Watching closely – Scotland independent?

In the first week of May, Scottish voters decided to back the SNP for the fourth time in a row. The Scottish Nationalists regard this victory as a mandate to hold another independence referendum. The question is how this party maintains its succession of victories? After three full terms in office, it still enjoys strong support while its opposition remains fragmented. To understand what forces are shaping the political landscape of Scotland, one must learn its political history, which in turn offers lessons and hopes for the future.

Between 1959 and 2015 Scotland was a Labour stronghold, consistently returning Labour MPs to Westminster. After the enactment of devolution in 1998, the country’s political preferences still appeared to be in line with the rest of the UK. Both Westminster and Holyrood were controlled by Labour. But its position started to show signs of strain. In 2007 the SNP dislodged Labour as the largest party in Holyrood. Eight years later, Labour lost to the SNP 40 seats in the general election. Labourites have never recovered from that debacle. Instead, their collapse ushered in a new political era of competition between Scottish Nationalists and Conservatives.

The root cause of Labour’s defeats in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK lies in their decision to move the party’s focus closer to the center, thus embracing many policies initiated under Margaret Thatcher. In so doing New Labour, led by Tony Blair, become focused on catering to the “median voter” and that meant depolarisation of the party. Its leadership hoped that they would be able to retain strongholds in its traditional post-industrial seats such as the Red Wall in the North of England or the Central Belt of Scotland and expand the party’s influence into affluent towns of England’s South. 

Initially, this strategy worked as Labour managed to assemble a broad coalition of traditional Labour voters and the middle class. But this move planted the seeds of discontent in Scotland. While Labour became more conservative, Scotland remained entrenched in its left-leaning traditions. And this chasm continued to widen until it became unbridgeable. The right-leaning policies of an ostentatiously leftist party, combined with the financial crisis, deprived Labour of its support in Scotland, setting the stage for the SNP.

SNP is not a single-issue party. Their demands for independence are one of many postulates that attract voters. By offering a comprehensive program ranging from free higher education to independence, they can garner support sufficient to achieve consecutive victories. It is essential to note that SNP voters are not invariably in favor of leaving the UK. In the run-up to the last Scottish election, independence was the most important determinant of electoral choices (44% of respondents) according to Ipsos MORI’s Scottish Political Monitor. However, other issues also played a significant role – such as education (32%) or the state of NHS (25%). Handling of the coronavirus pandemic determined the choices of 20% of respondents.

Nowadays, politics is divided into two separate spheres –economic and cultural. The former is concerned with matters such as the quality of public services or budget deficits whereas the latter focuses on one’s national identity, immigration etc. This bifurcation of voting preferences creates a fertile ground for agile political parties as demonstrated by the SNP. It shows that the strength of SNP stems not only from the desire for independence but also a number of other factors. The austerity measures enacted by the Conservative government under David Cameron did not hit Scotland as hard as some parts of England. Still, they contributed to the growing feeling of disaffection with Westminster. SNP politicians capitalized on this disaffection by emulating the strategy of New Labour. They attracted voters from many social classes and political ideologies by offering a very inclusive program. It includes a conservative attitude towards nationalism combined with leftist fiscal policy.  

Now Boris Johnson is trying a similar strategy. Conservative Party took advantage of the widespread disgruntlement in the constituencies belonging to the Red Wall by offering a blend of more generous fiscal policies coupled with a strong dose of English nationalism. The Conservatives have not made any headway in Scotland during the general election in 2019 but managed to established themselves as the main opponent of the independence movement. They are now the second largest party in Holyrood following the last local election. 

Perhaps, the Conservative Party will be able to gain the trust of Scottish voters. They seem to have abandoned the radical policies seeking to further shrink the size of the state. With time it might enable them to build a strong position in Scotland, providing that their agenda is not infused any further with English nationalism. The growing alignment in terms of economic approach between the Conservative Party and Scottish Nationalists may temper the popularity of the independence movement. At present, Labour appears to be ill-suited to bridge the chasm between England and Scotland. Surprisingly, the Conservative Party emerged as the greatest hope for the preservation of the Union.

The Editor: Kamil Kozlowski

Kamil Kozlowski is a MA student in International Political Economy at King’s College London (KCL). In 2020 he graduated from Kozminski University with a Bachelor’s degree in Management. His research interests are focused on the future of the British economy, especially the development of new sectors in it. Another field close to his heart is the evolution of the global energy market and its implications for regional economic growth.

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