openDemocracyUK: Opinion

This was Scotland’s most boring election, and its most important

And for those Scottish voters who have previously only flirted with independence, England’s results will strengthen the idea

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
7 May 2021, 11.00am
This time next week, Nicola Sturgeon will still be Scottish first minister
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It was mostly dreich in Scotland yesterday, and everything felt familiar.

We've had 13 elections and referendums in the past decade, and the results have become as routine as the short walk to the polling station. There will be another SNP victory. Support for independence continues to rise. The Union is still in crisis.

Mid-afternoon, as polling stations got busier, the drizzle became hail and rattled roofs across Edinburgh. This wasn’t just another day in May. This time was different.

Yesterday saw the most boring election in the history of the Scottish parliament, and yet, at the same time, the most important.

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There were some vivid moments. I’ll relish the memory of Green co-leader Patrick Harvie rounding on Tory Douglas Ross over his history of persecuting Scottish Travellers. It was extraordinary watching party leaders embrace radical ideas, like a basic income, as the pandemic stretched the bounds of reality. And it was satisfying seeing Nicola Sturgeon yesterday square up to Britain First.

But it was boring because no one really expects an upset. Sturgeon will still be first minister next week, and there will almost certainly still be a majority of MSPs from the pro-independence SNP and Greens. But when the expected does happen it will still be an extraordinary moment.

In two years, there will be people old enough to vote in Scotland who have only ever known SNP governments at Holyrood

Not because the SNP winning a fourth term in office will, in itself, be an amazing feat. No other social democratic party in Europe has had such consistent success of late. In two years, there will be people old enough to vote in Scotland who have only ever known SNP governments at Holyrood. We’ve grown used to that, we’ve watched it happen.

But rather, because a significant majority of voters will believe there is a mandate for a referendum on independence and that means confrontation is coming.

The results won’t be clear until Saturday evening though, and so in the meantime, our eyes flicker to results in England: first the Hartlepool by-election, where my main thoughts are of Craig, with whom I spent a few hours in the town before the 2019 election.

Sitting in a shop doorway as the cold night set in, the former fisherman told me how he lost his job when he had to care for his dying mum, and then his home, because Universal Credit didn’t cover the rent. Then he lost his legs, because sleeping rough gave him soars which got infected, leading to amputation. In 2019, Craig was following the election closely, desperate to see the back of the Conservatives and their social security system. Did he vote this time? I suspect not.

During my time with Craig, I also met two teenage boys who he told me regularly ‘torture’ him, and who swung by on their bikes to menace him. “We clean filth like that off the streets,” they told me as I stood between them and their victim. Using bigoted terms for homeless, Black and British Asian people, they said: “It’s because of people like him that Hartlepool is a shit-hole”.

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In the 2010 general election, the fascist British National Party and UKIP got 12.2% between them in Hartlepool. By 2015, Nigel Farage’s party had mopped up the far-Right vote, coming second in the seat with 28% as Labour support fell 7%. But in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour put the vote up by 17%, only for it to fall back by 15% in 2019, as the Brexit party, the new outpost of Faragism got 26%.

In this by-election, as in local elections whose results are flickering in from across England, one thing is clear: Boris Johnson has won over the far-Right vote. Whoever it is that taught those teenagers that their problems are the fault of people with less power than them, who voted BNP in 2010: it seems those people wanted to congratulate the prime minister.

If, as it seems, many people voted Tory for the first time yesterday, the results that have emerged so far across England show that there is an electoral dynamism on the Left as well as the Right. In one ward in South Tyneside, the Green Party vote was up by 44%, taking the seat, despite previously having been nowhere. In Stockport, it gained a seat by growing its vote from 7% to 48%. Many people are looking for change, and see Labour leader Keir Starmer as more of the same.

But the overwhelming sense for observers in Scotland is that England’s lurch to the Right isn’t just a temporary affair. And many who have flirted with the idea of independence will be getting more serious as they flick through the results this morning.

And meanwhile, keeping an eye on all of this, too, are the people of Wales. As Cardiff University professor Richard Wyn Jones pointed out in openDemocracy’s live discussion last night, next year, Labour will have won every major election in the country for a century. And we can be sure that they have won again this time. As Scotland, England and Northern Ireland grapple over their futures, the Welsh are watching, and waiting, and wondering how to respond.

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