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  1. Analysis
20 May, 2022

Have local elections shifted Scotland’s political landscape closer towards independence?

The 2022 council elections saw the SNP maintain its strong position in Scotland's political map, but does this mean another independence referendum is coming?

By Ruth Strachan

Following the UK’s 2022 council elections, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the SNP that she leads retained their strong position in the country. While the situation may appear very similar to that before the elections, a closer look shows a granular, but perhaps significant shift, with losses for the Conservative Party translating to wins for the Labour Party, and the Greens making significant gains in major cities.

Do these results mean that the SNP is marching towards another independence referendum? Is the lingering outrage over Boris Johnson’s conduct responsible for the shift from the Conservatives to Labour, or is Labour perceived to be better positioned to tackle the cost of living crisis? And perhaps most intriguingly of all, does the rise of the Greens mean that climate change is becoming a major topic in Scotland, to one day rival independence, or were the votes in this direction simply a protest against the ‘big three’?

SNP still leading Scotland

With more than 1,200 councillors elected across Scotland’s 32 councils, the SNP remains the country’s leading party – increasing its number of councillors by 22 to 453 – after 15 years in power in the Scottish Parliament. The party also took control of Dundee, which, perhaps surprisingly, is the only council in Scotland where the SNP holds an overall majority. (The ‘three-party’ make-up of Scotland’s political map means that all but two councils are under no overall control or ruled by independents.)

John Alexander of the SNP, who is also the city council leader for Dundee, says: “The SNP is continually seeing its vote increase and hold up in spite of what opposition parties throw at us. That shows that the people of Scotland value what the SNP has delivered and is intending to deliver.”

The lingering issue regarding the SNP’s enduring hold on power in Scotland, however, is how much closer the country is to the independence that the party has at the centre of everything it does. When asked if he believes the country has moved nearer to separation from the UK as a result of these elections, Alexander responds: “Absolutely.”

Despite offering the caveat that “local elections don’t tell you anything about the position of unionism”, John Curtice, political scientist and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, says: “The fact that the Labour Party has managed to [overtake] the Conservatives means that the Conservatives’ position as the principal political voice of unionism north of the border is no longer unchallenged. That fracturing of the unionist movement north of the border is accentuated.”

Labour rising as Tories fall

The Scottish Conservatives lost 63 councillors in the election, while Labour gained 20, overtaking the Tories as the second-largest party in Scotland by this measure.

Scottish Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government Miles Briggs says: “The local election results were disappointing, but they are the kind of losses that we were expecting given the difficult backdrop for Conservatives across the UK.”

Briggs adds that these results were in some ways a protest from voters over the ‘partygate’ scandal that had engulfed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although he does highlight that this was still The Conservative Party‘s second best ever result in Scottish local elections by votes cast.

Indeed, all of the politicians spoken to for this article agreed that the scandal surrounding Johnson’s breaking of Covid lockdown rules was a crucial factor in the election, with Alexander saying: “I think in many ways a person that has advanced independence significantly has been Boris Johnson.”

Yet the Deputy Leader for Scottish Labour, Jackie Baillie, believes their election wins were motivated by more than unionism or partygate. “The single most important issue on the doorstep was in fact the cost of living crisis,” she says. “It trumps everything else. Nobody raised any other issue other than partygate with me.” 

Baillie adds that independence was not an important or motivating factor in these local elections, but says that the SNP has failed to adequately handle the most important day-to-day issues affecting the country because it is too focused on winning a mandate for another independence referendum.

Is the SNP’s independence obsession causing neglect elsewhere?

Baillie is highly critical of the SNP’s focus, saying: “The cost of living crisis has not been dealt with appropriately by either [Holyrood or Westminster]. The level of assistance given to Scotland was tiny. People believe, given what we have been through with Brexit and with the Covid-19 pandemic, that other issues are the priority, not the constitution.”

When asked whether he believes the SNP has neglected other issues in pursuit of independence, Alexander responds: “The SNP has demonstrated its commitment and focus on social issues – from the doubling of the Scottish Child Payment to multimillion pound funding to mitigate Tory policies such as the bedroom tax, from the extension of free school meals to increasing the school clothing grant, from lifeline funding to support for those affected by the cost of living crisis.”

Whether the motive for voting SNP was independence or the party’s handling of social issues, or a combination of the two, the Scottish public placed considerable trust in the SNP councillors. However, the party did suffer losses to the Green Party in its biggest cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Is Scotland turning a deeper shade of green?

“The Green tail did, to some degree, wag the SNP dog a bit,” says Curtice of the University of Strathclyde. “Certainly, where the Greens did best it was the SNP that lost out. The Greens have certainly not suffered from the decision to go into coalition with the SNP and it may have helped to strengthen the party’s credibility in the eyes of some of pro-independence supporters.”

Curtice explains that the Green Party is now fulfilling the role of the ‘alternative’ when it comes to typical SNP voters looking for a second option.

Yet despite Greens taking seats from the SNP in the local elections, Alexander welcomes the challenge and highlights that parties’ interests cross over.

“The net-zero transition is a key focus in the SNP manifesto,” he says. “Nicola Sturgeon has given credit to the Greens on a few policies that have come forward. The Green Party is constructively critical on many issues. I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think in many senses it is helpful to have an outside perspective. I don’t think we should see that as a negative. I wish that was every political party’s approach.”

Baillie is optimistic that a vote for the Greens could indicate that some voters are tired of the SNP but not quite ready to return to Labour. However, with the Green Party falling on the side of pro-independence and Labour clarifying its stance as pro-union, there is a fundamental hurdle still to be overcome when it comes to swaying Green voters to Labour.

Regardless of the constitutional question, the rise of the Greens shows that climate change issues are resonating in Scotland, and despite the Conservative Party’s losses, Briggs argues that the SNP, Labour and even the Greens are failing to tackle climate change issues in a productive way.

“We are the only party standing for the jobs and economy of the north-east of Scotland by calling for a fair transition away from oil and gas, instead of the knee-jerk, counterproductive shutdown favoured by the SNP, the Greens and Labour,” he says. “We understand that domestically produced oil and gas is more environmentally friendly than imported fuel and we will continue to push for a truly just transition that delivers for Scots in the north-east and across the country.”

When will there be any movement on Scotland’s independence?

Even with a number of pressing issues to contend with – including the cost of living crisis, NHS funding, climate change and the lingering impacts of both Covid-19 and Brexit – hundreds of Scottish voters showed how important independence was to them when they took to the streets of Glasgow on 14 May to demand another referendum.

With feelings on the topic still strong in the country – the 2014 referendum saw 55% of voters opt to remain in the union and 45% vote against – what now for the SNP’s core pursuit? “I would anticipate that around the end of June we are going to see, at least, the first of the white papers that we have been promised on the case for independence,” says Curtice. “Whether or not the government is going to start the process of trying to put forward the bill, I am not sure.”

He goes on to explain that between now and the next general election in the UK, which is due to be held no later than January 2025, Holyrood and Westminster will essentially be held in a game of chicken over a second referendum.

Baillie is more sceptical about the SNP’s route forward. “The interesting debate is whether the SNP actually does want a referendum or not, because all of the recent polling suggests that it wouldn’t win; people are saying there are other more important things,” she says.

The opinion polls on Scottish independence did see a record-high pro-independence result of 58% in 2020. However, since then the pro-union side has generally held a very slim majority. In April 2022, polls showed the ‘no’ to independence vote sitting at 53%, with ‘yes’ at 47%.

Baillie believes that a lot of the motivators that drive Scottish voters towards independence can be better addressed by a majority Labour government in both Westminster and Holyrood. “A lot of people want independence because of what they think it can deliver, such as a better society and an end to child poverty,” she says. “It is our job as the Labour Party in Scotland to meet those arguments really strongly.”

Baillie also highlights Labour’s history as the father (or mother) of championing devolution for Scotland, but Curtice does not believe that this point holds much merit in Scotland in 2022.

“The Labour Party has got [former prime minister] Gordon Brown beavering away, coming up with yet another plan for introducing yet more devolution,” he says. “The reason why there is nearly 50% support for independence – and support for independence is higher now than it was back in 2014 – is Brexit. It is difficult to see how you can come up with a form of more devolution that is going to get Scotland back into the EU single market.”

Indeed, conversation about another independence referendum is refusing to die down, particularly within the ranks of the SNP. When finishing the interview with Alexander, Investment Monitor asked if there was anything else he would like to cover before concluding. Alexander asked: “Would you like the date for the next referendum? If only I knew, but I will no doubt be in contact once I am installed formally as the leader of the council.”

Curtice, who is generally not swept up by any march towards independence, says: “These elections don’t tell you a great deal about nationalist strength, but they will tell you they are on the up. They are up by a modest amount on what was a relatively low baseline.”

Yet, the SNP holding power in Scotland for more than 15 years does show that the party’s popularity is holding firm, as is the desire for independence that it stands for. The events of the past month may not have accelerated the country much further towards a break from the union, but the demands for another referendum on the topic have grown a tiny bit louder.

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