Skip to content

SES Essay Prizes: Read the Winning Entries

Over summer 2023 the SES held two essay prize competitions, one for university undergraduates and one for school pupils. Our expert judging panel selected very fine winners for each category and a deserving runner-up for the schools prize in a close-run contest.

The winners and schools runner up were announced last month and we are delighted to share all three of these fine submissions here.

Undergraduate Prize-winning Essay

Many congratulations to Elliot Wortley of the University of Edinburgh for winning first prize in the undergraduate bracket with the essay “Did the Conservative Party’s Strong Stance on Devolution During the 1992 General Election ‘Force Back the Tide’ in Scotland?”. You can download the essay at the following link.

Schools Prize-winning Essay

Congratulations also to Finlay McIlwraith of North Berwick High School for the first placed school essay on the topic of the SNP’s declining fortunes in the spring, written shortly after Humza Yousaf became party leader. You can read the essay in full below.

May 2021: The SNP coast to another election win. The SNP’s constituency vote share of 47.7% wins them 62/73 FPTP seats. In many political environments that would be considered a landslide, it’s testament to the SNP’s dominance that some deemed it a disappointment. The party falls one seat short of a majority, but with Nicola Sturgeon enjoying sky-high approval ratings thanks to her handling of COVID, the future looks bright
for the party. However, under the surface, there is danger afoot. The highly publicised spat between Sturgeon and her former boss Alex Salmond has exposed questions over her handling of accusations against him. Salmond’s newly formed ALBA party may have flopped in the election, but cracks have started to show in the SNP’s electoral coalition. A polling surge for independence in late 2020 hasn’t been sustained. There are serious questions about whether the SNP have any prospect of being granted a referendum, let alone winning it.

Now, 2 years later, the SNP are lurching between myriad crises. New leader Humza Yousaf exerts far less dominance over his party than his predecessor. A recent poll showed the SNP at their worst regional voting intention since 2007 (Source: Ballot Box Scotland). A police investigation into the party’s finances has damaged the reputation of senior party figures such as Sturgeon and Peter Murrell and the party as a whole. The SNP look likely to lose several seats at the next UK general election, what are the reasons for the SNP’s downturn? And how easily can they recover?

The shadow cast by Sturgeon’s leadership cannot be overlooked. Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister won praise over her handling of COVID. She brought huge electoral success to the party: the SNP’s landslide in the 2015 General Election can be at least in part attributed to her popularity. In an uncertain period Sturgeon had represented a calm, reassuring figure for many Scots, contrasted with the more erratic leadership of Boris Johnson. Even her bitter public feud with her former boss didn’t seem to dim her appeal, as most voters seemed to sympathise with Sturgeon more. Questions over her record, particularly on drug deaths and education, haven’t got in the way of the Sturgeon electoral juggernaut. Sturgeon’s support for progressive, pro-EU causes won her many admirers in Scotland, even from left-wing voters who’d traditionally been suspicious of the SNP.

The power-sharing agreement with the Greens was a definite turn to the left. The Greens share the SNP’s goal of independence but are more radical than the SNP on key issues. In government, the Greens have pushed for more ambitious climate targets, rent control and other left-wing causes. While the agreement has ensured a majority for the Government in parliament, challenges have been posed by having government ministers without SNP loyalty. There has also been resentment at a party with a small number of MSPs having what some see as undue influence.

Included in the Greens’ agreement was a commitment to Gender Recognition Reform (GRR), which would become the defining issue for the latter part of Sturgeon’s leadership. Fierce debate raged in both the media and parliament over the bill. Rebellions from nine SNP MSPs showed Sturgeon was no longer able to exert the tight control over the party she’d previously had. Sturgeon seemed unprepared for the volume of blowback she faced. The Section 35 Order by the UK government, blocking the bill, further hampered her leadership. With Sturgeon running out of options on both gender reform and independence, she decided to resign.

Another key factor in Sturgeon’s resignation was the lack of progress towards another referendum. Independence remains a key vote winner for the SNP. But the 2022 Supreme Court referendum has further narrowed their options; the SNP seem unlikely to be granted a referendum by a UK Prime Minister in the near future. Many within the independence camp have grown frustrated at the SNP’s cautious approach to independence, but with support for
independence currently behind in the polls, the SNP lack the political capital to increase calls for another referendum. One issue is how closely independence support has historically matched the popularity of the SNP. The SNP’s recent fall in support has coincided with consecutive polls showing a No lead.

There is now a wider schism emerging among independence supporters. Debates on independence strategy have generally been within the party between gradualists like Sturgeon, who believe in gaining new powers for Scotland and accumulating support for independence, and fundamentalists who believe that independence should be at the
forefront of SNP Policy. In recent years, however, a number of the fundamentalists’ section have left the party, many of them for Alba. This poses new problems for the SNP’s ability to win elections. Traditionally the party has accumulated most pro-independence voters, giving them an advantage over unionist parties where support is more split. With the emergence of Alba and continued rise in support for the Greens, the SNP are suffering a pincer movement. On the one hand, many on the anti-GRR wing of the party have moved to supporting Alba. Others believe the SNP aren’t being progressive enough on this and other issues and consequently have started to look to the Greens as an alternative. The SNP has been caught in a generational divide between traditional independence supporters, who focused on Scotland having freedom and ability to make its own decisions, and a younger group who primarily see independence as a route to social justice. (A BBC poll showing 70% support among 18-34-year-olds for easier access to Gender Recognition Certificates, compared to 46% support among the over 55s, is illustrative of this.) There does seem to be a decreasing overlap between SNP and independence supporters. While the SNP have slumped in polling, support for independence has remained relatively stable. In averages of recent polling, just 70% of Yes voters say they would vote for the SNP in a general election (What Scotland Thinks).

From an outsider’s perspective, the SNP’s Holyrood contingent has often been seen as fairly homogenous, but their 2023 leadership election gave a clear rebuttal to this. Humza Yousaf offered the most left-wing platform, promising to continue with Sturgeon’s main policies. Ash Regan was never a serious contender, but her opposition to GRR and slogan ”Independence – nothing less” highlighted splits in the party. While her campaign was dominated by questions over her social beliefs, Kate Forbes also advocated for a more laissez-faire economic approach; her pro-business platform would have marked a rightward shift for the SNP and it only narrowly lost out to Yousaf.

Yousaf’s ability to stamp his mark on the party since his election has been hampered by the ongoing investigation into the SNP’s finances. A culture of secrecy seems to surround the upper echelons within the SNP, with recent revelations about falling membership numbers and financial difficulties suggesting a lack of transparency. The arrest of senior SNP figures has not been a good look for the party.

So what can Yousaf do to arrest the slide? Yousaf would appreciate a period of calm to put focus back on his policy agenda. Unfortunately for him, MSPs seem increasingly happy to publicly criticise SNP policy. Forbes and Fergus Ewing criticised proposals for HPMAs (Highly Protected Marine areas). Ewing even described coalition partners the Greens as ”wine bar revolutionaries”. On issues like the HPMAs, Yousaf has been criticised particularly by politicians from rural areas. Almost all of Yousaf’s cabinet represent central belt areas; there is a growing disconnect between the SNP’s new support from traditional urban Labour voters and their former strongholds in rural areas where they’ve been losing ground in recent years.

Labour currently enjoys a hefty lead in UK polling. The prospect of helping remove the Conservatives from government could see some traditional SNP voters switch allegiances to them. Polling seems to indicate Labour are on course to recover from their 2015 humiliation. This could cause serious challenges to the SNP’s status as being the best progressive option in elections. The SNP’s failure to close the education attainment gap, record NHS waiting lists combined with accusations of corruption over the ferry fiasco and the party’s finances will give the SNP’s opponents plenty of ammunition over the coming years. Whether Yousaf has the political nous and charisma required to surmount these challenges has yet to be seen. But it’s worth taking stock: the SNP has won 11 elections in a row in Scotland, they’ve been in government for 16 years and continue to consistently lead polling in Scotland, this despite the past year resembling a slow-motion car crash. The SNP remain a dominant political force; a big-tent approach keeps roughly half of the country aligned with their core beliefs. For many, the SNP are still ”Stronger for Scotland”. We are yet to see whether this sheen is likely to wear off. But what is the SNP now for? Some look to them to deliver independence, some look to them for competent governance. Their ability to deliver either hangs in the balance.

Schools Runner-up Essay

Further congratulations to Alexa Marshall of The High School of Glasgow for the runner-up entry “Is independence still feasible and desirable post-Covid?” You can read the essay in full below.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a worldwide health crisis which affected not only the health and safety of the public, but also inspired significant change within the economy and especially UK politics. During this momentous time, party leaders in the Scottish and UK parliaments were compelled to make imperative decisions to protect the health and wellbeing of the public. Although these decisions were made based on the urgent matter of public safety, their competence in leadership could either uplift or tarnish the reputation of parties and their leaders. This is exemplified by the Scottish SNP leader during the COVID-19 crisis, Nicola Sturgeon, who was perceived to have tackled the pandemic well by the Scottish public, fulfilling the desire for Scottish independence due to her cautious decision making and the collectivist policies implemented to help those most effected by COVID. This is juxtaposed by the English Conservative leader during the pandemic, Boris Johnson, whose leadership was perceived as unsatisfactory by the public and in turn damaged his and the Conservative party’s reputation. This duality in leadership highlighted the crucial question of whether Scottish independence would be feasible or desirable after the COVID-19 crisis. Even before the pandemic, the complication of Scottish independence was featured again during Britain leaving the European Union, which was a deeply unpopular decision amongst the Scottish people. However, even if there is desire within Scotland for complete sovereignty, there are still financial complications exacerbated by COVID (taxation, ability to rejoin the EU, expense of the socialist policies promised) which could make it unattainable.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a desire for independence due to the UK’s ‘unanimous’ decision to leave the European Union. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62% of the Scottish electorate voted in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, whereas the combined votes of England and Wales created a majority to leave the EU [1]. Because of this, Scotland was obligated to leave the EU as well, spreading animosity and distaste for Scotland remaining in Britain. This unfortunate situation then sparked the idea that if Scotland were an independent nation, it could rejoin the EU. Re-joining could expand trading opportunities with EU member states for Scotland by reducing border costs. These are the costs that stem from import tariffs, customs checks and differences in regulations between countries, making trade costly [2]. Even though joining the European union would be mostly beneficial for Scotland, it is unlikely to happen because Spain could veto Scotland’s membership. Spain is struggling with a secessionist movement in Catalonia and has been a vocal opponent of secessionist movements across Europe, and it is thought Madrid may veto Scottish EU accession to prevent setting a precedent for an independent Catalonia [3]. Considering this, it is unlikely that Scotland would be able to prosper independently without the membership, because of the current debt that the Scottish government has after the COVID-19 Pandemic (the Scottish Government had accumulated £1.8 billion in capital debt at the end of 2021-22, 60 per cent of its overall limit [4]). Furthermore, if Scotland was allowed to rejoin the European Union, a hard border would have to be enforced between England and Scotland. Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said the move could lead to significant impacts on the job market. She said: “The reality of leaving the UK is scrapping the pound and building a hard border with our main trading partner, with devastating consequences for jobs. It would also mean a border between friends and families” [5]. Considering this, risking the jobs and income of people who rely on trade between the border would have acute consequences, especially after the pandemic and during the ruthless cost-of-living crisis.

Scotland saw a drastic change in public opinion due to the pandemic. There was a temporary increase in the level of support for independence. Every published opinion poll conducted between June 2020 and January 2021 had Yes ahead of No when people were asked how they would vote in response to the question that appeared on the referendum ballot paper in 2014 [6]. This was remarkable, as it was the first time where polling had put independence ahead of remaining in the UK, highlighting that the pandemic has altered public opinion so drastically, that if a referendum was held, it is likely that independence is possible after the pandemic. The pandemic also helped to solidify the view that the Scottish people could rely on the government to tackle extremely onerous and unforeseen circumstances. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters were both asked their level of confidence in Scotland’s preparedness for another pandemic. Around eight in ten (79%) Yes supporters say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly confident’ that the country would be ‘properly prepared’. However, only half (50%) of No supporters share that view. This infers that Covid is an important topic to be discussed in Scotland’s constitutional debate.

The pinnacle of why there was a shift towards support for independence was dissimilarity in policy making by the Scottish and UK government during the pandemic. The success of Scottish policy was majorly because of its cautious nature. For example, England introduced a system of three tiers; Scotland introduced five. England limited indoor meetings to six people; Scotland adopted its own rule of six, excluding under-12s [7]. The circumspect differences made by the Scottish government and failures of UK policy garnered positive attention to the leading party, the SNP, furthering support for independence due to their competence. Other differences fitted with a focus on social solidarity. Scotland offered a £100 Covid-19 winter hardship payment to each child eligible for free school meals and gave a £500 “thank you” payment to NHS workers. Similarly, the furlough scheme is widely considered to have been successful. In April 2020, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that unemployment would peak at 10% in 2020 when it actually peaked at 5.2% [8].  However, the scheme itself cost £70 billion and it is unlikely that the Scottish government, if independent, could afford a similar scheme [9]. Without the scheme in Scotland, 911,900 people (who were on the scheme during the course of the pandemic) and 80,800 employments who were on furlough when the scheme closed on 30 September 2021, would be left unemployed and without an income to support themselves without the funding from Westminster [10]. The impact without this scheme in Scotland would be abysmal, with hundreds of thousands pushed into poverty with no support from the government, which concludes that independence is financially, not a viable option.

A final point to consider of whether Scotland could be independent after the pandemic is the issue of taxation. Scotland gets a substantial amount of money from Westminster to fund social welfare policies. Analysis reveals the current rate of Scottish spending, which at £11,247 per head is 20 per cent higher than England’s, could not be supported without huge tax rises, or a significant reduction in public spending. Holyrood would need to increase taxes by at least 10 per cent of GDP to maintain this level of spending, the same as raising VAT to 49 per cent [11]. This substantial increase in tax, especially in the height of the cost-of-living crisis, where many people are struggling to afford necessities like heating their home would result in more people requiring help from the government because the extortionate taxes pushed them into poverty. Furthermore, during the period between 2014/15 and 2019/20 spending per person in Scotland was £1,550 (or 12.3%) higher than the UK average, while tax revenues were £325 (or 2.8%) lower per person [12]. Without the financial support from Westminster, an independent Scotland would struggle to receive and retain enough money to fund the level of care that they are currently giving and fund the promises made in the SNP manifesto once independent.

Considering all this, it is logical to conclude that Independence is possible after COVID, due to the considerable public support for independence and the exemplary response by the Scottish government to the pandemic. This built a sense of patriotism and trust between the people and the government. However, there are exigent financial complications which could have dire consequences on the Scottish public namely even higher taxes to fund social welfare reforms, alternatively pushing Scotland even further into debt, exacerbated by the pandemic. This determines that yes, Scotland could be independent after the pandemic due to the conspicuous support for independence, however the significant financial implications means that Scotland will face countless financial difficulties if sovereign.