“It’s the constitution, eejit”: Scotland and the agenda wars

Dr Michael Higgins

Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His six books so far include Media and Their Publics (2008) and Belligerent Broadcasting (2016, with Angela Smith). Michael is a former co-convenor of the PSA’s Media and Politics Group.

Email: michael.higgins@strath.ac.uk

Section 3: The Nations

Recent general elections in Scotland have turned on shifting configurations of the constitutional debate and national belonging. 2019 saw the tactical deployment of a variety of interpretations of constitutional dispute in Scotland, resulting in a battle of agendas. What emerged was a definitional contest that promises to reveal much on the extent of obligation between communicative salience with its implications for agenda and policy enactment.

The context of this arises from two separate referenda. The first was the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, which produced a majority to remain with the United Kingdom of 55/45 and saw the unionist Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, combine resources against the independence-supporting Green Party, Scottish National Party and Scottish Socialists. The implications of this result have extended beyond the retention of the United Kingdom to influence subsequent party fortunes. In particular, this “Better Together” coalition brought some measure of reputational damage for Labour, whose negatively framed association with the Conservatives lost them all but one of their parliamentary seats in 2015; a result repeated in 2019.

The second referendum was the 2016 Brexit vote, shared across the UK. The victory for the leave campaign had a UK-wide bearing on the election we see now, not least that the election was called amid claims of political impasse on the terms of departure. In regional terms, Scotland demurred from the UK norm on Brexit, and returned a 60/40 majority in favour of remaining with the EU.

Since Brexit, the SNP have therefore been relentless in associating the vote with their claimed right for Scotland to determine its own political future. Further, they have cited prospect of departure from the EU as the ‘material change’ needed for a repeat of the independence vote. (A *third* significant referendum, for those keeping count.)

In 2017, this strategy yielded less for the SNP than they might have liked, and they returned fewer 21 MPs, albeit from the high-water mark of 2015. However, in 2019 the SNP shifted the focus from independence as a virtue in its own right, to independence as a necessary mechanism to protect Scotland’s place within the EU. This representation of Brexit as contrary to the democratic will of the Scottish voters that can only be rectified by returning power from Westminster brought electoral success, winning 80% of seats in Scotland.

Contrarily, the Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigns emphasised the prospect of yet another independence referendum, citing the SNP’s myopic nationalism and neglect of their wider governmental responsibilities in the devolved parliament. In the UK-wide delivery of a Conservative victory, 2019 will be remembered as a sobering example of the rewards of sustaining an agenda around a simple slogan – to “get Brexit done” – and the perils of Labour’s refusal to articulate an equally straightforward response. In the Scottish context, the Conservatives found less success in meeting the threat of the SNP by denying their focus on Brexit and framing Scotland as a separate battle against further moves towards independence.

In separating issues around the devolved administration and election, the SNP were not assisted by the prominence of leader Nicola Sturgeon and her association with long-standing arguments for independence. Focussing on Sturgeon, much of the anti-independence party literature was expressed in highly personalised terms, such as the Conservative Party’s evocation of Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton in the repeated use of ‘Tell Her Again’. Sturgeon included, Scotland’s own hierarchy of political leaders participated in televised debates produced in Scotland by ITV and BBC. Driven by the Scottish leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the debates were dominated by the SNP’s medium-term goals of Scottish independence in a manner that hardened the focus on the individual personality and agency of Sturgeon.

While set to be portrayed as a single issue election in the UK, Scotland was a site of struggle in the determination of what this issue should be, with discursive dominance giving the power to interpret the priorities of opposing parties. From the SNP, salience was given to the future of Scotland in the EU. For the unionist parties, emphasis rested on the future protection of the union, opening space for criticism of the SNP’s domestic record in their devolved administration. In winning a UK landslide, the Conservatives are therefore accountable to deliver on a campaign centred on preventing a further referendum and protecting the union. In partial contrast, the SNP’s victory in Scotland alone provides them with them a rhetorical mandate rather than instrumental strength in averting an EU exit, which can only be delivered by a return of focus to independence. It was, and promises to be, all about the constitution.