The SNP, whose virtual conference takes places this weekend, could hardly be in finer fettle. Its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is as popular as she has been any point since taking over the reins six years ago – primarily because of voters’ positive evaluations of her handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Polls of voting intention for next year’s Scottish Parliament election suggest that the party is on course to win an overall majority, repeating the feat it achieved in 2011. Meanwhile, those same polls suggest that, for the first time ever, a majority of people in Scotland now back the party’s ultimate objective of independence.
What, then is there for it to worry about? Well, of course, there is the continuing fallout from the court appearances of the party’s former leader, Alex Salmond, including a rift between the former leader and the current incumbent. Meanwhile, some in the party seek greater clarity about what the party would do if it does win a majority next year but Westminster refuses its consent for an independence ballot. Personal differences interlaced with political and ideological ambition can, of course, potentially make for a toxic brew.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that a strong position in the polls now will necessarily translate into heady electoral success in six months’ time. During the last three months, the polls have on average put the party on 55% on the constituency vote and 46% on the list vote, figures that point to an overall majority of some 13 seats. Yet these figures are not dissimilar to the party’s average standing in the polls at the same stage five years ago; then it enjoyed 53% support on the constituency vote and 47% on the list vote. The early months of 2016 saw the party slip back in the polls, leaving it having to navigate Holyrood as a minority government. It cannot be assumed that history will not repeat itself.
However, there are important differences between the character of the support the party enjoys now and what it has obtained at previous Scottish Parliament elections.
First, thanks to Brexit, the party’s support is now much more an avowedly pro-European one. According to the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, those who voted Leave in the EU referendum were six points more likely than those who supported Remain to have backed the SNP in the 2016 Holyrood contest. In contrast – and in line with the evidence of the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections – support for the SNP is now markedly higher among those who voted Remain (57%) than it is among those who supported Leave (39%).
Second, the SNP vote is now more of a pro-independence vote than it was in the past. On average the polls suggest that the party currently enjoys the support of no less than 89% of those who say they would now vote Yes in another independence referendum, and just 8% of those who would vote No. In contrast in 2016 (according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey) the party won the support of only 81% of those who at that time said they would vote Yes, while it secured the backing of as many as 22% of those who would have voted No. Indeed, at the 2011 Holyrood election, which paved the way for the 2014 independence referendum, the party secured the support of no less than 38% of those who were opposed to devolution.
In short, at previous Holyrood elections a significant portion of SNP support has consisted of voters who were backing the party despite rather than because of its stance on independence. They were attracted by its perceived competence, its leadership and its reputation for standing up for Scotland’s interests. Now it appears that there are few left who were willing to support the SNP despite their not being in favour of independence. As a result, next year’s election could be one in which, for the first time, voting SNP and backing independence are almost synonymous with each other – turning the ballot, in effect, into a quasi-referendum on the constitutional question.
This change in the character of the nationalist vote suggests that the SNP’s fortunes next May will for the most part not depend on how well the party is thought to have performed the pre-pandemic ‘day job’ of running Scotland’s public services and stimulating the country’s economy. Rather it will rest on where voters stand at the time on independence, and on the Brexit question that has in part fuelled the recent rise in support for leaving the UK. The party’s perceived competence will matter only in so far as it informs voters’ views about the constitutional question – as its handling of coronavirus seems to have done. In short, assuming that its internal divisions are held in check, the SNP’s prospects in the forthcoming Holyrood election could well depend on whether the many relatively recent converts to independence retain their new-found faith – or whether, instead, they have it shaken in the debate that will certainly ensue between now and next May.