Two weeks before the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, Fraser Mitchell, partner at Shoosmiths sat down with political analyst, strategist, and commentator, Andy Maciver to discuss his views the current state of Scottish politics, the economy in the face of COVID, Brexit and the growing support for independence as well as key issues in the context of Scotland’s future.
We have captured the key takeaways from the discussion below:
Andy Maciver: AM
Fraser Mitchell: FM
1. Current political position – 6 May
- AM thinks SNP will get somewhere around 60 seats, it will be very close and may get a majority by 1 seat. It is a proportional representation (PR) system, so in effect it is ‘rigged’ for a coalition outcome, so it is supposed to be extremely hard, but AM believes they may just get a majority.
- The SNP have been in government for 14 years and it will likely be 19 years – AM says this outcome is a ‘global outlier’
- FM asks AM what the biggest issue of the election will be – Covid response or a new referendum. AM says it is a more independence driven election than ever before and they were not necessarily talking about it to the same degree in 2011. In 2016 after a fresh referendum the SNP manifesto was vague; but now people know more of what it is about so higher on the agenda – there are TV debates etc. Covid drives this in a way – people think Nicola Sturgeon has done a good job of managing the crisis – even some unionists say so. Looking at the polls approval ratings of both are rising together.
- FM asks what is the focus of the other parties (Conservatives, Labour). AM says what is unusual is nobody else is trying to win! Rather they are campaigning to stop a majority and that is what success looks like to the Scottish Tory party. But there is only one candidate for First Minister. We are choosing a constitutional future rather than leaders – there are two votes – regional and constitutional. Tories are campaigning for unionist party vote. Labour is trying to avoid the question as they don’t have a place in a polarised debate – this issue is being side-lined by them. Tories and Labour would be happy with a result of losing only a few seats.
- FM asks AM what the impact has been since Douglas Ross started leading the Tory Party instead of Ruth Davidson – as they had a chance in 2016. AM says Ruth was popular – she had a different image and she was an image of unionism – she was in the right place at the right time. But it was far more to do with the constitutional situation as opposed to her as a person. It has changed a bit as Douglas Ross has become leader. Stopping a second referendum is only popular among diehards which is an issue Tories have. There has been Brexit since then. AM thinks popularity will come down now. He thinks Labour will increase. A change in leadership will help but Kier Starmer will start to increase popularity and Anas Sarwar. They have a more credible position and sees Labour being the natural second largest party.
- On LibDems, AM thinks they have not been able to recover since 2011 – it is difficult to see them coming back in because positions are already occupied.
- Took FPP system and lumped it into PR system of Holyrood which presents difficulty. A similar issue happens in Canada where you have federal parties and provincial parties.
- FM asks what role the nationalist Alba Party will have. AM says take personalities out of it – what has happened is exactly what you would expect. AM compares with Scandinavian systems – you get a large centre left and centre right with parties occupying space around them. It is normal for smaller parties to be a part of the system – but we’re still early in the process to see how successful but polling around 3-7%. 6-7% may get a seat. Will Alex Salmond become an SNP? Probably yes. He retains a lot of support in the North East and this is where their success could start. Who will they hurt? It might cost the unionist party and the greens. In the South if they win a seat it could stop an SNP majority. In practice he probably has as much chance of this than he has of a majority.
- FM asks where does this leave the greens? AM says they are in the same bracket as Alba in that they aren’t standing everywhere. Both have very different positions, particularly on issues such as transgender rights, but AM says he doesn’t think the electorate will analyse their non-campaigning issues to the same degree.
2. Post-election period – Issues new administration might have to deal with
- FM asks, what will the reaction be of the UK Government to another independence referendum? AM says they will get the request so it will happen later in the year. He would split the reaction into three between Scotland Office, Cabinet Office and Downing Street. Michael Gove is likely to be influential in this. The position is ‘no’ as it is once in a generation, and this is the public position – the core vote needs to be energised by it. Position two is recognition of democratic wish – is this the example we want to set to the world? 2011 position. Third position is have a referendum and we will use time between 2023/24 to negotiate a settlement and use it before the vote, so people know exactly what they vote for – which will be difficult. AM thinks there will be a second referendum.
- FM asks if there is a ‘no’ response from UK Government what will happen? AM says if they say ‘no’ it will go back to nationalists and Sturgeon will need to get through that issue. There may be some international pressure. LibDems and Labour may support having to have a referendum. There may be an issue with Spain recognising it if the movement is successful. The pressure from other legitimate sources will help and what Sturgeon is hoping for.
- Natural unionist leader this time would be Tories, unlike last time, where it was Labour’s Alistair Darling. Each party may create its own campaign but there may be a unified campaign led by grassroots community or famous figure, not infected by party politics.
- Politics is all about ‘facts’ but there is no fact around whether if Scotland can join the EU but they don’t. So people just have to vote for who is the most believable.
- AM says nationalists are young and unionists are older. Females are now breaking ‘Yes’ – showing females are more risk-adverse. ABC1 social class is now breaking for ‘Yes’ also.
- Federalism is the middle option AM says. Behind the scenes in 2012 Alex Salmond asked David Cameron about DevoMax, saying he would be happy if it would have been on there. Mistake to ask and mistake for David Cameron not to put it on the ballot. Nobody is talking about the middle option apart from Kier Starmer.
3. Longer term – issues around economy and political landscape
- Assuming an independence vote wins, AM says the economic policy is very much dependent on who is in charge ideologically. People may take short term pain for long term gain.
- FM asks quick fire questions to AM – by 2026 do you think Scotland will be an independent country? AM says ‘No’.
- FM asks will there be a deal with the rest of the UK? AM says there will be a deal as UK Government will learn lessons from Brexit.
- FM asks will Scotland be a member of the EU? AM says no, but it may be a member of the EU Free Trade Association.
- FM asks who is the First Minister – AM thinks Nicola Sturgeon
- FM asks who is the Prime Minister - AM says Kier Starmer.