When the major blow of Yes Scotland’s defeat set in during the aftermath of 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, many believed that the SNP would become a paralysed, lost cause from then on. Few would have thought that, under the sturdy leadership of the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party would regain its position in dominating Scottish decision-making. However, Britain’s surprising verdict on EU membership has proven that Sturgeon’s contingent isn’t just controlling Scottish politics.
Rated by Forbes magazine as the most powerful woman in Britain after Queen Elizabeth II, not to mention the 50th most influential in the entire world, Brexit is changing Nicola Sturgeon and her party’s fortune. Perhaps next year’s rankings will have Sturgeon placed higher. I certainly wouldn’t argue with it. But whilst Brexit is stripping the good fortune of many British politicians, such as that of the precariously placed Jeremy Corbyn, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her party has only gained a position of greater power.
Given that victory for the Leave campaign in last week’s EU referendum was largely down to English votes, protest by many passionate internationalists and keen Scottish nationalists has dominated headlines. Scotland’s intentions evidenced by last week’s vote – of more than 70% support for Remain in many areas north of the border – has clearly shown that policy should take a different direction here.
After arguing consistently that a Brexit is not in the interests of the people of Scotland, the Scottish First Minister’s gargantuan new task is to rescue Scotland from the effects of Vote Leave. But the flipside is that this gives the SNP an exceptional political advantage. Nicola Sturgeon is in total control of Scotland’s future within the EU, and that influence does not span across issues with regard only to Scotland. In the likely event that the SNP leader is unable to forge a deal granting European Union membership to Scottish citizens alone, it will be Nicola Sturgeon who is in charge of deciding whether or not the United Kingdom really is united, refuelling her independence crusade.
The volume of influence that the Scottish First Minister now brandishes places Scotland in a very strong position at the fiery EU negotiating table. The events of this week have shown that the First Minister will remain silent at her peril. The Brexit result which hoped to bring increased sovereignty for the entirety of the UK has in turn weakened ties between Westminster and its sibling Scottish parliament at Holyrood.
Since 2007, the SNP has been the major force in Scottish politics, standing as the party of traditional social democracy, and, of course, independence. However, Sturgeon’s position as a key player in international affairs has become stronger thanks to a victory for Vote Leave. The triumphs of Johnson, Gove and Farage in terms of the European Union have not translated into triumphs for the UK’s union. For a Brexit has all the more accentuated the deep political crevasses which set apart the different components of the UK.
It seems that David Cameron has made a fatal error by underestimating the challenges of keeping Britain in the European Union, not to mention the challenges of keeping Britain on side with his party’s government. A harsh split, further nursed by the Prime Minister’s Friday morning resignation, threatens the future of Conservative party politics. The Labour party is no safe haven either. Ravaged by a leader deemed unable to take it to its peak in a possibly imminent General Election, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership looks tenuous.
Nicola Sturgeon is no fool. Her party has seen numerous victories of late, and her ability as a skillful tactician is more obvious than ever before. The aforementioned failings highlighted by the shock of Brexit have only widened Sturgeon’s stage as an influential policymaker. In recent days, SNP support has surged, an effect similar to that achieved by the Party during the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. Inner party turmoil certainly doesn’t riddle the SNP. Sturgeon’s socially democratic force is one of the only ones avoiding a rift with its clear-cut policy, and this is one of its grandest assets.
The SNP is a decisive and strategic band, a tidal wave which now seems to dwarf the fragmented Labour and Conservative parties at Westminster. Sturgeon isn’t right-wing populism, Sturgeon isn’t scaremongering, and Sturgeon isn’t austerity. Faisal Islam of ITV remarked this morning that it is Nicola Sturgeon who has “the most thought out plan” for Brexit. In a likely snap general election, the First Minister is sure to pick up some of the votes of those who have become dismayed by the Tories’ and Labour’s endless internal strife. Her shrewdness and sharp-witted nature are her doubtless fortes which have been brought to light all thanks to Brexit. As long this adeptness does not fail, the SNP will call the shots in Scottish politics, and indeed in European relations, for many months and years to come.
With the failings of the UK Parliament parties in producing constructive political change, as well as a vote for Brexit which ignores Scottish votes, Sturgeon’s movement for independence may, too, build in strength and support. A reassessment of relations between the UK and EU has brought the question of national sovereignty back into the political arena. Aims of the Smith Commission evidently haven’t gone far enough, and in ways akin to the post-Brexit case, Scotland’s opinions are becoming drowned out. The contrast in opinions over the EU between England and Scotland serves to demonstrate exactly why Scotland is growing tired of the talking shop that is Westminster. Sturgeon has the ultimate upper hand over the future of the United Kingdom, and Sturgeon’s movements may well provoke a breakup.
More interestingly, the future of Scottish Labour looks grim. The European Union question may well change opinions of the Holyrood party whose support has plummeted over recent years. Yesterday it was widely reported that the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, will consider support for independence. But this is surely a political death of Sturgeon’s arguably inadvertent making. Dugdale’s extreme desperation for votes in tandem with growing support for the nationalist cause could mean that even the skeleton of Labour’s Scottish branch is no longer safe from a painful fracture. If her strategy is to support independence, Dugdale risks splitting her party between nationalists and unionists, only playing into Sturgeon’s hands.
The European Union debate has questioned not only UK sovereignty, but also the sovereignty of the separate nation states which make up the UK. Recent events have shown clearly that the politics of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are vastly different.
With Sturgeon ceasing the opportunity for using this as a vehicle for constitutional change within Scotland, it is easy to see that the Scottish First Minister’s actions over coming months will largely determine also the United Kingdom’s fate. Along with the most prominent of British and EU officials, it is the Nicola Sturgeon who will have one of the most influential seats at the Brexit negotiation table. Whilst both major political parties within Westminster are fast collapsing, diseased by pathogens of indecisiveness and disarray, it is Nicola Sturgeon’s party which remains dead set on its policy. The First Minister of Scotland only has Westminster to thank for her unprecedented leverage. After the breakthrough of devolution in 1999, along with an intense referendum discussion two years ago, few could have foreseen Scotland continuing to pose such a huge threat to the longevity of the UK.
Would you call yourself a unionist or nationalist? Did you side with Salmond or Darling in the independence referendum? Yesterday, did you give a vote to the nationalist SNP or the unionist Tories? The pivotal 2014 referendum over Scottish independence heated discussions of political identity. Few previous events had seen Scots passionately side with a political campaign so decisively. This morning’s Scottish Election results have shown that nationalist and unionist sentiment spurred by the referendum has little chances of waning in months – and inevitably years – to come. The extensive and somewhat surprising gains of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives have proven that capitalising on the fears of independence and the growth in pro-union feeling will bring in easy seats. Similarly, whilst Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP has lost a few of its hotspots, it is clear that the heartfelt politics of many who yearn for increased decentralisation are still alive. Enhanced commitment to political identities is transforming Scottish politics and is becoming crucial in deciding the futures of our political parties.
The most profound change within the Holyrood establishment revealed this morning has to be the demise of Scottish Labour. The party, once dominating Scottish politics, has entered into a stark and likely prolonged decline. With left-wing feeling traditionally widespread across Scotland, and Scottish Labour gaining the most seats in Holyrood in 1999 and 2003, many hardcore supporters of the party would be most surprised at last night’s results. Labour prepared itself yesterday for a kick thanks to eternal issues surrounding anti-Semitism arguments, divides between Corbyn supporters and old Blairites, and the SNP’s storm in the polls. But one of the main weaknesses of the Scottish Labour party which has come to light in the wake of Ruth Davidson’s largely unforeseen triumph yesterday is that the Scottish Labour party does not have a strong political identity. Having likeable and well set out policies is undeniably paramount. But the other main parties within the Scottish parliament are taking a more decisive line over identity and nationality, as well as asserting their authority as issue-based movements.
Scottish politics has seen a well-established two party dominance emerge at Holyrood in recent years – something the AMS voting system was, in fact, designed to prevent. The rise of the SNP has seen a marked transformation from the consensus politics which prevailed in the earlier years of the Scottish parliament. The SNP has succeeded in dominating devolved decision making since its time in government from 2007, a political monopoly fostered by unquestionable leftist history throughout Scotland.
Last night’s election results in Scotland, however, further accentuated the SNP’s already strong nationalist identity. The rise of the Tories also, rebranding themselves in 2014 with heavy emphasis on the unionist element of their politics, marks a real change in direction for Scottish politics. The fundamental questions of identity, which surrounded the independence referendum two years ago, are evidently still hot on the minds of much of the electorate.
A survey carried out by What Scotland Thinks in March 2015 put Scottish nationalist sentiment amongst Scots at 62%, and British feeling on 31%. Whilst this may not exactly correlate with yesterday’s election results, the almost two-fold increase in the SNP’s gains from 2011 looks as if it may go hand-in-hand with the party’s victory this morning.
When the new Scottish parliament sits for the first time in a few days’ time, not only austerity, tax, and public services will place Sturgeon and Davidson at loggerheads. The new Conservative opposition and old timer SNP government will sit in their nationalist and unionist blocs. Whilst many believe that Labour’s demise is due to indecisiveness and leadership disputes south of the border, perhaps its lack of nationalist standpoint is really its Achilles heel.
The referendum is now over, although the SNP continue to angle for another which would take place in just a few years. It seems that the legacy of hyped patriotism and focus on national identity has largely changed the 2016 election’s course. The SNP and Conservatives are the parties for nationalists and unionists, respectively. Of course, a large majority are still issue voters. But Labour’s inability to decisively condemn or endorse another independence referendum may well have contributed to Kezia Dugdale’s fate. Those adamant about protecting the union could safely vote for a strong opposition led by Davidson, keen to protect relations with Westminster, in the same way that hardcore nationalists just know that Sturgeon’s team would never wholly backtrack on independence.
The Labour party is the odd one out when it comes to a focus national identity. The Labour party’s instability rests on its short-lived leaders, racial controversy, and a turf war between the grassroots members and the party’s elected MPs. In Scotland, however, the referendum has not at all diluted impassioned nationalist and unionist sentiment, which will, judging by yesterday’s election, continue to influence our nation’s politics. Stuck in between the fervent debate, Labour has fallen hard, failing to take a form of loyalist standpoint. It seems that the divisive referendum and its focus on identity has created clear-cut sides. The conundrum surrounding the still contentious ‘Yes or No?’ question is still alive. Whilst independence does not look imminent, there is still growing support both for and against such constitutional change. The possibilities for such a transformation are boosting identity-based politics, as well as gains for both the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives as decisive nationalist and unionist movements.