Election is a big blow to independence movement but a further political mood swing can’t be ruled out says Joyce McMillan
If we live in the age of the political earthquake - from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump - then it seems that there were two separate seismic events in the British Isles, on Thursday night. The first involved Theresa May’s humiliating failure, in an election specifically called to give her a strong personal mandate, even to match the small overall majority won by the Tories in 2015; instead, she saw a massive surge in support for a Labour Party offering a decisively left-of-centre social democratic manifesto, and found herself leader of the largest party in a hung parliament.
And then there was the earthquake in Scotland, with shockwaves spreading in an entirely different direction. Here, the story of the night was the decision of a crucial 14 per cent or so of Scottish voters to abandon the SNP, and switch their support to the Conservatives. Of course, the Conservatives, who won 12 new seats, were not the only party to gain from the SNP; Labour gained six seats, the Liberal Democrats two. But the actual numbers tell a clear story. Scottish Labour’s vote increased by less than three per cent on its 2015 tally, although the Corbyn factor seems to have helped them improve greatly on recent grim poll ratings, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats actually polled a slightly lower percentage than in 2015; and where they won seats, they largely came through because of a plummeting SNP vote.
The Conservatives, by contrast, doubled their vote in Scotland, to 28 per cent; and in a strange paradox, it seems that this profoundly Unionist party did so by almost entirely ignoring the UK-wide general election debate, and focussing exclusively on the Scottish issue of the second independence referendum. Of course, the motives of the 14 per cent who switched will be complex; but the word on the doorsteps was that many - perhaps 60 per cent of voters - simply could not face the idea of another independence referendum, and bitterly resented the First Minister’s decision to raise the matter after the Brexit vote. What that means is that there will not be another independence referendum in Scotland, until or unless opinion shifts massively in the opposite direction; and in that sense, the Conservatives are probably right when they say that indyref2 is dead, or at any rate in a coma which could last for a decade.
We do, however, increasingly live in an age when, as the movie mogul William Goldman put it, “nobody knows nothing” about what exactly might happen next. If voters can swing massively from Labour to the SNP in one election, and then very substantially from the SNP to the Tories in the next, there is obviously nothing to prevent them from swinging again, if the political mood changes. And in Scotland, over the next four years, that mood will be dictated by three factors.
The first will be the grace and competence with which SNP do - or do not - handle Thursday night’s setback. Their best approach, over the remaining four years of this Scottish Parliament, would be to accept the voters’ verdict on indyref2 with a good grace, and - in alliance with other progressive parties - to make the best use they can of their twin roles as Scottish Government, and third party in a hung Westminster parliament, to advance the social democratic goals that more than 70 per cent of Scots still seem to embrace.
Then secondly, the political mood here will shift, as it always does, in response to developments at Westminster. In general, a progressive, dynamic and forward-looking government at Westminster attracts support for the Union in Scotland, while a regressive, inward-looking and reactionary one has always led to a surge in support for home rule. The emergence on the UK stage of Jeremy Corbyn, and his hopeful brand of Labour politics, is therefore good for the Union; and could, over time, help diminish support for independence.
On the other hand, Theresa May’s decision to form a government thanks to a co-operation deal with the Northern Irish DUP seems like an exceptionally insensitive response to the signal voters tried to send on Thursday. The UK electorate as a whole has clearly moved to the left; yet what she is offering - with what seems like her usual political ineptitude - is an alliance between a right-wing Tory party, and bunch of diehard unionists with notoriously reactionary attitudes both to social policy and rights, and to all matters concerning the British constitution, including Brexit negotiations. And despite the ardent vote for a bit of political peace apparently cast by a majority of Scottish voters on Thursday, it seems unlikely that this unhappy and - for Northern Ireland - dangerous alliance will last long enough to spare us another general election, within the next couple of years.
And then beyond the prospect of continuing instability at Westminster lurks the third and largest factor that will shape our political mood in the next few years; and that is Brexit itself. Now of course, at this stage of the debate, there is massive denial about the likely impact of Brexit in the Scottish Unionist camp. In the effort to fend off the dreaded indyref2, they have dismissed Brexit as if it matters scarcely at all, and is certainly not important enough to justify the First Minister’s mention of a second independence referendum.
In this estimation of the significance of Brexit, though, Scottish Unionists are almost certainly - perhaps catastrophically - wrong. And when the reality of Brexit negotiations begins to bite, the political landscape in the UK and Scotland will start to shift again, in ways even more unpredictable than the events of Thursday night. The possibility of independence may be lost to Scotland for good, gone in a maelstrom of other and greater uncertainties; or it may return in full force, within the decade.
What’s clear, though, is that in Scotland, the political prize will go to those parties that seek to unite the nation in defending our vital economic and human interests; and not to those, on either side of the constitutional question, who want only to crush their opponents, and - on the basis of slender victories - to behave as if those opponents can be dismissed and ignored, or simply do not exist.