In Scotland’s Swing Seats, Nationalists Are Selling Voters on Independence
Mired in the unpopular Brexit process, the Tories will have to convince voters that the union is worth it to keep hotly contested seats.
STIRLING, Scotland—The constituency of Stirling sprawls across central Scotland, stretching from the Trossachs National Park in the west to the village of Fallin, at the tip of the Firth of Forth, in the east. An old adage dating back to the 14th century and the Anglo-Scottish Wars, states: “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.”
In 2019, that may still be the case.
When the seat’s roughly 66,000 registered voters go to the polls in the United Kingdom’s general election on Dec. 12, they will face a blunt choice between two political futures: stick with Britain as it exits Europe, or embrace independence in order to salvage Scotland’s European Union membership. The divide between those choices sits on an electoral knife-edge. The Scottish National Party (SNP) needs a swing of less than 1 percent to win the constituency from the Conservatives. But the result here is far from certain: Despite Scotland’s deep-seated antipathy toward Brexit, a decisive surge in support of self-government hasn’t yet materialized.
The incumbent member of Parliament for Stirling is Stephen Kerr, a pro-Brexit Tory loyal to Britain’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson. Kerr’s chief opponent is the SNP’s Alyn Smith, a high-profile advocate of Scottish independence and staunch supporter of the EU. Stirling is the SNP’s top target seat in this election—just 148 votes divide Kerr, who was first elected in 2017, from his nationalist challenger. Smith is well placed to overturn that deficit. Across Scotland, the SNP is polling at 38 percent of the national vote, 10 points ahead of the Conservatives, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats trailing in third and fourth place, respectively.
The constituency is freighted with contemporary political meaning. In the 1980s, it was a Conservative stronghold, home to Scotland’s Secretary of State Michael Forsyth, an arch-Thatcherite and unionist. In the late 1990s, as the Tory vote in Scotland collapsed, it switched decisively to Labour and stayed there throughout the party’s long stretch in power, from 1997 to 2010, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Since then, it has become a key staging ground in the debate over Scotland’s constitutional status and a flash point in the increasingly bitter contest between Scottish nationalists and the Tories.
On a cold, clear afternoon in November, I joined a team of SNP activists as they canvassed the residents of Cowie, a small village not far from Stirling’s city center. Over the past decade, the SNP has thrived in low-income Scottish communities like this, where frustration with Britain’s political and economic status-quo runs deep. But during the last U.K. general election in 2017, the party retreated from its traditional emphasis on independence and suffered at the ballot box, losing 21 of its 56 Westminster seats.
Nationalist strategists don’t want to make that mistake again. “We’ll be campaigning on a second independence referendum,” one veteran activist, Gerry McLaughlin, told me as he darted from house to house, chatting to prospective voters and trying to identify the strongest clusters of SNP support. “But we’ll also be campaigning on the Conservative Party’s indifference to Scotland.”
Stirling voted by a 35-point margin against leaving the EU three and a half years ago, and anger over the Tory government’s determination to drive the Brexit project through is tangible here, as it is across much of Scotland, which voted as a whole to remain part of Europe in June 2016. But to some extent, Brexit is a proxy issue, grafted onto deeper class and constitutional fissures—including rising discontent with the U.K.’s heavily centralized political system and the recent awakening of English nationalist sentiment, which was at the heart of the campaign to leave the EU.
The Conservatives, who draw the bulk of their support from English voters, have been in power in Westminster since 2010, and yet they haven’t won a general election in Scotland since the 1950s. Moreover, the rigid diet of spending cuts and welfare reforms enacted by Conservative ministers in the years following the 2008 financial crisis have left areas like Cowie—one of several ex-mining towns on the outskirts of Stirling—struggling to cope with the human impacts of austerity, including increased homelessness and hunger.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has partially abandoned the restrictive fiscal policies of his two immediate Tory predecessors in No. 10 Downing St., Theresa May and David Cameron. At the start of the election campaign, he announced a fresh round of public investment in policing, health care, and infrastructure. Nonetheless, for the SNP, Johnson—a right-wing English Brexiteer with little grasp of Scottish political sensibilities—has been a gift.
In fact, senior nationalists see him as a major electoral asset in the run-up to the election on Dec. 12. “I’ve never heard him mentioned positively on the doorstep,” Smith—who is also, for now, a serving member of the European Parliament—told me when we met in a cafe on Stirling’s main street, after the canvassing session in Cowie had come to an end. “The perception is that he’s just not credible. There’s no question he’s an advantage for us.”
This was never going to be an easy election for the Scottish Conservatives—not least because the party is still reeling from the sudden departure of its leader, Ruth Davidson, in August. Young, media-savvy, openly gay, and politically shrewd, Davidson appealed to parts of the Scottish electorate that had long been off-limits for Tory politicians north of the border, where public opinion trends to the left. “Ruth Davidson mobilized the party around her personality,” Coree Brown Swan, a constitutional researcher at Edinburgh University, told me in early November. “You’d have very progressive, traditional Labour voters admitting that they quite liked her. Now you have Boris Johnson in charge, and he kind of ruffles Scottish feathers and is seen as a stereotypical English conservative.”
At the Scottish elections in 2016, she doubled the number of Conservative seats at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature in Edinburgh, from 15 to 31 and campaigned to remain in the EU in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. A year later, she added 12 new Scottish Westminster seats to the Tories’ previous, solitary total of one. But late this summer, barely a month after Johnson had been appointed prime minister on July 24, Davidson unexpectedly quit, citing both her discomfort with Brexit and the rising demands of family life. Her resignation seemed to signal the end of Scottish conservatism’s short-lived political renaissance—although she has recently hinted that she could make a surprise return to the frontline of British politics.
In Stirling, the Conservative candidate, Kerr, appears to be hoping to sidestep Scottish concerns about the state of the Conservative Party by focusing instead on a single, uncompromising political message: no to a second referendum on independence, under any circumstances, for the foreseeable future. “I want to be reelected to defend our Union,” he announced in a campaign video posted to his Twitter page at the outset of the election. “And to stop the independence bandwagon that the SNP think that they’re riding.” (Revealingly, the video featured a cameo from Ruth Davidson but made no reference either to Boris Johnson or to Brexit.)
Kerr’s chances of success rest on his ability to galvanize core unionist voters in areas such as the middle-class towns of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan—two areas that tend to register high levels of Conservative support. It’s a risky strategy, given his vanishingly small majority. But the 59-year-old doesn’t have many other options.
Independence remains the central dividing line in Scottish politics. Enthusiasm for self-government hasn’t dramatically increased since September 2014, when Scots first voted by 55 percent to 45 percent against leaving the U.K. Most polls show a marginal bounce of two or three points in favor of secession, but the decisive swing away from the Union that many nationalists anticipated in response to the Brexit crisis simply hasn’t happened, in part because Scottish voters seem reluctant to pile yet more constitutional upheaval onto the past three years of political wrangling with the EU.
Ironically, the SNP and the Conservatives have an almost symbiotic relationship when it comes to independence. The harder nationalists press the case for Scottish sovereignty, the harder Conservatives push against it, shoring up their own pro-Union base and squeezing out other U.K. parties in the process. One consequence of this dynamic is that a substantial minority of Scots who don’t support either the SNP or the Tories find themselves voting for one party or the other in the hope of securing their preferred constitutional outcome. The Liberal Democrats argue that Scotland’s obsession with the national question drowns out the day-to-day issues of government, such as health care and public spending. Another independence referendum would mean “more chaos, more uncertainty, more cost and difficulties for families across Scotland,” Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said on Nov. 9. “It’s the last thing we need.”
Undeterred, SNP chief and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said she wants another independence referendum, labeled “indyref2,” to be held at some point during the latter half of 2020—a timetable Boris Johnson has categorically ruled out. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has taken a more conciliatory approach. In November, he seemed open to another Scottish poll in the later stages of the potential first term of a Labour government, which, if he wins, would run for five years into the mid-2020s.
There is an element of preelection jockeying here. In the highly plausible event of a hung Parliament, Corbyn would need the votes of what could be 40 to 50 Scottish nationalist MPs in order to form an executive, pass bills, and implement budgets. A Section 30 Order—the legal authority to stage another referendum—is the price Sturgeon would extract for her party’s cooperation, parceled out on a case-by-case basis in the House of Commons. Some Labour figures have urged Corbyn not to strike a governing deal with Sturgeon, arguing that it would render the party all but irrelevant in Scotland and consolidate the SNP’s grip of the Scottish political landscape. But Sturgeon is confident an agreement will be reached.
“This is a man who favors self-determination for virtually every other country on the face of the planet,” she remarked of Corbyn on Nov. 20. “[He’s] not going to turn his back on an opportunity for a U.K. Labour government just because he’s determined to block the right of the Scottish people to choose their own future.”
Even in this scenario, however, the SNP would face a more entrenched challenge: that of persuading a majority of Scots to back the break-up of Britain. Party strategists have refocused their efforts on winning over the Scottish business community and middle classes since the 2014 referendum. The SNP’s revised economic prospectus for independence, published in May 2018, committed the party to a decade of fiscal discipline and spending constraints in the wake of a “yes” vote. These proposals have drawn pointed criticism from the Scottish left, which largely voted “yes” in 2014, but SNP leaders insist they are necessary.
Separately, some SNP politicians are worried about the practicalities of negotiating independence post-Brexit. A Tory majority on Dec. 12 would enable Boris Johnson to ratify his so-called over-ready withdrawal deal quickly, possibly even before the end of 2019. If, following another referendum, Scotland secedes and then successfully applies to become an independent member of the European bloc after the U.K. has already left, Scots could find themselves confronted by the disruptive reality of a hard border with England, their single largest export market and trading partner.
In response to this concern, the SNP has said it will work with Britain’s other anti-Brexit parties—Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru—to legislate for a second Brexit vote, with the aim of delaying the U.K.’s departure from Europe or canceling it altogether.
“I think we face a significant challenge in that if we do not defeat Brexit, Scotland in Europe, independence in Europe, becomes a different proposition,” Alyn Smith told me. “In many ways, this is an existential moment for a lot of things in Scottish public life.”
Stirling and its surrounding areas have long played a central role in setting Scotland’s constitutional trajectory. On Dec. 12, the people of this constituency will be primed to do so again: independence inside the EU with Alyn Smith and the SNP—or Brexit Britain with Stephen Kerr and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. It could all hinge on a handful of votes.