The SNP has never had a mandate

Humza Yousaf Mandate
Humza Yousaf counts the SNP's mandates for independence

It is a commonly touted assertion of the SNP that all elections, Westminster or devolved, will be referendums on independence and if they achieve a majority of some kind then this will give them a mandate for independence. But what does ‘mandate’ actually mean? 

A standard definition (via Google) of a mandate is:

The authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election.

To use a good Scottish word, this apparently simple statement gets into a fankle when it hits the nationalist mind.

What does ‘win’ mean?

In a referendum, as a single-issue binary question, it’s straightforward to determine who wins. In the 2014 Scottish Referendum, voters could choose YES or NO, the winner being the side that received the most votes. In a General Election also, it’s straightforward: the party or parties that can create a majority, wins. 

However, in recent years, nationalists have sought to redefine what constitutes a win. Initially, the SNP said it would have a mandate to ask for a Section 30 order if it received 50% + 1 of the votes cast in the Scottish Elections. As we have seen with the Brexit Referendum and, indeed, the Scottish Referendum, using 50% as a benchmark invites years of unrest, as at least half of the country is immediately against even holding the vote. But nonetheless, the SNP were not even able to gain that majority in 2021.

In a rare lapse of judgement, an arbitrary target of 60% over an extended period was set by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, although it was later rolled back. The idea that the break up of the UK would be set in motion by pollsters, some of which are in the pay of The Scottish Government or run by SNP politicians, is appalling enough, but the idea that a minority of separatists, based in one part of the UK, should be able to break up the entire UK is a nationalist trope that needs to stop being indulged by UK politicians.

However, as scandal upon scandal came to public attention and the polls were no longer in their favour, the SNP changed their mandate conditions. For the upcoming General Election, they said they would claim a mandate if they, along with other nationalist parties (The Scottish Greens and presumably, Alba) had a majority of votes cast. Notably, this number is far less than the total electorate. So, for example, if 50% of the electorate turns up to vote and the nationalists receive 50%+1 of the vote, then the condition would be triggered on just 25% of the electorate voting. Some might argue that if people can’t be bothered to vote that’s their problem. However, when compared to the high turnout of a referendum, this pseudo-referendum is low-quality democracy.

Unable to even get 50% of the vote, though, as the polls dropped further and reality set in, the SNP changed their win condition to gaining more than 50% of Scottish seats. As the polls dropped further, that changed to simply winning more seats than any other party. 

Critics, on all sides of the debate, asked, why, if the party already has the most seats, and is likely to lose seats in the election, does it not have a mandate now? Why wait until the party is in a weaker position than now to claim one? Why indeed. In fact this same argument has been applied throughout the SNP’s tenure in government, which for ‘independence’ supporters appeared to be an exercise in kicking the can down the road.

Undoubtedly, when they lose over half their seats, as predicted in the General Election, the focus will turn to The 2026 Holyrood elections, where, once again, any self-defined ‘victory’ will be used as a ‘mandate’. 

What is a vote worth?

In a referendum we know what each vote is worth. You are either for the proposition or against it. But, in a general election or in Scottish elections, the electorate votes on a range of issues, such as health, education, the economy and so on: it’s a ‘general election’, not a ‘specific election’. Yet nationalists want us to think that every vote placed for their party is one for ‘independence’.

This came to a head in the nationalists’ preposterous plans to use the general election as a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence. The idea, initially promoted by Wings Over Scotland, was initially rejected by the SNP as being too extreme, only for it to be taken on by Sturgeon after she lost at the Supreme Court. It was the only can left for her to kick.

In this arrangement, if 50% +1 of Scottish voters voted for the SNP, then, depending on the way the wind was blowing, either negotiations with the UK government for a referendum would be entered into, or ‘independence’ instantly declared.

However, despite nationalist politicians telling us that each vote in a general election would be 100% assigned to the desire for Scottish independence, in recent polling the national question has been found to be low on most voters priorities.

A February 7 poll conducted by Redfield and Wilton Strategies noted that:

66% of Scottish voters cite the economy as one of the three most important issues that would determine how they would vote in a General Election, ahead of the NHS (59%). 

21% of respondents cite Scottish Independence/The Union as one of the three issues that would most determine their vote if a General Election was held tomorrow. 

According to the same poll, two thirds of  nationalist voters don’t even put ‘independence’ at the top of their list:

Among 2019 SNP voters, Scottish Independence is only the third most commonly selected issue (35%), behind the NHS (69%) and the economy (61%).

Such voters may not be particularly fussed about the national issue, but think that the SNP is better than Westminster at providing local services. In fact, these voters were invited by Nicola Sturgeon to vote for her when she said a vote for her was not a vote for a second referendum, only for those voters to find out the day after the election that their vote had been co-opted into yet another ‘mandate’ on Scottish independence.

Yet, nationalists persist in the delusion that every vote for them is one for independence.

This confusion over ‘mandates’ is not confined to the SNP. Before Ash Regan defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba party, she touted a Voter Empowerment Mechanism, which was just a de facto referendum by another name. The party now says:

The ALBA Party believes that every single election should be used to seek a mandate to begin negotiations for Independence, not yet another mandate for a referendum. The referendum boat has sailed, the Westminster Government have continued to refuse a Section 30 order and the recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court has made holding a referendum without a Section 30 order a much more difficult task.

This position is not new, the time has come to revert to what was the position of the national movement prior to devolution. The threshold would be a simple majority of votes cast for all pro-independence parties. ALBA has committed to having an explicit declaration of our intent to begin negotiations for independence, if that threshold is met, on the first line of our manifesto. All pro-independence parties should do the same.

It’s on the first line of their manifesto. So it must be true then.

On what authority?

The implication in all of these schemes is that once the nationalists achieve their target, however arbitrary, it constitutes an unshakable ‘mandate’ to either start negotiations with Westminster about leaving the UK, or it triggers a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. 

But the fact is, the independence ‘movement’ has no mandate for independence and never has—ever. Under New Labour’s devolution ‘settlement’, a Holyrood election cannot deliver a mandate for independence. The Constitution is a reserved matter, regardless of the contents of any party’s manifesto, their reason for existence, or their statements to the contrary. Only the UK Parliament at Westminster can deliver a constitutionally legal and democratic mandate for independence. And to do that the SNP would have to win, or convince a majority of the 650 seats in the Westminster Parliament, which is challenging as they only field 59 candidates.

Scottish Parliament elections cannot deliver a mandate: they only deliver a mandate for a party to form an administration at Holyrood to look after Scottish day-to-day matters that are not reserved for Westminster’s consideration. That’s it.

How many Scots actually vote for the SNP?

In the 2014 independence referendum, YES received 1,617,989 votes (44.7%), a losing minority. NO received 2,001,926 (55.3%) votes on a turnout of 84.6%, the highest recorded turnout for an election or referendum in the United Kingdom since universal suffrage. The registered voters numbered 4,283,392 (the electorate) out of a total population of 5,347,600.

Since then, the SNP has received the following votes and vote share:

  • 2015 General Election — 1,454,436. This was the high-water-mark of the SNP’s success and it represented 36% of the electorate in Scotland, which at the time was 4,035,400.*
  • 2016 Scottish Election — 1,059,898 over all constituencies. 953,587 across all regions. The average of both votes is 1,006,743, which was 25% of the electorate of 4,030,000.
  • 2017 General Election — 977,569. This was a drop of 476,867 from the 2015 election, to 24.9% of the electorate in Scotland, which at the time was 3,930,000.
  • 2019 General Election —  1,242,380 of the popular vote. This represented 30.65% of the electorate in Scotland at the time of 4,053,100.
  • 2021 Scottish Election — The SNP got 1,291,204 at the constituency level, and 1,094,374 across all the regions. The average of both votes is 1,192,789 which is 27.9% of the total electorate of 4,280,923.

Electorate figures from the Office for National Statistics.

The SNP’s victories at Holyrood, Westminster and local council elections represent nothing more than the triumph of a small, vociferous minority. Since 2015, it has never been higher than 36% of the total electorate’s vote and even less of the total Scottish population. 

It only proves that a small and determined group of obsessed, loud and active zealots and extremists can force their will on the rest of the population, completely skewing the genuine will of the majority of the overall population.  

This no mandate

The fact of UK Constitutional Law is that the SNP (or any other anti-UK nationalist party in Scotland or any other devolved part of the UK) simply cannot receive a mandate for independence from a devolved election. The Constitution is reserved.

Winning a majority of seats in Holyrood and a majority of Westminster seats in Scotland doesn’t give the SNP any mandate for independence when they only represent around a third of the total registered electorate (even less of the total Scottish population).

The winning party in Scottish elections can only ever receive a mandate to form an administration at the devolved legislature to look after the day-to-day matters that are within their remit for that part of the UK.

Remember back to our ‘mandate’ definition? Let’s update it with regards to the question of ‘Scottish independence’. A mandate is, according to nationalists:

The authority to carry out a policy that is not in the remit of the parliament, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an arbitrary target that we keep changing to suit polling conditions and redefines any vote we receive in a general election or Scottish election as one for independence. After a referendum that already settled the issue.

That’s not how a mandate works. That’s not how democracy works. Yet the people who concoct these bizarre anti-democratic schemes are the first to call pro-UK politicians ‘democracy deniers’ for holding up the actual referendum result. Such is politics.

It’s not surprising that these ideas have gained so much traction against hard-core nationalists — delusion is their stock in trade. What is surprising is the indulgence given to these anti-democratic schemes by the Scottish and UK media, which has almost completely bought into the ‘independence is inevitable’ myth. If it’s inevitable then any old mandate will do. But, as nationalists are increasingly finding out, reality and democracy don’t work that way.

Stephen Bailey is a pro-UK author who has written over 150 articles on the Constitution, especially as it concerns Scotland and the abolition of legislative devolution. His website is here. Additional content by Mark Devlin.

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Written by Stephen Bailey

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