Scotland is going to the polls on May 6 for what promises to be a landmark national election. It’s the first since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, which led to Scotland (and Northern Ireland) leaving the EU against its will.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has long said this is a “material change” in the nation’s circumstances that justifies a second referendum on Scottish independence. Support for independence has been much improved ever since. Sturgeon is now using the May election to seek a mandate for a second referendum.
To help understand the machinations, we caught up with Kezia Dugdale for our podcast The Conversation Weekly. She is the director of the John Smith Centre at the University of Glasgow and a lecturer in public policy. She was Scottish Labour leader between 2015 and 2017. Here are some edited extracts from the conservation.
Q: Can you explain what’s at stake on May 6?
The No side won the 2014 referendum with 55% of the vote, and we thought that that would be the end of the constitutional question. But because it was relatively close, questions around the devolution settlement and Scotland’s continued place in the UK have continued to dominate. Whether you are Yes or No to independence is still the biggest factor over how you will vote in May.
Labour people get very uncomfortable with such a binary dynamic. People in the party don’t define themselves as either nationalists or unionists so much as social democrats or democratic socialists. Some might support independence; some might support the United Kingdom. Some like me support a federal solution, with a lot more devolution across the four nations of the UK, but retaining a UK-wide network to redistribute power and wealth. That’s quite different to a unionism that is much more about queen and country, a flag-waving British nationalism.
Listen to Kezia Dugdale’s interview in The Conversation Weekly podcast.
Q: Does that division over unionism prevent an electoral coalition between the unionist parties?
A little bit. You have to remember that there were some odd bedfellows in the 2014 referendum. In the context of British politics, the Labour and Conservative parties are arch enemies. For them both to be on the same side of an argument was very unusual.
After the referendum, Labour voters felt guilty about voting for the union. They had thought it was right, but it wasn’t comfortable. They didn’t like their party working with the Conservatives. The SNP exploited this, to their credit, saying, this is supposed to be the progressive Labour party, and they sided with the Conservatives to sustain the status quo.
It was a very potent political message. Labour has been burned very badly from winning the referendum. And let’s remember it was Labour’s ability to persuade left-of-centre voters to vote No that took the campaign over the 50% line.
To put it in context, I was the party’s education spokesperson in 2014. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, we lost our leader (Johann Lamont). Then we lost another leader (Jim Murphy), in the 2015 UK election, because he lost his seat. The day before that election, Labour had 41 members of parliament. The day after, it had one. I was deputy leader in that election, and everybody sort of turned and looked at me. It was my turn to take over the mantle, which I did.
In the 2016 Scottish parliament election, when I was leader, we lost a third of our seats. Not quite the damage of 2015, but not vastly better. And in the 2017 UK election – I’m still leader at this point – we started to make up some ground. We went from one MP to seven, but interestingly, the seats we won were seats with very heavy No votes in 2014. You could look at a seat in Scotland, find out the referendum result, and take a pretty good guess about who would win there in the UK election.
In that election in 2017, there were another 20 seats where the majority fell for the SNP MP from tens of thousands of votes to under 1,000. Come the 2019 general election, with so many close-run seats, everybody expected to see the SNP lose substantially again, but Labour fell from seven seats back to one. I was long gone by this point, but we’re talking about six or seven years of Labour being punished for its role in the 2014 referendum.
Labour was also punished by the Conservatives, who were ruthless at saying you can’t trust Labour with the union; they’re not as strong as we are; not as trustworthy. They suggested I was soft on the union because I favour a federalist solution. So the Conservatives kept on attacking Labour. The SNP were attacking Labour saying they’ve sold you out. And that in many ways is why Labour is the shell of what it once was: bear in mind it was the dominant force in Scotland for most of the latter half of the 20th century.
In the current election campaign the Conservatives’ main message is vote for us to stop a second independence referendum. They’re also challenging the Labour party to form a unionist alliance. That’s a win-win for them. They know an alliance is never going to happen, and it reminds everybody who might be thinking of voting Labour that they sided with the Conservatives in 2014.
Q: The Scottish parliamentary system was designed to make it harder for one party to get the majority, but now the whole focus of this election is the majority. Why?
We have 129 members of the Scottish parliament, 73 of which represent constituencies. The remaining 56 seats are made up of eight regions which each elect seven MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament) proportionately, using our formula called the D'Hondt system.
This combination of first past the post and proportional representation means we’ve had a more colourful parliament than in the UK. We have Green politicians because they come in via the list, for example. This system is designed to produce coalitions and to stop outright majorities. It did that until 2011, when the SNP managed to break the system with the force of their popularity and win a majority (in 2016, the party fell short of a majority).
We’re now in the situation where people think 2011 can be recreated, which is actually quite unfair on the SNP. The polls show the SNP constituency vote at around 50% – phenomenally high after 14 years in power. They will, I think, fall short of an overall majority, but will have a majority for independence if the Green vote delivers what it looks like delivering.
Q: Can you explain the Alba party?
Alex Salmond (the former first minister) has broken away from the SNP and set up Alba. He has taken a number of people with him who would be described as fundamental nationalists: people who want an independence referendum yesterday, definitely today, and not in two years’ time. They’re also very against some of the more socially liberal policies that the SNP have advocated under Sturgeon.
Salmond is asking people to vote SNP in their constituency vote and to vote for Alba on the list. His argument is that if you vote Alba, we could get a “super-majority” situation where two-thirds of MSPs are supporters of independence. It would then be impossible for the UK government to refuse a second referendum, is how the argument goes.
A problem for Salmond, and he has many, is that he will have to get somewhere between 6% and 8% of the list vote in every region to return members of the Scottish parliament in each. But the polls show that Alba is barely scraping 3%.
It’s likely that he will manage to get to 6% in the north-east of Scotland. He has represented both the Banff & Buchan and Gordon constituencies in that region. He’s very well known and popular there. That would elect him to the Scottish parliament, but in my view there will be nobody else with him. That’s not a super majority.
Q: What has led to the shift in independence support and do you think Yes would actually win a second referendum?
Since January 2020 (at the time of the interview) there have been 25 opinion polls on the constitutional question. 22 have shown Yes ahead, which is very new. I think there were only two polls in the run-up to 2014 that had Yes ahead. There have been two recent exceptions where No has started to climb again, and people suggest that might be to do with the success of the vaccine roll-out across the UK. But the reason for people moving from No to Yes is quite well evidenced and it’s to do with Brexit.
I was closely involved in the polling in the 2014 referendum. The targeting that we did broke Scotland down into five different categories of voters, with undecideds being a big wedge in the middle. That’s about 1 million Scots that we considered could be persuaded one way or the other, and both the Yes and No campaigns heavily focused on them.
When you looked at who they were and what they cared about, it boiled down to economic security. This is why so much of the No campaign focused on arguments around what the currency in an independent Scotland would be, who the lender of last resort would be, who would underpin pensions – all these big economic questions.
Those same people are up in the air just now, who could fall either way, but what’s changed since 2014? These are people aged 25 to 45 who tend to live in urban centres like Edinburgh, Glasgow or along the central belt. They are educated to university degree level mostly.
They are socially centre-left but economically centrist or centre right. By that I mean they are supporters of gay marriage but don’t want high taxes. They are passionately, proudly pro-European and all voted Remain. And they’re very angry about leaving the EU.
If presented with a binary choice of an independent Scotland in Europe with a progressive leader or staying in the UK led by Boris Johnson with a little-Britain Brexit mindset, they’re choosing the progressive independent Scotland in Europe.
They might not like it. They certainly don’t love it. But it’s better than what they’ve got. In short, Brexit has changed people’s minds.
Q: If there’s a pro-independence majority, what are the options available to Nicola Sturgeon to hold a second referendum?
She has zero options because she’s ruled out UDI (universal declaration of independence). I think she’s right to rule that out. The constitution is reserved to the UK parliament, so only the UK parliament can say yes to having a second referendum.
This all boils down to mandates and morality. If there’s a majority for independence, you would expect the UK government, as in 2011, to say yes to a referendum. But if there’s a majority for independence in the election, you will see the SNP demand the right to hold a referendum, and Boris Johnson will I think say no very quickly. The question is how long that no will hold for and the arguments that underpin it.
The first thing they’ll say is, not during a pandemic. They also might say, not now not ever, you said once in a generation. That’s a riskier strategy. And there’s a growing school of thought that if the majority is big, if independence or a second referendum feels inevitable, it’s in the UK government’s interests to go now rather than delay for a long period.
The UK government is currently spending a lot because of the pandemic. We’ve got one of the most right-wing chancellors in my lifetime and he’s spending like a left-wing socialist. So there’s lots of money coming to Scotland and lots of means by which you can demonstrate the value of the UK to Scotland.
In 18 months’ time, that spending has to stop. The UK government will then have to decide what taxes go up and what public sector saving decisions or cuts have to be made to balance the books. The longer you wait to hold a second referendum, the less advantageous the circumstances for the UK government.
Q: How do you think everything will play out?
There’ll be a lot of Punch and Judy-style back and forth. Every time the UK government says no, it will work in the SNP’s favour because it reaffirms everything they tell the electorate about the UK government not observing the will of the people of Scotland. Bear in mind that message has been hammered home consistently since the EU referendum.
Westminster considers itself a protector of the union and Boris Johnson describes himself as the minister for the union, but it never seems to amount to very much. In the past 12 months we’ve had the UK government announce a massive decentralisation around UK government departments, including to Scotland. Equally it has suggested putting Union Jacks on vaccine vials to remind people that it’s the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine saving people right now.
But these are superficial arguments for the union. I’ve always said that to save the union, you need an argument of the head and an argument of the heart. The No campaign is very good with arguments of the head. They’ll point to Scotland’s balance sheet and falling oil revenues and the fact that Scotland benefits greatly from public spending redistributing wealth generated largely in London and the south east.
A problem with federalism is that there isn’t one clear definition of what a federalist Britain would look like. There will be different answers in different parts of the country. Also, to what degree would you devolve further powers? Many would argue that the benefit of the UK is the ability to share the same tax system to redistribute wealth, and a UK-wide social security system to spend the receipts of that taxation.
Other people will say federalism should allow you to have localised social security and localised income tax-raising powers, and that’s perfectly legitimate. But it would decrease the strength of my argument as to why the union is a good thing. So there’s no one common thread.
Q: To what extent are Catalonia and Quebec useful comparisons?
I don’t profess to be an expert on Catalonia. But the comparisons aren’t particularly strong because Catalonia is considered an area of substantial wealth and is a net contributor to Spain’s wider economy. Unionists in the UK will argue the reverse is the case with Scotland – especially with the oil price a fraction of what the 2013 white paper for Scottish independence was based on.
There’s a huge gap in the economics of Scottish independence, which leads a lot of people to say Scotland’s too wee, too poor, too stupid to be independent. As I understand the arguments in Catalonia, it’s the reverse.
I went to Quebec about two years ago. The province had two independence referendums in succession and then just seemed to have had enough. The big changing factor was that after the second referendum, the nationalist parties started losing really heavily.
People assume, I think a bit lazily, that if there were a second independence referendum in Scotland and the No campaign won again that somehow support for nationalism would also fall through the floor. I’m not wholly convinced.
Q: What’s the tenor of the debate in this Scottish election and how does it feel to be watching rather than taking part?
I’m thoroughly enjoying it to be honest. Five years ago I was the one in the TV debates and running around the country doing photo calls. Now I’m an academic and I get to muse on it at leisure.
It doesn’t feel like the campaign has been set alight yet. I’m actually worried about turnout. I don’t think there’s huge awareness that the elections are taking place, because of the pandemic and the degree to which COVID is monopolising the news.
This also means the tenor is not as toxic and acrimonious as recent electoral contests in Scotland. I think it’s likely to stay that way, and something spectacular would have to happen in the next ten days for the SNP not to win. The constitution and COVID are the dominant issues. COVID is largely about competence and that works largely to Nicola Sturgeon’s credit.
The one sore point for her and her record is social care and elderly people being discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic without being tested. That scandal doesn’t look like hurting her just yet. But she’s committed to a public inquiry into decisions she took during the pandemic, so that will be a very difficult issue for her in 12 months or so.
Kezia Dugdale is affiliated with the John Smith Centre which exists to make the positive case for politics and public service.
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