Persuading a majority for Scottish independence

On launching her party’s manifesto at the 2016 Holyrood election, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the party would start work this summer to persuade a majority in Scotland of the case for independence. She said there would be “no right to propose another referendum” if they did not succeed. The political landscape has shifted substantially since then. The summer project looks very different. In the wake of the Brexit vote, what do the party need to grapple with to create their vital majority? What are their sticking points?

Vote Yes, Vote Leave

There was a resemblance between how disadvantaged communities voted in the independence and EU referendums. A rejection of the status quo, poorer communities in Scotland were prepared to reject the existing setup which didn’t serve their interests. Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said: “We need to understand why they felt the gamble of independence or the gamble of leaving the EU was a better prospect than fighting for change within the system we have”. This will be something the SNP will also need to unpick.

Just under 4 out of 10 of those in Scotland voted to leave the EU. Just over 5 out of 10 did so in England. Despite the rhetoric of division, the difference between the nations wasn’t stark. Communities in Glasgow’s East End – including Parkhead, Easterhouse and Shettleston – were amongst the highest proportion of Leave voters in the country. As Kezia Dugdale also stated: “we are not immune to the deep divisions that made people vote Leave in England and Wales”.

With this in mind, the Europhile argument for Scottish independence is unlikely to be convincing within these communities. Existing Euroscepticism dampens the reaction Nicola wishes and threatens the swing she desires. If independence and self-determination is the name of the game, how do you also reconcile the pitch when it comes to arguing for aspects of supra-national control within the EU? If solidarity with the EU is one of your strongest suits, it is likely to fall flat here.

Mistrust of political classes

The resentment of the political classes isn’t likely to assist Nicola either. Fuelled by frustration with political institutions, the flak is also directed at Holyrood, not only at Brussels and Westminster. Whilst the Scottish Parliament and Government are trusted more than their UK counterparts and Nicola is the most popular political leader in the UK, will disadvantaged communities be willing to engage with the indyref2 pitch?

The First Minister has referenced that Leave voters were protesting about the effects of an “economic system that doesn’t work them” – but what is the different system she intends to advocate? She has spelled out that the Brexit vote was a reaction to long-term austerity, but with more powers, the Scottish Government has more opportunity than ever to offer redress.

There were over 1 million voters in Scotland who opted to leave, many among them from disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities. Do they wish to hear leaders espousing the beginning of a new relationship with the EU as an independent country? On her part, the First Minister has said she has “a duty to listen to and respond to the concerns behind that vote.”

The pro-remain, anti-SNP brigade

The most pro-remain areas of Scotland, including Edinburgh, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, aren’t fertile territory for the SNP or Scottish independence. The SNP faces a challenge to convince those who wished to preserve the status quo, to throw all the balls up in the air again. This challenge is particularly acute amongst older voters.

More averse to risk, the hardest targets for ‘Yes’ are those with the most to lose. Without firm reassurances on pensions and currency, this group will be hard-pushed to contemplate moving away from the pound and the UK, despite their strength of feeling about being part of the EU. Much would depend upon making the ‘Yes’ side making a convincing argument on currency, the future of Scotland’s economy and firm assurances over future EU membership.

The hardened unionist vote

The 2016 Holyrood election could go down as sowing the seeds for a much more vigorous campaign to defend the union. More than ever, nationalism and unionism is a fault line in Scotland.

Whilst the Conservatives cannot currently claim that they are the defenders of the union, (having put it in the firing line with Brexit) and unionist options are certainly required to meet Scotland’s “Remain mandate”, the strength of feeling and growing polarisation means the ‘No’ campaign could be much more powerful. Both sides could have a smaller middle ground to fight over.

Soft Labour and Liberal Democrat targets

Much of the SNP’s softest targets will be Labour voters who voted to Remain. Whilst there are clearly less of them, with a UK party in disarray and leadership flirting with independence, there’s likely to be further drift to ‘Yes’.

A London-based metropolitan leader without much of a voice north of the Border, the Labour ‘indy’ vote is ripe for the picking. If party supporters are stuck between the two main players in the game – the SNP and the Conservatives – where do they turn? However, the contingency upon gaining any reassurances on future EU membership and the terms of that membership for their support should not be underestimated.

Liberal Democrat supporter are most likely to identify as European. There isn’t many left, but those supporters in the north of Scotland and in island communities, could also be attracted to independence if assurances could be given on EU membership.

The Economy

Depending on your point of view, one of the most liberating or anarchic elements of the EU referendum was that the majority of people across the UK were prepared to vote against the markets and economic risk. People were willing to disregard the risk of economic disadvantage in favour of greater control (real or imagined).

Would the people of Scotland be prepared to relegate economic interest in their decision-making process? Much would depend upon the other competing factors. For example, identity translated into so much electoral force for the Leave vote because it was so wrapped-up with immigration. Whilst the ‘Yes’ side could make the positive case for freedom of movement with Europe for an independent Scotland, identity is unlikely to be the same heavy weight issue as the EU referendum.

A ‘Yes’ campaign would be taking a huge gamble if it were to conclude that despite the fears of an uncertain economic future, Scotland would vote in favour of independence. Whilst many on the ‘Yes’ side see the value of a more honest and frank economic assessment of Scotland’s prospects as an independent country, George Kerevan has had to row back on his recent efforts. The SNP know that there simply isn’t enough of Scotland who are prepared to vote ‘Yes’ at any cost and to the same extent as those who accepted the risks of voting to leave the EU.

As Nicola also said of a second independence referendum at the manifesto launch, “we first have to earn the right to propose it.” There’s a long and arduous road ahead, even with the significant and material change of circumstances.

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