Foreign Policy, May 2021
Now 14 years in power in Edinburgh’s devolved Parliament, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is polling ahead of its nearest rivals by at least 25 percentage points as elections approach on May 6. The party’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, remains the country’s most popular and trusted politician. Her steady handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered praise, bolstering the feeling that Scotland could thrive on its own — cut loose from the legislative ties of the United Kingdom.
Sturgeon’s SNP will win the elections. The only question is, on whose terms? A slight shift in the polls could mean the difference between an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament or another five years of rancorous minority coalition rule. If her party wins the majority, Sturgeon has pledged to call another independence referendum by the end of 2023. She remains locked in a high-stakes standoff with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has said he will block Scotland from voting again on the question of leaving the United Kingdom.
Support for Scottish independence has registered near or above 50 percent for the last year, spurred by widespread opposition to Brexit and Johnson’s right-wing government in London. Seven years after the “No” vote won out in the first independence referendum, the challenges facing Scottish nationalism are now largely internal. Divisions within the movement could shape the result on May 6. Sturgeon, a judicious tactician, seeks to build a broader coalition before launching another referendum campaign — appealing to moderate, middle-class voters who might incline toward the union. But the nationalist fringes are growing impatient for a second vote.
In March, Sturgeon’s predecessor and onetime mentor Alex Salmond launched the Alba Party, which takes its name from a Gaelic word for Scotland, aiming to form an independence supermajority in the Holyrood Parliament. Alba’s emergence on the scene arises from a bitter personal feud between Sturgeon and her former boss that has torn through Scottish politics. Salmond left the SNP in 2018 at the outset of a labyrinthine sexual assault scandal that he alleges Sturgeon or her allies orchestrated to remove him from public life. An independent investigator cleared Sturgeon of any wrongdoing in March. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges last year.)
The new party also highlights two contrasting interpretations of Scottish self-government. As SNP leader, Salmond argued Scotland could only become independent after a careful process of mediation with London. He has now ditched this gradualism in favor of more adversarial rhetoric, appealing to the restlessness among some SNP supporters. If a pro-independence Parliament wins this week, Salmond has said Scotland should immediately prepare the ground for a fresh referendum and negotiate the terms of its departure from the United Kingdom. He argues it should also think twice about seeking automatic reentry into the European Union, to accommodate the political realities of Brexit.
The Scottish press has ridiculed Salmond’s proposals, and the SNP has dismissed them as opportunistic and cynical. Sturgeon, a staunch liberal and Europhile, is determined to secure a legally binding and EU-endorsed rerun of the 2014 independence referendum. Her party has invested heavily in lobbying efforts to soften international opposition to the breakup of the United Kingdom and to persuade leaders that Scottish independence is compatible with Western power structures. Salmond was once central to this strategy, including persuading SNP members to abandon their traditional anti-NATO stance.
When Sturgeon replaced Salmond as SNP chief in 2014, she failed to fully imprint her own progressive identity onto the independence movement. Although Sturgeon retained most nationalist grassroots support, some more socially conservative nationalists were left behind. This segment now aligns with Salmond, who has since left his pragmatism behind and blames Sturgeon for “poisoning a party and a cause that was always likely to disappoint in reality,” said Scottish journalist Rory Scothorne.
Salmond’s call for an accelerated independence process holds appeal for certain elements of Scotland’s restive nationalist base. Alba has already attracted several high-profile defectors from the SNP, including lawmakers Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey. Some analysts see Salmond’s new party as a reactionary backlash against the rise of so-called woke culture in Scotland. It has ginned up enthusiasm among some older supporters who see Sturgeon, 16 years Salmond’s junior, as caving to supposedly peripheral issues, such as transgender rights, at the expense of a more emphatic focus on Scottish sovereignty.
It’s not yet clear if this support will be enough for Alba to change the outcome of the elections. An early April survey suggested the party could win around 6 percent of the vote, enough to secure a handful of seats and deny the SNP an outright majority in Parliament. But another April poll commissioned by the Conservative donor Michael Ashcroft gave Salmond an 83 percent disapproval rating, making him the least-liked politician in Scotland. His new party could just as easily end up without any representation at Holyrood, a result that would surely consign the architect of modern Scottish nationalism to political oblivion.
Alternatively, Alba could inadvertently provide a much-needed lifeline for Scotland’s flagging unionist parties, disrupting the momentum of mainstream nationalism and slowing Scotland’s drift toward independence. The fact that the Labour and Conservative parties appear incapable of doing so alone illustrates the striking weakness of Scottish unionism. The Tories in particular have failed to capitalize on the SNP’s internal difficulties. Led by Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative lawmakers pressed ahead in March with a doomed no-confidence vote against Sturgeon over her government’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Salmond.
Ross’s lackluster efforts haven’t been helped by Brexit, which Scots overwhelmingly oppose, or by the backstage antics of Johnson’s administration in London. Since July 2019, Johnson has launched four separate initiatives aimed at preserving the union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. His latest maneuver stalled in February, when Oliver Lewis, the head of Downing Street’s so-called union unit and a former Vote Leave campaign strategist, quit after just two weeks in the role.
To make matters worse, the Tories face a major contradiction at the heart of their Scottish election campaign. Johnson insists that he will veto any attempt by Sturgeon to stage a new independence referendum, but Ross has repeatedly warned unionist Scots that voting for the SNP will all but guarantee a second vote, legal or otherwise. These conflicting lines of attack could be an “own goal” on May 6, said Coree Brown Swan, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre on Constitutional Change. Ross, who only took charge of the Scottish Tories last August, could struggle in front of the Scottish electorate, she added.
The outlook is more optimistic for the Scottish Labour party, once Scotland’s dominant political force, which aims to establish itself as Sturgeon’s principal opposition. Those running on the Labour ticket seek an alternative political future for Scotland beyond the constitutional binaries of independence and the status quo. Paul Sweeney, standing as a Labour candidate on Glasgow’s regional list after losing his seat in the U.K. Parliament to the SNP in 2019, argues that a formal distribution of power away from London should replace Britain’s current constitutional structure. “Creating the sense of urgency to pursue these reforms is now the overriding mission for those in the Labour movement,” he told Foreign Policy.
This belief in a federal United Kingdom is not shared by policymakers south of the border. A recent report co-written by former civil servant Philip Rycroft warned of “indifference” among the British government toward the interests of its Celtic peripheries. Concern for territorial unity isn’t “in the bloodstream of the U.K. state the way it is in countries such as Spain or Canada,” he said. As long as the Labour Party remains divorced from the levers of power at Westminster, hopes of a radical constitutional overhaul aren’t likely to be realized.
As the conflict with Salmond has rumbled on, Sturgeon has sought to assert her status as the acceptable face of Scottish nationalism, committed to Scotland’s gradual departure from the United Kingdom and steady reintegration into the liberal European order. Throughout the campaign, she has stressed the need for “serious” national leadership and questioned Salmond’s fitness for political office. “I take no pleasure whatsoever in saying this, but I think there are significant questions about the appropriateness of his return to public office,” Sturgeon told reporters in March.
Some SNP activists say Alba has helped draw the hard-line fringes of the independence movement away from the SNP to the benefit of Scottish nationalism. “It’s important that the Yes movement reflects the principles we want an independent Scotland to be built on,” Kaukab Stewart, the SNP’s candidate for Glasgow Kelvin and a staunch Sturgeon supporter, said. “[Our plan] for Scotland is one where everyone is made to feel welcome.”
Ironically, Salmond himself spent years working to soften the SNP’s image by championing a vision of Scotland as a progressive state in line with European social democracy — a vision that now forms the basis of Sturgeon’s strategy. On May 6, nationalist voters must choose how wholeheartedly they endorse her brand of independence. The hopes of an SNP majority, and of a second referendum, could be on the line.
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