Comment: The SNP is electorally dominant but constitutionally impotent
The SNP today finds itself in much the same place as Labour in the 1980s. It dominates Scottish electoral politics but is unable to translate electoral strength into constitutional change.
After the 1983 election, when Labour won 42 (58 per cent) Scottish seats, it flirted with the idea that the Tories had “no Scottish mandate”. Some members wanted a campaign of industrial and political disruption.
Five Scottish Labour MPs wrote a paper, Defending Scotland Against Thatcher: An Action Plan for the Labour Movement. It set out bold disruptive proposals, but did not find favour with the leadership. By late 1986, there was talk of a “Doomsday scenario” in which the Tories would be returned to power again at the next election while Labour scored another Scottish victory. The implication was that devolution would then be unstoppable.
In 1987, Labour won 50 (69 per cent) Scottish seats but devolution looked no more likely even though the Tories lost more than half their Scottish seats. The SNP took to referring to Labour’s Scottish MPs as the “feeble fifty”. Questions were raised as to whether Scottish Labour leader Donald Dewar, a lifelong devolutionist, would be able to contain the growing sense of urgency and anger.
There was a lot of talk about Scottish popular sovereignty and much soaring rhetoric. Kenyon Wright, of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, asked, “What if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the state’,? Well we say yes – and we are the people.” It was great rhetoric but hollow, as the subsequent 1992 election proved once more. Scotland had to wait until 1997 when there was a Commons majority committed to a referendum on devolution.
This all seems so long ago but it has echoes in politics today. The SNP is now the constitutionally impotent but electorally successful party. Two years ago, the SNP won 48 Scottish seats (81 per cent), proportionately exceeding anything Scottish Labour won, and though there is a Holyrood majority for an independence referendum it does not alter the basic fact that a referendum will be held when permitted by a Commons majority.
It may not be acknowledged but the SNP knows that an attempt by Holyrood to legislate for a referendum is a blind alley. The SNP is no more able to force an independence referendum than Labour could force a devolution referendum. Claims to have a mandate are ignored and little can be done.
This does not mean that a referendum will not happen but the route to a second independence referendum must pass through Westminster. The SNP no more wants to admit this harsh reality than Scottish Labour did its equivalent in the 1980s. No amount of huffing and puffing, talk of popular sovereignty, democracy or mandates will alter this.
This is not to say this is a satisfactory situation. It creates tensions, frustrations mount and politics becomes more heated. There is a need for an agreed mechanism that can trigger a referendum.
For now, the only circumstance in which Boris Johnson would agree to a referendum is if he is convinced he will win, and likely if he thinks he will win well.
There is growing confidence amongst opponents of independence that they can win another independence referendum but awareness that a referendum would be a huge gamble.
Johnson might hesitate even if thought he would win. The Tories would lose a key part of their appeal in Scotland if independence was removed from the political agenda. The Tories benefit electorally so long as a referendum hangs over Scottish politics. It allows the Tories to bang their big unionist drum in tune with the SNP trumpeting its demand for a referendum to drown out everyday concerns affecting people’s lives.
A Labour government might concede a referendum to draw a line under independence but only if it was confident of winning. The prospect of Labour winning an outright majority at the next election looks slim. But a referendum is possible if there is a hung parliament. We would not be returning to the 1980s but to spring 1979. The SNP’s bargaining position might look strong in parliamentary arithmetic but it would be politically weak. There is no prospect of the SNP allowing the Tories to remain in office, at least if they want to avoid the devastating electoral consequences.
Labour is moving towards offering an alternative to the status quo and independence. This would require to be endorsed in a referendum. The opportunity would then arise of having a referendum offering independence, Labour’s proposals, and the status quo, to the electorate. It too would be a gamble.
Current polling on three options tells us little, though the fact that a third option commands any support at the moment without any campaign should worry Labour’s opponents. It is easy to see how a third option would command more support than the alternatives.
It may be a distant prospect, maybe unlikely, but it looks the most likely route to a referendum and it is not one that the SNP and Tories would like.