side, with an open split between the SNP leadership and various hurry-up and wildcat groupings, impatient of a legally watertight process for seeking indyref2 in which Whitehall sets the pace (and shifts the goalposts). Whether this rift deepens, or the dissidents return to the fold, will tell us a great deal about the future of the “YeSNP”.

The election’s main new character, the Alba Party, scored 1.7 per cent and no seats. Bullish as ever, Alex Salmond predicted his vehicle for “real independence” would only grow as a "home for the lost souls of the national movement”. This curious image positions Salmond as the mayor of purgatory, sometimes known as the “Paradise of Fools”, home to restless spirits excused hellfire on the grounds of witlessness. Two Westminster MPs elected on the SNP ticket in 2019 have defected to Alba, and chose the anti-SNP blog Wings Over Scotland to announce their plans to continue as part-time dissenting parliamentarians. It's a novel interpretation of their democratic mandate, and a sign of deepening "alt-nat" discontent. Alba’s future depends on a huge increase in lost souls.

In truth, all of Scotland is getting comfortable in limbo-land, as constitutional deadlock becomes a familiar stasis, perhaps even the nation’s “settled will”. Not even a global pandemic, in which close to a million Scots were moved on to the UK government payroll, has shifted the divide. The unstoppable force of SNP dominance has generated its own immovable objects: both in the caution and probity of the leadership’s approach, anxious not to spoil their best chance at independence, and the willingness of No voters to support anyone who looks capable of arresting their advance.

The Conservatives have profited from this dynamic, though making anti-nationalism the heart of their pitch is paradoxically corrosive to any meaningful Unionism (which would accommodate nationalism within Britishness). The new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar had a good campaign, seeking to change the subject from independence to child poverty and education, but that losing two seats counts as a creditable performance is an indication of the party’s deep decline.

The Alba split allowed Sturgeon to passively expel her rebel faction, and restored a degree of calm and control at the top. The election as an MSP of the SNP's former Westminster leader Angus Robertson will strengthen her leadership further, and counterbalance the Alba-friendly faction around Joanna Cherry MP (silent throughout the campaign, and presumably recalculating the route to Bute House). But the impeccably constitutional road to independence is not a victory lap unto itself, and must start to look as though it leads somewhere concrete. For now, it is something of an Instagram destination, an aspirational vista rather than a place you can imagine living. The moth-eaten arguments of 2014 will need a serious overhaul to change this impression if and when a second referendum is called.

[See also: Chris Deerin on whether Nicola Sturgeon will get a second independence referendum]

Any such call is years away – after the pandemic recovery is on track – but will dominate politics in the interim. Scottish elections are increasingly a proxy vote on independence, meaning the policy differences between Labour and Tory – what is known in the rest of Britain as “politics” – are increasingly irrelevant. For decades Scotland’s political culture has been growing distinct from that of Westminster; at the moment it feels like a negation of it. In place of a populist majoritarian government merrily smashing the comfort-zones of academics and human rights lawyers, we have, in Sturgeon’s SNP, a kind of educated liberal populism of hope and diversity.

In place of tabloid trolling, warm avatars of inclusive, thoughtful, bookshop-dwelling Scotland are tactfully deployed to buff and slowly expand the bubble of tolerant consensus, re-presented (via Holyrood) as the chosen national ethos. As professor James Mitchell remarked, Holyrood has been "a middle-class parliament for a middle-class population", and it has the spiritual decor to match. For the SNP in its most successful post-devolution period, political divergence between Scotland and England is not enough on its own. The differences themselves must be politicised, and Sturgeon’s version of Obaman uplift plants the flag in progressive symbolic gesture and the amenable discursive style of the evening book group.

There is great skill (and guile, and a degree of groupthink) in this side of the SNP’s success, but its crowning moment in this campaign was unrehearsed, occurring on election day, as Sturgeon was confronted in the street by Jayda Fransen, a far-right activist from London running as an independent in Sturgeon's Glasgow Southside seat. In a viral video, we see Fransen barracking the First Minister over her imagined “Marxism”, calling Sturgeon a disgrace to Scotland, and attempting to chase her down the street.

Resplendent in election-day yellow, looking every inch the no-nonsense bourgeois, Sturgeon stands her ground and calmly demolishes her heckler. The restrained bluntness of her message – “You are a fascist, you are a racist, and the Southside of Glasgow will reject you” – has the poise of a crafted line, but is clearly a spontaneous reaction. For one shining moment between rain showers, appearance generated reality, and Sturgeon became the emotionally unifying democrat her polling lead suggests. As the clip sped around Twitter and Facebook, everyone you’d want to share a country with felt real pride in the First Minister.

During the fracas one of Fransen’s henchmen shouts, “I’m a proud Scotsman and I don’t like my country being turned into another country”, a rancid allusion to the SNP’s embrace of immigration. Hating foreigners is a fringe position in Scottish politics, but the combination of settled identity and implacable resistance had a broader resonance. The real prospect of becoming “another country” has Scotland frozen in suspended animation, with few signs of a spring thaw.

Scott Hames is the author of The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (2019)

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