Nationalist stagnation in Holyrood means Sturgeon and her followers will have to find another path to partition.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s what perhaps sums up the electoral stalemate between unionists and separatists in the Scottish Parliament after the elections last Thursday. As I watched the reactions unfold across unionist Twitter from my usual hopeful, helpless hole in west London, I’d be lying if I said every hope went undashed. Unionist sage Henry Hill confesses to premature aging as a result of the twists, turns and reels of the results count.
For the first time we saw tactical voting making considerable inroads into previously ludicrous Nationalist majorities, but without the impact of unseating any Nationalists or saving any pro-UK MSPs. Anas Sarwar may have danced some life back into Scottish Labour with his energising antics in uptown Livingston, west Lothian, but overall his performance did little to deliver Labour from its current (nationwide) funk. And among some ordinary unionists on Twitter (to the extent that they are ordinary) dismay appeared to give way to despair.
And yet the old Dickensianism applies as much to their Nationalist nemeses. It was Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser who — re-elected on the list but gallantly suppressing his own disappointment at not winning a constituency seat (no, I don’t understand) — first declared it outright:
The Nationalists had been denied their prized majority. Yes, they may have a ‘supermajority’ in alliance with the currently separatist Greens but, as with what Elvis Costello dubbed ‘the New World Odour’ for smelling exactly like the old one, this is nothing new (a ‘pooper-majority’?)
It may look like searching for crumbs of comfort, but it isn’t. The second sentence of Fraser’s tweet is half-hearted political mischief-making and he knows it; the disappointment among Nats isn’t likely to provoke serious doubts about Sturgeon’s political ability. But the first is spot on. The Sturgeonista grievance mill couldn’t have had more grist in the past half-decade if Mel Gibson had made a Braveheart sequel in which the ghost of William Wallace anoints ‘Oor Nicola’ his one true heir after King Boris covid-coughs on a Union Jack fomite and posts it first-class to Bute House (note Fraser didn’t even feel the need to include the divisive impact of the pandemic). Yet Sturgeon has one seat to show for it. And as Andrew Neil brilliantly outlines here, her ‘see you in court’ strategy on a second Scexit referendum is very likely another dead-end.
Meanwhile, some of that ‘best of times’ side of the equation for unionism includes the Scottish Conservatives’ best-ever vote count in a Scottish parliamentary election, as well as the overall vote count for pro-British parties stacking (once again) higher than for partitionist ones.
It matters because the maintenance of the Union is perhaps the ultimate litmus test for Brexit Britain. There is — effectively — no Britain without Scotland, and the term ‘United Kingdom’ attached to whatever was left would be a sad joke. It would be the cautionary tale the most rabid Remoaners on both sides of the Channel have craved: cling to nurse, or get decapitated. And much like the vengeful quartering of Wallace in London in 1305, the ultimate prize would be Britain’s canny heid welcomed trophy-like to Brussels pour encourager les autres.
The failure of the Nationalists to capitalise on ‘England’s difficulty’ since 2016 — predicted and covered throughout by Hill — has now been formalised. No doubt Brexit will continue to colour separatist opinion and if there ever is a second referendum a youth vote who missed out on a say in 2014 (and 2016) and denied that make-or-break place on the Erasmus scheme would contribute to Leave support. But that hypothetical referendum will not be a direct result of these elections — the first since the Brexit vote — and so The Good Ship Brexit Britain sails on, battered and buffeted by assaults and mutinies, but not yet sunk.