With less than four months to go until the Scottish parliamentary elections it is time to take stock of the political situation north of the Border. The Scottish scene is not easy to interpret, but it is important to try to analyse the prospects for the Union without succumbing to either exaggerated optimism or pessimism. As the 2016 Holyrood elections approach, a notion has seized some commentators that this could be the turn of the tide and that the SNP’s fortunes could begin to ebb dramatically on 5 May. It is difficult to detect any evidence to support that view.
At the end of 2015 the SNP enjoyed a poll lead of 37 points over its nearest rival Scottish Labour. The polling gap is fractionally higher than the percentage of votes cast for the governing party of the UK last year. The SNP commands a majority of the popular vote, at 58 per cent, compared to Labour’s share at 21 per cent. Is it realistic to forecast significant inroads being made into that lead between now and the first week of May? The SNP has not fallen below 50 per cent support since May last year, when it temporarily declined to 49 per cent.
If this is a party heading for a fall, the Scottish electorate is certainly lulling it into a sense of security. Of course, the premise underlying the Unionist optimists’ predictions of an SNP downfall is a valid one: that what goes up must come down and this law is especially inexorable in politics. But the time scale is a different matter. It took more than a decade for New Labour to plummet from the moral high ground into post-Iraq, dodgy-dossier turpitude and public reprobation.
Then there is the inevitable unpopularity resulting from a prolonged period in government and the SNP has been in power since 2007. The Sturgeon regime has recently committed several solecisms. When structural damage forced the closure of the Forth Road Bridge in December it transpired the Scottish government had ignored warnings about this hazard from engineers 10 months previously.
Similarly, the SNP froze the amount of cash available for flood defences in last month’s Scottish budget and cut funding to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), which operates the flood warning system, by six per cent, just before the catastrophic floods at New Year. The official “spin” from the Scottish government claimed: “Spending on flood defences has consistently been higher since 2007 than it was in the four years previously.” That is a weasel way of saying that the SNP has frozen cash for flood defences since 2008 while allocating an extra £7 million to “land reform”, a leftist project that has provoked comparisons with Robert Mugabe.
Nicola Sturgeon, however, adopting the Rahm Emanuel maxim that a good crisis should not be wasted, turned the disaster into a PR triumph by having herself filmed hugging flood victims. It has become one of those consensual delusions to which journalists periodically fall victim that Sturgeon is a “brilliant” politician. In reality, she is a mediocre politician towering over a Lilliputian Scottish political class, but it will take a long time before she is recognised for what she is – a poor man’s Angela Merkel. And although scandal is already corroding the reputation of last year’s 56-strong SNP intake at Westminster, so all-enveloping is the pro-nationalist climate it will not, for the time being, cause electoral damage.
There will not be a parallel surge in the Holyrood elections to the landslide at Westminster because the Scottish electoral system militates against large majorities, with parties that perform badly in constituency seats compensated with List seats. But the clever money is on the SNP enlarging its Holyrood presence.
That said, the SNP is facing a very serious, even existential, problem which could destroy it, and Nicola Sturgeon is well aware of this fact. A Survation opinion poll for the Daily Mail last September showed one-third of Scots would be less likely to vote SNP if the party’s 2016 election manifesto contained a commitment to hold a second independence referendum. It reflected the fact that many Scottish voters, pathologically anti-Conservative but hugely disenchanted with Labour, want the SNP to run a devolved Scotland while rejecting its separatist agenda.
Nicola Sturgeon, always a pragmatist, took note. In her conference speech last October she declared a second referendum would only be considered if independence maintained 60 per cent support in the polls for a year or more. Separatism has never enjoyed that level of support. Then, last weekend, the Sunday Herald broke a “leaked” story that the SNP manifesto for this year’s elections would not include a commitment to a referendum, for the first time since 1999.
Instead, some woolly formula similar to the conference speech would be used to fudge the issue. The First Minister tweeted in response: “News to me! Manifesto not finalised yet.” That is hardly the firm rebuttal that might have been expected if this claim of an intent to renege on the nationalist movement’s most sacred totem were untrue. Sturgeon knows a second lost referendum would bury separatism for most Scots’ lifetimes and dreads the risk, even with support for independence currently standing at a tantalising 47 per cent.
Her pragmatic evasion of the referendum issue to garner votes will come at a price. If there has been no manifesto commitment but support for separatism gains a poll lead – perhaps in the wake of Brexit – she will have no grounds to claim an electoral mandate for a binding referendum, as her predecessor did, and David Cameron would be under no obligation to grant a second plebiscite. The Scottish government could hold a non-binding, consultative referendum but that would be no more than a glorified opinion poll and Unionists would credibly argue that Yes voters had frivolously treated it as such.
In that way, the SNP could lose its longed-for prize. A further imponderable is that a Bill is going through Holyrood to postpone the 2020 Scottish elections to May 2021, to avoid collision with the Westminster vote. If the by then fragmented post-EU referendum Tories fare badly in 2020, the bogey of permanent Conservative governance will no longer be a weapon in the nationalist armoury, while fundamentalist Nats, deprived of a second referendum, will surely feel severe disillusionment. Their embitterment could reopen the fault lines in the SNP that Nicola Sturgeon has sealed up. It looks like plain sailing for the SNP in May, but treacherous shoals lie ahead.