PhD student in British civilization and political science (UPHF & UQAM), Polytechnic University of Hauts-de-France
Jérémy Elmerich does not work, does not advise, does not own shares, does not receive funds from any organization that could benefit from this article, and has not declared any affiliation other than his research organization.
In the UK, accustomed to tremors for several years, the local elections held on May 6 in Scotland had everything to fit into the twisty streak the country has been plunged into for a decade.
In the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, and in a context marked by an exit from the European Union which has deeply divided British society and by the specter of Scottish independence, only the rainy weather in which the ballot was held had enough to restore a little normality to the table.
If the independence referendum of 2014 ended in a victory of the “No” with 55% of the votes cast, the nationalists of the Scottish National Party (SNP) were quick to bounce back, winning in turn 56 of the 59 Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons in the 2015 UK legislative elections, followed by the 2016 Scottish general elections – a sign that the 2014 trend was not necessarily final.
Indeed, during the referendum held that year, the Non camp – where Labor, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had met – had largely based its argument on the fact that independence from the United Kingdom Uni would mean Scotland would no longer be part of the EU. Since then, Brexit has reshuffled the cards. The Scots, who had voted 62% to stay, found themselves forced out of the Union.
In 2020, after an endless soap opera, Boris Johnson finally sealed the UK’s exit from the European Union. At the same time, the Conservative Party – hated in Scotland since the Thatcher era – had become the main opposition party to a hegemonic SNP in Scotland. As for the independence option, it emerged in the polls at around 50% after the referendum on Brexit and had further progressed by a few points in the context of the management of the health crisis.
The Scottish legislative elections of 2021 therefore announced a new edition of the tug-of-war between separatists and unionists. In the first camp, we found the SNP, the Greens and Alba, a party formed very recently and led by the former SNP leader Alex Salmond; in the second, the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrat Party.
The rules of the electoral game want the ballot to include two simultaneous votes. On the one hand, a first past the post election makes it possible to elect 73 deputies from as many constituencies. On the other hand, a proportional list system sends fifty-six deputies to Holyrood, evenly distributed among the eight electoral regions. The designation of deputies from the lists is weighted by the number of seats won by each party in the elections per constituency.
The SNP and the Greens promise a referendum at the end of the health crisis and before the end of the legislature, while the Alba party is more pressing. Unionists, for their part, insist on the need to focus on the economic recovery of a hard-hit Scotland. More vehemently on this issue, Douglas Ross (Conservative Party) promises to prevent the nationalists from obtaining a majority that would pave the way for a new referendum.
One of the big questions concerned the score that the conservatives would obtain, in particular because they claim an unambiguous unionism which has been successful since the referendum of 2014. The Greens, credited with flattering scores in the polls, There were also high hopes, as was the brand new Alba party. Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP was almost certain to win, but was aiming for an absolute majority – which is an anomaly, however, given the Scottish mixed voting system.
At the end of a campaign that was unlike any other and an endless counting, the ballot boxes first revealed a participation of just over 63%, up 7.5% compared to 2016 – setting a new record for this election. Nevertheless, the distribution of votes remains largely stable: no party has seen an increase or a decrease of more than 2% of its score. The map of the Parliament of Holyrood is not upset: Labor and Liberal Democrats are still losing ground – two and one seat respectively – to the Greens and the SNP.
In Glasgow Southside, Labor Party leader Anas Sarwar went to challenge Nicola Sturgeon in his lifelong stronghold. As expected, he failed to oust the Prime Minister, victorious with over 60% of the vote. He nevertheless succeeded in stemming the relative rise of the Conservatives in this former Labor stronghold.
In the constituencies of East Lothian and Ayr, the SNP snatched a seat won by Labor since 1999 and another held by the Conservative and Unionist party. The most emblematic turnaround took place in the constituency of Edinburgh Central: Westminster veteran Angus Robertson (SNP) obtained a spectacular victory there with an increase of more than 10% for the SNP in this constituency which had yet sent former Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson to Holyrood in the previous election. The capital, which had voted against independence by more than 60%, is now colored almost entirely of yellow, the color of the SNP.
However, the election to the Scottish Parliament is so done that any seat won by first past the post has a greater impact on the chances of winning list seats. By collecting the highest percentage ever since 1999, with three additional constituencies, the SNP loses two elected in the regional ballot and fails to a seat of the absolute majority so coveted. Despite over 40% of the vote, he won only two seats; while the Conservatives with 23.5%, and Labor with 18% of the vote, win 26 and 20 seats respectively.
As for Alex Salmond, who intended to avoid the dilution of the SNP vote by the mixed ballot and ensure an independentist “supermajority”, his bet is losing. Not having been able to take part in the televised debates despite the notoriety of its leader, the Alba Party has hardly succeeded in making its strategy heard beyond the pro-independence cybermilitators who seem to have finally leaned more towards the Greens.
Conversely, it appears that Unionist voters cast many strategic votes, as noted by political scientists Nicola McEwen and John Curtice. Indeed, many constituencies bear witness to the sometimes massive shift in votes towards the candidate of the party deemed most able to beat the SNP; further demonstration of the importance of the national question in Scotland.
When the results are announced, Nicola Sturgeon has a smile on her face, and for good reason. The population has widely expressed their support for the electoral promise that the Prime Minister had explicitly made: the organization of a second self-determination referendum as soon as the pandemic is over.
Welcoming this “historic victory”, Sturgeon calls on the British government to recognize the mandate granted by the Scottish people. In a rhetoric similar to that of her Catalan alter ego Carles Puigdemont – who had been severely repressed by the authorities in Madrid for having unilaterally organized a consultation on independence in 2017 – she claims for the Scottish people the “right to decide ”on his political future.
Using an argument she is accustomed to, the leader of the Scottish National Party points out that unlike the British who held their local elections on the same day, Scotland once again did not favor the Conservatives. Consequently, these, in power at Westminster have in his eyes “no democratic legitimacy to prevent the people of Scotland from speaking out” and “there is no question of whether Boris Johnson ‘grants’ a referendum, but rather if it intends to respect the vote of the Scots and their democratically expressed will ”.
Although reinforced by the victory of the Conservatives in England, the British Prime Minister is called upon to react.
He who unveiled a vast plan to invest in Scottish infrastructure shortly before the elections did not fail to show his firmness on the subject and rule out the possibility of a second referendum which he considers irresponsible in the context current pandemic and much less urgent than the economic recovery orchestrated by London. After recalling the slogan of “once in a generation” launched by the organizers of the 2014 referendum – a slogan that has no legal value, however – Boris Johnson invited Nicola Sturgeon and the others prime ministers to hold a devolution summit to rethink cooperation between the UK and its constituent nations.
However, Nicola Sturgeon raised the possibility of adopting in the Holyrood Parliament a text aiming at the organization of a referendum of self-determination. In the event of a unilateral move by Scotland, then Boris Johnson would likely take the case to the Supreme Court. An uncertain outcome which, as in the case of Catalonia recently, would lead to opposing two registers of legitimacy …
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