If the EU parliamentary election results are anything to go by, the UK’s Brexit divisions are not going to heal any time soon. This should be unsurprising given that, five years on from Scotland’s independence referendum, the Scottish electorate remains firmly divided on its future within the UK.
Last Thursday, 45 per cent of Scottish voters backed pro-independence parties – the SNP and the Scottish Greens – whereas the unionist parties tallied 55 per cent, mirroring 2014’s referendum result. After more than a decade in government in Holyrood, the SNP soared to 38 per cent, polling 23 points ahead of their nearest rivals and earning more votes than the Scottish Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour combined.
Unionists like Ruth Davidson, who returned from maternity leave to campaign for the Tories, had hoped that a backlash against Sturgeon’s newly announced plans to hold another Scottish Independence referendum by 2021 would have driven voters away from the SNP. This strategy has worked before. In the last general election, the SNP lost a third of its seats in Westminster after unveiling similar plans following the results of the Brexit referendum.
Despite the fact that 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain in 2016, many felt Sturgeon was looking for any excuse to rush into another referendum. But Brexit has become more of an embarrassment and tensions have escalated. Voices that once suggested Sturgeon was simply using Brexit to shoot for independence have quietened.
Even in places that Davidson’s Tories won big in 2017’s general election, like Stirling and Aberdeenshire, the SNP stormed to victory last Thursday. In Dumfries and Galloway – a constituency in the heart of the Scottish Tories’ borders stronghold which was won by 11 per cent two years ago – Sturgeon’s party won decisively.
So why are the SNP being rewarded?
The first reason is clear: consistency. Love her or loathe her, everyone knows what Sturgeon stands for: she rejects Brexit and wants Scottish independence. Sturgeon’s unashamed rejection of Brexit was not without risk. Almost 1m Scots voted to Leave the EU, including 36 per cent of SNP supporters and 31 per cent of voters who voted Yes to Scottish independence in 2014. The Brexit Party’s second place finish in these elections proves that Scotland still has a significant pro-Brexit minority.
Like the SNP, 36 per cent of Labour voters also voted Leave in 2016. But whereas Labour’s endless fence-sitting and flip-flopping has seen the party’s vote collapse, Sturgeon has reaped the benefits of picking a side.
As the results rolled in on Sunday night, SNP politicians labelled the victory a “rejection” of Brexit and yet another indication that Scotland is on a “different path” to the rest of the UK. Faced with the SNP’s best ever performance in an EU election, who could blame even 2014’s most ardent unionists for thinking that perhaps this could be true?
It is arguable that the United Kingdom that Scotland voted to be a part of in 2014 no longer exists. The once frequent assertions by unionist campaign Better Together that the only way to protect Scotland’s EU membership was to reject independence gave Sturgeon leverage to cast herself as a trusted voice on Brexit, while highlighting the benefits of an independent Scotland within the EU.
Last night’s results show that the SNP have managed to momentarily position Brexit as the central issue in Scottish politics. With a huge amount of help from Labour and the Tories, Sturgeon is succeeding in equating unionism with Brexit. The union is now tarred with the Brexit brush, and Scotland is still opposed to leaving the EU. Who would bet against Sturgeon’s chances from here?
Following the 2017 election result, when Davidson revived the Tories in Scotland, she was ushered into a No 10 cabinet meeting like a hero while journalists shouted “are you a Kingmaker, Ruth?” For Sturgeon, once described by the Daily Mail as “the most dangerous woman in Britain” – a label she later quipped she “owed the Mail bigtime” for – this must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
But now the tables have turned. Boris Johnson – who Davidson is known to dislike and reportedly barred from attending this year’s Scottish Tory conference – looks set to enter No.10. If not him, it’ll be another hard Brexiteer who will be similarly rejected by a majority of Scottish voters. Far more so than in 2014, Sturgeon’s main opposition is fractured and vulnerable.
Looking towards indyref2, which now seems inevitable, Sturgeon has weathered the storm and come out stronger. If forced to choose between membership of the UK or the EU, this latest election result hints that Scotland picking the former is now far from certain.
After campaigning on the slogan “Send Nicola Sturgeon a message: no more referendums”, Scottish voters sent Ruth Davidson the clearest message this time. Even unionists like her must admit that we are now closer to Scottish independence than we ever have been. Because after last night’s results, Sturgeon will be thinking one thing: game on.
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