Glasgow, Scotland – Talk of Scotland’s parliamentary election is not about whether the governing party will win, but by how much.
The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has led the Scottish Parliament since 2007 and appears on course to secure an unprecedented fourth term on May 6, when Scots go to the polls to elect 129 parliamentarians to the 22-year-old devolved institution.
“The constitutional issue still seems to be at the heart of Scottish politics,” Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour Party press adviser, told Al Jazeera, highlighting the polarising political debate that has long pitted supporters of Scottish independence against those who believe in Scotland’s centuries-old place within the United Kingdom’s union of nations.
“But [there is] also a general support for the [SNP] Scottish Government – and the opposition’s criticisms don’t really seem to be cutting through on things like health and education.”
With opinion polls predicting a comfortable SNP victory, the party’s two nearest rivals, the Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives – both pro-union – have all but given up hope of topping the ballot.
Instead, they are focusing their campaign energies on trying to deprive the SNP of securing an outright majority.
SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has been at the helm of her party and the Scottish Government for seven years, has put recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and holding another independence referendum front and centre of her agenda.
SNP eyes historic second majority
Scotland voted against independence by 55 to 45 per cent in 2014, but recent surveys have suggested that Scottish statehood is supported by up to half of the nation’s electorate, who, unlike voters in England, also decisively opted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 EU membership referendum.
In its 2021 manifesto, the SNP announced that it wanted to give “people in Scotland the right to choose our own future in an independence referendum … once the immediate COVID crisis has passed”.
A parliamentary majority would enable the SNP to win easily a vote in the Edinburgh-based parliament on holding a second independence poll.
Because of the institution’s mixed electoral system, this has only ever been achieved once before – in 2011.
Then, the SNP’s landslide 69-seat victory led to claims that it had hacked the system, but 10 years on, another majority remains within its grasp.
Yet, the recent foundation of the Alba Party, led by former SNP leader and one-time First Minister Alex Salmond, has complicated these efforts.
Alba has its sights set on adding to pro-independence numbers by achieving a so-called “supermajority” of independence-supporting parliamentarians.
Once firm friends and allies, Sturgeon and Salmond’s relationship irretrievably broke down after Salmond was accused of sexually assaulting several women.
He was acquitted by an Edinburgh court last year, but Sturgeon has distanced herself from her former mentor’s fledgeling political movement.
Despite some defections from Sturgeon’s party to Salmond’s, most SNP members and politicians have been keen to dissociate themselves from the Alba Party which, according to opinion polls, could pick up a seat or two, thereby depriving the SNP of the majority it seeks.
“I completely contest this [notion] of a ‘supermajority’ – it’s a made-up word,” said Suzanne McLaughlin, who is running as an SNP candidate in the regional list part of the parliamentary ballot.
Currently, the SNP, with 61 seats, and the Scottish Green Party, with five, form a pro-independence majority in Edinburgh.
McLaughlin told Al Jazeera that an outright majority for her party or, at the least a similar working majority with the Greens, would legitimise the SNP’s demands for a second vote on Scottish independence.
Sturgeon-Johnson showdown looms
Standing in the way of SNP’s aspirations, however, is Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has repeatedly refused to sanction another referendum.
While the Scottish Parliament has control over much of Scotland’s domestic agenda, the constitution remains the reserve of the UK government in London.
A political showdown between the two bitterly-opposed premiers, the left-of-centre Sturgeon and the right-wing Conservative Party leader, looks set to take place after the vote – the sixth such election in Scotland since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999.
“They’ve had their referendum, and they’re not having another,” Iain McGill, who has stood several times for the Scottish Conservative Party, told Al Jazeera.
“The SNP must be denied the majority they are seeking.”
McGill argued that the electoral strength of the SNP, which also emerged as Scotland’s largest party in the 2019 general election, was because it was the only serious choice for pro-independence voters.
Pro-union voters, he said, are split between Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, while the SNP’s only rivals are the Scottish Greens.
That said, with Johnson currently engulfed by accusations of corruption and support for Scottish independence often matching or exceeding support for the Union, the SNP remains on track to win a fresh mandate.
“If the [pro-independence] numbers are there then the SNP is entitled to seek a referendum,” said the Scottish Labour Party’s Pia.