In Stone Voices, Neal Ascherson wrote that ‘in the two centuries after about 1760 … no country in Europe, and perhaps no country on earth until the European explosion into the interior of North America and Australia, underwent a social and physical mutation so fast and so complete’ as Scotland. The transformation from agrarian to industrial society was even faster than in England; it opened an almost incomprehensible gap between generations and left most Scots with a deep-seated distaste for further change. Not all Scots, though. Ascherson identifies a ‘St Andrew’s fault’ between the ‘hurricane survivor’ majority and the ‘healthy breeze-blown’ minority. This group, Scotland’s middle-class professionals, already accustomed to urban life and relatively secure, began to take part in Britain’s most ambitious political and cultural schemes. Empire was one; the expansion of the state after World War Two was another. When these came to an end, it was the ‘hurricane survivors’ who bore the brunt. Many of the ‘breeze-blown’ middle-class Scots could swivel easily into the state-making projects of Scottish nationalism. Until recently, the working class clung tightly to Labour.
There are other ways of reading the entrails. Some left-wing nationalists consider the middle class to be the big obstacle to independence, benefiting from the comforts and opportunities of union while the masses strain at the leash. But what are the masses supposed to be straining towards? The ‘uncertain future’ which Alistair Darling warned against in 2014 while leading the ‘Better Together’ campaign? Or the ancestral homeland, the promise of identity in the depths of the past? Scotland has always been a country where change has to be justified as both recovery and continuity. Nobody does this better than Nicola Sturgeon.
On the surface not much changed in last month’s elections to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP didn’t regain the overall majority it won unexpectedly in 2011 and lost in 2016. The distribution of seats changed by three: the SNP gained one and the Greens two; the Liberal Democrats and Labour lost one and two respectively. The Conservatives are still the main opposition, having retained their 31 seats. Labour limped in behind with 22 and the Liberal Democrats fell below the five-seat threshold required for official recognition as a parliamentary party. With a record eight seats, the Greens can continue to add their votes to those of the SNP’s 64 MSPs to sustain the party’s fourth successive government – their third in minority – since 2007.
The TV coverage of the results, over two days of pandemic-protracted tallying, offered one explanation for the SNP’s status as Scotland’s safe bet. At 8 p.m. on the first day of counting, as the possibility of an SNP majority hung on the results of a close race in Dumbarton, BBC Scotland’s coverage abruptly ended, and transferred to the UK-wide local election results programme on BBC News. Viewers who had been following the contest between two centre-left parties in Scotland were plunged into Labour’s obliteration in the North of England by the Conservatives. Denunciations of Labour’s metropolitan self-satisfaction were interrupted occasionally by vague speculation as to whether Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic might be ruined by the ‘distraction’ of a vote on independence. English voters don’t get much Scottish news, but Scottish voters get most of England’s news, often more quickly and more loudly than our own.
On 13 May, an immigration enforcement van was spotted in Pollokshields, part of Sturgeon’s Glasgow Southside constituency. The van, in which two Indian men had been detained, was quickly surrounded by protesters demanding their neighbours’ release. The police were called in to assist the Border Force officials and a stand-off ensued, as protesters began to fill the street. Although immigration is a question for the Home Office, its policing is devolved to the Scottish government. Sturgeon and her justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, caught between sub-state and state, opted for a high-stakes alignment with the former; they denounced the Home Office while defending the police presence. The police agreed to withdraw and the two detainees were released into the custody of Aamer Anwar, a prominent human rights lawyer and the former rector of Glasgow University.
The so-called Battle of Kenmure Street has already entered Scotland’s radical pantheon, reinforcing the popular belief in our humanitarian potential, cruelly suppressed in the union (the scenes in George Square three days later, after Rangers won the league, were a disturbing counterpoint). But for one vertiginous moment, when the police horses assembled in the next street and the van doors stayed shut, it looked as though the episode might expose Sturgeon’s strategy of delicate brinkmanship. Media-savvy, higher-educated Twitter users – the ‘breeze-blown’ – posted videos and photographs of the protest, often taken from the windows of their own tenement flats. Sturgeon relies on such people for her ‘progressive’ credibility, but also has to represent the more crisis-averse sections of the electorate. What would the effect on the tight SNP-Conservative battlegrounds have been had the SNP found itself tangled up with civil disobedience on the streets of Glasgow just before the election rather than soon afterwards?
Between them, the SNP and the Greens have won a new mandate for an independence referendum, the only thing the public was promised that is not clearly within the remit of the Scottish government. It will be difficult to assert this mandate on the basis of a three-seat gain, spread across two parties; it would have been harder still had the SNP lost seats. The closeness of the overall result provoked days of wrangling over ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ vote shares, which will be deployed by the Conservatives to justify their rejection of a referendum. It is also testament to the fragility of support for independence, which flutters back and forth across the 50 per cent mark. During the election campaign, every unionist party argued that, in pursuing confrontation with the UK government, Sturgeon was risking the stability she claims to uphold. She was able to brush this accusation aside only because stability is assured for now: any referendum will be deferred until Scotland has recovered from the pandemic.
But as the events in Pollokshields made clear, the gap between Scottish and British politics has a radicalising potential that goes beyond the question of independence. If the UK government ignores Scotland’s constitutional wishes, it becomes easier to challenge its authority to intervene in other controversial areas. As well as immigration, many Scots would like to see a change in drugs policy – also largely in the hands of the Home Office – in response to spiralling deaths (by far the highest in Europe) and an outbreak of HIV. And there is unhappiness with UK employment law: unions regularly insist that the SNP should refuse to enforce restrictions on their activity. The results of the more impatient sections of the independence movement in this election, most prominently Alex Salmond’s new party, Alba, demonstrated their alienation from public opinion, but all sorts of disruptive, storm-chasing expeditions might ensue if constitutional tensions continue to escalate. Sturgeon’s usual benevolent equilibrium may not hold.
These expeditions will be attempted by noisy minorities. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been honing their pitch to the silent majority for some time. Yet their consolidation of second place has been achieved at a cost. While Labour campaigned on economic recovery, the Conservatives repeatedly outflanked them by making the election about the future of the union. In doing so, they inadvertently helped the SNP transform the nature of elections to the Scottish Parliament from what political scientists call ‘second-order elections’ to ‘first-order elections’. Second-order elections, such as European or local government contests, have lower turnouts; they often hurt the incumbents; small or new parties tend to perform well. Holyrood elections used to share these features, but things are changing. The Scottish Parliament election recorded its highest ever turnout at 63.5 per cent, closing the deficit with UK general elections to just a few points. Despite the talk of stability, this hints at a truly momentous change. The Scottish Parliament is fast becoming the most legitimate expression of the people’s will, helped by the prominence of Sturgeon’s government during the pandemic. On both sides of the constitutional divide, Holyrood is increasingly the place people look to for resolution. What happens when it is overruled – and its integrity threatened – by disorderly types down south? Will old spirits of resistance inspire a leap into the unknown? Or will the prospect of such a leap frighten the rest into holding tighter to what they already have? It may only be a year or two before we find out.