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By Jason Michael
AN IDEA HAS BEEN PUT to the Scottish independence movement ahead of the May 2021 Holyrood elections. Given that the more successful the Scottish National Party is in the constituency (FPTP) vote the poorer it must perform in the regional list (D’Hondt) vote, it is suggested that a pro-independence party run for seats in those regions where neither the SNP nor the Scottish Greens are expected to win list seats. Naturally, this idea has caused some controversy. It flies in the face of an SNP dogma which aims to monopolise the political representation of the independence movement, and it feels counterintuitive to ordinary voters who mistakenly believe their individual votes have equal weight. But the arithmetic of such a plan is tempting. With 1.1 million votes cast for pro-independence parties in the 2016 regional list (48.3 percent of the electorate), only 10 pro-independence MSPs were elected (6 Greens and 4 SNP – 18 percent of the list seats). Assuming the same level of support in the 2021 election, a pro-independence alternative on the regional list will – with enough support – deliver a pro-independence supermajority; a Scottish parliament dominated by pro-independence MSPs (between 72-74 percent of seats).
Other than depriving unionist voters of political representation in the Scottish parliament, many in the movement are asking, what will a manœuvre like this achieve? Certainly, this is the most intelligent question being asked of the plan. It doesn’t deny that it will work, of course it will work. Rather, this question is about the point of doing it. Yes, capitalising on this vulnerability will deprive about a million Scots of their political representation, sure, but we needn’t lose much sleep over this – unionists are happy with the status quo; a system in which Scotland has negligible democratic representation at Westminster. Unionism is about preserving a system in which Scots and Scotland are not represented. Taking seats from them in the regional list vote as well as in the constituency vote is effectively giving them what they want too.
🏴 What will a pro-independence 'supermajority' in Holyrood gain? It would remove forever any claim that there… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) July 15, 2020
The only real question then is about the benefit of winning a supermajority as opposed to a simple majority. As we know, the Scottish National Party has had a simple majority since May 2011 and a minority government supported by the Scottish Greens since 2016. In the main, this has been a success for the independence cause. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have shown themselves to be more than capable leaders, and Scotland has benefited as a result. But other than securing the 2014 referendum, the march to independence has been slow. There is good reason to say that the ‘gradualist’ approach advocated by many in the SNP has been somewhat less than assertive, it has been unnecessarily bogged down by the politics of Westminster, and has been paralysed in the endless game of mitigation – wherein the Scottish government has been tied down in the constant work of putting out the fires lit by the British government.
A simple majority in Edinburgh compounds this problem. Not only is the Scottish government under relentless attack from London, it has to defend Scotland’s interests against these attacks while also defending itself from the bitter assaults of British nationalists coming from across the floor of the Scottish parliament. Having a supermajority, with both a pro-independence government and a pro-independence opposition, ends this. With the union’s pincer grip broken, a Scottish parliament – representative of the whole of the independence movement – is free to concentrate its efforts on the struggle against London rule without the annoyance of having to continually respond to politicians from parties which represent people who do not want representation.
Having a pro-independence supermajority in Holyrood also presents the British government with an entirely new problem. A Scottish parliament with a simple majority cannot, in any meaningful sense, be said to speak for the settled will of Scotland. Moves towards independence – towards another referendum or a declaration of independence – will always be hampered because of a powerful unionist opposition, because of the lack of democratic consent this opposition implies, and because of the absence of moral authority this situation creates. Any parliament wherein upward of 70 percent of its seats are held by elected representatives in favour of Scottish independence is immediately and definitively absolved of these objections. For the first time in the modern history of Scotland, the British government in London would be faced with a Scottish parliament that represents the settled and sovereign will of the Scottish people, with a Scottish government speaking with the democratic consent of the overwhelming majority of its parliamentarians, and a Scottish government with the clear and unambiguous moral authority this new reality confers on it.
BUT HOW CAN IT BE DONE? One objection to this plan is that there is more than one pro-independence party, and that if the regional list vote is split between them in the election the unionists will benefit and we will ultimately lose seats. This is a valid concern, but one which is easily addressed. We adopt a policy of standing only one pro-independence party in regions where the SNP and the Scottish Greens are not likely to win seats. This way we ensure two things: 1. That we maximise the number of pro-independence seats, and 2. that we guarantee that the best candidates from these parties are elected to the Scottish parliament.
Yet, as we have seen even in the headlines of The National, this idea is being touted as a move to entice independence supporters to ‘vote against the SNP.’ In a limited sense this is true, this strategy would in all likelihood deprive the SNP – as a single pro-independence party – of an overall majority. But this was also the result of the 2016 election, and still the SNP survived with the assistance of the Green Party. An overall majority for the SNP really depends on the unique conditions of the 2011 election being repeated – see The 2011 Myth, and to think that this is at all possible in 2021 is to ignore the real changed that have transformed the Scottish political landscape in the decade since. Again, however, this is a mere problem of perception. The SNP is not the independence movement and neither is it representative of the politics of the whole independence movement. Albeit the largest pro-independence party, the SNP is only one voice of the cause – and not the cause itself. Voting for the SNP in the constituency vote and for another pro-independence party in the regional list vote is not ‘voting against the SNP,’ it is voting for independence.
So, again, what can this achieve? The SNP is depending on a narrative – the 2011 myth – that says the only strategy that has worked in the past is the one followed in the 2011 election. This is true, but only insofar as we are only talking about Scotland. So long as we are only talking about the Scottish parliament – a parliament that has only existed for twenty-one years, this is true. But two decades of strategic experimentation in the history of international politics is hardly much to write home about. We don’t even need to look outside the United Kingdom for examples of other parliamentary strategies that work in similar circumstances, and we don’t even need to go back much more than a century. Something very similar to what is happening now in Scotland was happening in Ireland in 1918 and 1919.
When the first Dáil met in 1919 the names of all those elected to it were called out. When an absent member's name… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Crimes of Britain (@crimesofbrits) January 21, 2019
In December 1918, following the end of World War I, the United Kingdom – which then included the whole of the island of Ireland – held a general election in which Éamon de Valera, a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, led Sinn Féin to electoral victory. Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 103 constituencies – a supermajority – and on this result he refused to return MPs to Westminster. Instead, he convened an Irish parliament – An Chéad Dáil Éireann – at the Mansion House in Dublin. Even with most of its Republican deputies in prison – and mostly without charge – on 21 January 1919, the first day of the new parliament, Dáil Éireann issued a declaration of independence and proclaimed – or reasserted – the statehood of Ireland as the Irish Republic. Naturally, the British government refused to accept the democratic will of the Irish people, and so began a tumultuous journey to a treaty with England that saw 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties become a Free State almost three years later in December 1922. In 1937, without a peep from the British government, Éamon de Valera – now the leader of Fianna Fáil – presented a new Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) to the Dáil which was put to the people in a referendum on 1 July 1937. Ireland accepted the new Constitution, the Free State was dissolved, and Ireland was at last a free and independent nation.
Supermajorities achieve a great deal. Having one in the Scottish parliament presents Britain with a political reality it cannot deny without seriously undermining and contradicting its claim – and it is only a claim – of being a free and democratic state. It returns to the Scottish nation an uncontradictable assertion of its sovereignty and furnishes our parliament with the moral authority to either proclaim its independence or to call – on its own authority – a referendum on the question of independence. This cannot be achieved by a Scottish government with a simple majority in a devolved – qua British – parliament. Soon we will have the opportunity to secure a pro-independence supermajority in Holyrood, but – as ever – whether or not we seize this chance is up to the independence movement. This is the case, and these are the facts.
Centenary Commemoration of the First Dáil