Exterior of Scottish Parliament

Does a majority of seats from pro-independence parties in the Scottish Parliament provide a mandate for a second independence referendum?

Published: 4 May 2021
Author: Mark Shephard

How the fight over the meaning of ‘mandate’ might manifest itself post-election 2021.

Most sides like to claim that they have the people on their side…that they have a mandate for action…Following the 2019 General Election in which the Conservatives won 56% of the seats (365/650), Boris Johnson claimed he had a mandate to get Brexit done. Also following that election, the SNP won 81% of the Scottish seats (48/59) and so Nicola Sturgeon claimed to have a mandate for the Scottish Parliament to be given the right to decide upon a second independence referendum. Consequently, it is likely that immediately following the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP will be claiming a mandate for the right to call indyref2. Even if the SNP do not quite realise a majority of seats, it is highly likely that the 2021 result will produce a majority of seats from pro-independence parties, especially when you add in the likely successes of the Scottish Green Party.

However, does majority of seats provide a mandate for a second independence referendum? The opposition pro-unionist parties are likely to question this for several reasons:

First, mandates suggest majority support, and a majority of seats is often not a reflection of either: a) the majority of the vote; or b) the majority of the total electorate. In 2011, for example, the SNP had a majority of seats (69/129), but this was achieved with 45% of the vote. Given the turnout was only just over 50% of the total electorate, a majority of seats for the SNP in 2011 derived from support from less than 25% of the total electorate (source: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf_file/SP-2011-electoral-data-report-WEB.pdf ) . Low turnout is likely to be more of an issue at this election due to COVID. While postal votes are available, the process requires meeting deadlines and reading and filling in paperwork. Both could suppress voting despite the strong demand for postal votes this time. Turning up in person to vote is also likely to be more challenging, especially for those younger voters who have yet to be vaccinated. Indeed this could mean that voting for the SNP and Greens is arguably going to be less than it might otherwise have been, especially if many SNP and Green voters assume these parties will most likely combine to form the majority support needed for Government in Parliament with or without their vote.

Second, surveys consistently show that approximately one in ten SNP supporters do not support independence (see for example, Johns et al., 2020: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2041905820911745). These voters tend to vote for the SNP because they are perceived to be the most competent party for government, not because they support independence. So not all votes for the SNP (or indeed the Scottish Greens) can be seen to be synonymous with support for an independence referendum.

Third and connected, this is an election for the Scottish Parliament, it is neither a second referendum, nor a call for a second referendum. There are two ballots: one to elect a constituency MSP; and one to elect regional MSPs.

Fourth, most voters’ contact with candidates in this election comes from the free ‘election communication’ leaflets that fall through the door. We nearly all get these, and report seeing these (see British Election Study data). Of lesser audience reach are the more detailed manifestos that only the politically interested voters will seek out. Taking the Paisley SNP election communication leaflet as an example, it is curious that there is no mention of a second referendum or independence. If all you saw was that leaflet, you might think that this was an election about re-electing a politician connected with town redevelopment. Even the West of Scotland regional list election communication for the SNP makes no mention of either independence or a referendum. The focus is on policy issues such as the NHS, jobs, climate change, and supporting business and children. The main Green candidate leaflet for the West of Scotland similarly makes no mention of independence and focuses instead on policy achievements on SQA, free bus travel, COVID testing & jobs through a Green New Deal. No doubt the opposition might argue that it would be disingenuous to speak of mandates for second referendums if the election communication leaflets from those parties in favour of a second referendum made no direct mention of this. Ironically, the one party that has been mentioning the referendum and independence more than anything else in their election communication leaflets is the Conservative Party.

Finally, public opinion suggests that support for independence is a tad lacklustre for ‘mandate’ language. Fewer than one in five of those polled view independence as the most important issue. Other issues such as health, employment, welfare, education, and Brexit have placed above independence. https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19225050.scottish-independence-seen-important-issue-fewer-1-5-scots/ 

Even a survey question limited to a binary yes versus no to independence suggests that Scotland is split down the middle on the issue with the average support (based on the 13 polls in April 2021) for Yes to independence at 49.5% and the support for No to independence at 50.5%. https://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-vote-in-the-in-a-scottish-independence-referendum-if-held-now-ask/?removed

If there is anything certain about this election, it is that mandates will be claimed and challenged through multiple ways of measurement.

Dr Mark Shephard is Senior Lecturer in politics at the School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde

Photo by Chris Flexen on Unsplash

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