The SNP victory – or SNP-Green victory – in the Holyrood election of 6 May 2021 was a mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
The fact that the SNP did not get an absolute majority of seats or an absolute majority of the popular vote is irrelevant.
The Holyrood voting system is designed to stop one party gaining an absolute majority of seats (and the SNP fell only seat short of that). And no one ever argued that the 1945 Labour government had no mandate because it failed to win 50% of the popular vote.
The elections held on 6 May also strengthened Sturgeon’s position in three other respects:
• Alex Salmond’s Alba Party tanked. This relieved Sturgeon of the pressure of the pro-independence ‘hardliners’ who want a second referendum tomorrow.
• The Tories beat Labour to remain the official Opposition in Holyrood. Hampered by the dead weight of Boris Johnson – so unpopular in Scotland that the Tories kept him out of their campaign – the Tories are the SNP’s desired opponents.
• On 6 May England again voted Tory. Or, given Labour’s losses, that is certainly the popular perception cultivated by the SNP, ever anxious to stress how "different" Scotland is from England.
In the short to medium term Sturgeon will not push for a second referendum. Her immediate focus will remain that of post-pandemic recovery. It would be a tactical mistake of the first order to do otherwise. And Sturgeon is not stupid.
But at some point in time the SNP will introduce legislation in Holyrood for a second referendum. The Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems will all oppose this, arguing that it is not the right time and a diversion from more pressing priorities. Then they will lose the vote.
The SNP will demand a Section 30 Order from Westminster, authorising a second referendum. The Tories will refuse. The SNP fight this through the courts, and lose.
You don’t need to be a High Court judge to understand the meaning of “reserved powers”. And calling a referendum is a reserved power.
What the SNP will do then – apart from, as usual, complain a lot, albeit with a lot more justification than usual – is unclear. It is probably unclear to the SNP itself. If the SNP has a game plan for what to do then, they are certainly keeping their cards close to their chest.
The SNP will not stage a Catalonia-style illegal referendum and issue a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Or there would need to be an astonishing about-turn for it to do so.
Although around a third of SNP voters voted "Leave" in 2016, the SNP is committed to independence in the EU. But the EU, and especially member states such as Spain and Italy, will not recognise a constitutionally illegal referendum and breakaway declaration of independence.
The more thoughtful sections of the pro-independence camp have also taken on board another aspect of the impact of Brexit: An independent-Scotland-in-the-EU and an England-not-in-the-EU would mean a hard border. And that would not be good.
Writing in the Sunday Herald, Iain Macwhirter now advocates “independence in UK”, an expression first coined by the late Labour First Minister Donald Dewar, which Macwhirter variously defines as “asymmetrical federalism” and “full fiscal autonomy”.
But this is really going round in circles. As Macwhirter himself writes, “independence in the UK” is pretty much what was proposed in the SNP’s “Independence White Paper” of 2013: The independence on offer in the 2014 referendum was a very modest form of independence.
The SNP are therefore confronted by two problems. What to do when the Tories say "No" to a second referendum? And what do they – or anyone else – actually mean by independence?
Insofar as the Scottish Labour left has developed – or is in the process of developing – an alternative position, it is the recently launched “Third Option Campaign” (TOC).
As the name indicates, TOC advocates a third option on the ballot paper in a second referendum. This has the backing of the Scottish TUC. Labour, argues TOC, should propose an amendment to this effect when a second referendum is debated at Holyrood.
But what that third option should be is unclear. And its rationale is rooted in a rampant “Morning Star” EU-phobia.
According to TOC, Scotland in Britain is subject to the dictates of EU neo-liberalism (in the form of the Tories’ Single Market Act). And an independent Scotland in the EU would be directly subject to EU neo-liberalism.
The "real issue" is therefore not (nominal) state independence but "real" sovereign power, unshackled by EU neo-liberalism.
Like the proverbial Japanese soldier lost in the jungle, TOC hasn’t noticed that the UK really has left the EU (save that whereas the Japanese soldier is still fighting the US, TOC is still at war with Germany).
Scottish Labour’s own policy is a mixture of prevarication, more devolution/federalism, and right-wing Unionism. According to the section “Our Approach to Democratic Renewal”, tucked away in the “National Recovery Plan” (but not part of the Plan itself) on which it fought the Holyrood election:
• Labour has “taken the initiative to establish a Constitutional Commission and we support a renegotiation of the Fiscal Framework.”
• Labour “supports further devolution of powers to Holyrood”, including employment law and borrowing powers, “an immigration system which works for all the nations of the UK”, and the creation of UK Councils of Ministers and of Parliaments and Assemblies “as a step towards a much more federal approach in the UK”.
• Labour is against a referendum in the next five years. And, although not included in “Our Approach to Democratic Renewal”, Labour is also opposed to Holyrood having the right to call a referendum without Westminster approval.
Under the autocratic control of Anas Sarwar, for whom the party is merely a vehicle for his own ego, Scottish Labour could easily degenerate into the Scottish equivalent of the old Northern Irish Labour Party: a rump Unionist party with an ever-dwindling core vote.
Most of the non-Labour Scottish left backs independence, hailing it as a blow against British imperialism (although in fact Scotland has historically been an integral part of the imperial centre of British imperialism) and a chance to implement radical socialist policies (despite minimal support for candidates who contest elections on the basis of those policies).
Large sections of the broad English left are soft on Sturgeon – yes, she is better than Starmer, but that is not the decisive criterion – and substantial sections of it also share the illusions about the "socialist potential" of an independent Scotland.
Apart from basic questions of principle, this position is also pragmatically problematic. Six Scottish Westminster constituencies are Tory-held. 53 are non-Tory-held. Removing all of them from the UK would massively add to the obstacles to the election of a Westminster Labour government.
Socialists should advocate a democratic federal republic in Britain within a democratic federal Europe. But this general stance immediately raises a number of questions:
• Like independence, or “independence in the UK”, devo max, a “much more federal approach”, or "real" sovereign power, just what exactly does this mean? Which powers would lie where?
• How would, or could, a federal Britain function when one of its constituent elements (i.e. England) dwarfs the other parts?
• How could a federal Britain not cut across working-class unity? The experience of devolution, exemplified by the current NHS pay dispute (involving different employers in the different nations), is that it has been at the expense of united class struggle.