Lesley Riddoch: Overwhelming majority is now open to another Scottish referendum

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The election shows there is a mandate for Scotland to choose, but the SNP must move carefully, writes Lesley Riddoch

Is Scotland in a different place as we hurtle towards 2020? Absolutely.

EU Chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier (R) welcomes Scotland's Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the European Commission in Brussels, on May 28, 2018 / AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO AND POOL / EMMANUEL DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

EU Chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier (R) welcomes Scotland's Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the European Commission in Brussels, on May 28, 2018 / AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO AND POOL / EMMANUEL DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, not everyone who voted SNP on Thursday supports independence. But I’d guess the overwhelming majority is now open to another referendum – as are once-sceptical players like Scottish business, the British media, international opinion and progressive English voters.

I’d also guess many Scots are unimpressed by the sour unionist response to Nicola Sturgeon’s success. The SNP and Tories do currently benefit from the polarising distortion of first-past-the-post voting (FPTP). But the Tories are hanging on to that indefensible system for dear life whilst the SNP has long campaigned for PR – even though it would give them fewer Westminster seats. The Electoral Reform Society suggests the European d’Hondt system of PR (if used last week), would have given Labour an extra 14 seats, the Lib Dems 59, the Brexit Party 10 and the Greens another 11, producing a clear anti-Brexit majority at UK level. No wonder the Tories stick with FPTP. But if they live by it in England, they should lose by it in Scotland, with a little more dignity.

As for slogans on buses – really? Last week the Tories slapped “48 hours to save the Union” beside “Vote Conservative to stop Indyref2” on buses, fences, posters and leaflets. Both propositions were roundly rejected. So, let’s not quibble.

If the will of the English electorate is discerned by the allocation of seats, the verdict of the Scottish electorate must be understood in the very same way. And that’s fairly clear: No Brexit, No Tories and Yes to self-determination.

Scottish unionist parties must now decide whether to change tack. So far, banging the Union drum has been their shared response, but continuing to insist that nothing much has changed will not help a pulverised Scottish Labour.

Nicola Sturgeon will publish her case for transferring Section 30 powers to the Scottish Parliament this week. Fortunately for Richard “I see no ships” Leonard there will be no vote, but he must still support or oppose the First Minister’s position. Which will it be? In January, Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill will come before Holyrood for approval. Will Scottish Labour join the SNP and Greens in opposing it – or abstain? These are just the first tests of political courage facing the Scottish wings of unionism in 2020.

The election result must also prompt an end to the weariness demonstrated by many newspapers and parts of BBC Scotland about our constitutional impasse. EU leaders could help by scotching the hoary old myth that an independent Scotland would face problems joining the EU. When the Withdrawal Bill is passed, there will be nothing to stop heavyweights like Michel Barnier assuring Scots of speedy EU welcome.

Reaching out would also reflect the rising tide of pro-Scottish sentiment across EU member states, where understanding of Scotland’s democratic dilemma has been transformed by Brexit, the articulate, consistent advocacy of social democracy by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s evident ability to resist the “Blue Wave”.

Such is the respect for Nicola Sturgeon across Britain and Europe that she doubtless tops the wish-list for replacing Jeremy Corbyn.

But the SNP are far from perfect. They are human beings and politicians – fallible and capable of playing hardball (behind closed doors) when they deem it necessary. To date the fiercest critics of the SNP leadership have left those doors firmly closed. Alex Salmond may be the first to open them when his court case begins in March.

So, Sturgeon will also be thoroughly tested in the tough year that lies ahead.

First, there’s a need to reconnect with the re-energised Yes movement and jettison the “SNP only” mode of thinking and behaviour that necessarily kicks in during election campaigns. All Under One Banner has already organised a pro-independence march for 11 January in Glasgow. It would be great if Sturgeon could address that rally and organisers can create the conditions to make that possible.

Second, the response to Boris Johnson must be spirited and consistent. There’s no going out of top gear during 2020. At Westminster, the SNP has essentially become the opposition – the only party with the leader, mandate, moral authority and parliamentary skillset to challenge the Tories on a range of subjects. Nonetheless the primary purpose of SNP MPs must be to contrast Scotland’s shabby Brexit experience with the generous opt-out being devised for Northern Ireland.

The different treatment of the two Remain-voting Celtic cousins will become even more pronounced if Stormont is reconstituted with a nationalist majority and can thus trigger a border poll on Irish reunification, safe in the knowledge that the exercise can be repeated within seven years, if unsuccessful.

SNP MPs must find ways to showcase Scotland’s unacceptable Brexit dilemma, whilst ignoring inevitable Conservative fury for failing to knuckle down and shut up.

Thirdly, the SNP at Holyrood must start to heed progressive ideas about improved performance of the day job, prepare a new Brexit-focused independence strategy, defend Holyrood against the likely erosion of powers, anticipate the impact of cash handouts to Scottish councils and communities by Johnson which will bypass and undermine the Scottish Parliament, and start rolling out the Green Deal to combat climate change.

Without ever sounding presumptuous, without resorting to bland assertion over calm persuasion, without taking the easiest over the fairest route, Sturgeon must inch forward throughout 2020, demanding the right for Scots to end their “imprisonment” within a Tory, Brexiting UK – and all before the transition period ends.

2020 will be a dramatic year.

Of course, democracy means people are free to change their minds. But it looks like the blip in Scotland’s recent voting history was the 2017 snap election, not the 56 seats won by the SNP two years earlier.

If the choice for Scottish voters is Brexit Britain versus a new start in Europe, if it’s Sturgeon versus Johnson, if it’s the Scottish Parliament versus Westminster, then 2020 will surely be a turning point for Scotland, whether there’s an independence referendum, or just the slow build towards a probable SNP landslide in 2021.