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Scandals and polls: if Nicola Sturgeon wants to build support for independence, her party needs to clean up its act

Kate Forbes and Nicola Sturgeon - Image credit: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

Scandals and polls: if Nicola Sturgeon wants to build support for independence, her party needs to clean up its act

What a difference a week makes.

In the space of less than seven days, the focus had pivoted from the momentous constitutional change of leaving the EU and Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the next steps towards a second independence referendum through cross-party consensus around improving the lives of children in care to a different sort of consensus, that of condemning the actions of former finance secretary Derek Mackay in sending a series of inappropriate messages to a teenage boy.

At FMQs, interim Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw read out the NSPCC’s definition of grooming and it was clear that Mackay’s behaviour could fall into that category.

“I do not condone in any way, shape or form conduct of this nature,” Sturgeon said, confirming that Mackay had been suspended from the party and the parliamentary group.

It was a deeply embarrassing situation for the Scottish Government.

And with that, overnight, Kate Forbes jumped from promising junior finance minister to covering one of the most senior posts in the Scottish Government on the most important day of the year, and with it, the unenviable task of delivering and defending the £49bn Scottish budget at a few hours’ notice.

All eyes were on Thursday’s budget spokesperson but not for the usual reasons.

It was a moment of accidental history-making, as Forbes became the first woman to deliver a budget at either Holyrood or Westminster.

As Courier editor David Clegg put it, it was a “heck of job interview”.

And it was clear she passed with aplomb, delivering the budget in not only a more animated way than Mackay – not hard considering his famously plodding delivery of speeches – but also, she was adroit in replying to the responses from opposition parties – although the harder part, yet to come, will be getting through the negotiations to reach a compromise with one of the opposition parties to get them to back the budget.

The budget itself was fairly pedestrian, with income tax thresholds to be raised by inflation for the basic and intermediate rates, and frozen for the higher and additional rates, with additional spending on health and social care, the police and infrastructure investment to tackle climate change.

However, the bigger question will be whether it can deliver the economic growth, action on climate change and improved wellbeing that have been promised and which play into the Scottish Government’s aim of building a case for independence.

Just the previous week, Nicola Sturgeon had given an update on the next steps to gaining a second independence referendum. It would do the independence case a disservice to pretend there were “shortcuts or clever wheezes that can magically overcome the obstacles”, she told the assembled press in a keynote speech on the day the UK left the EU.

The room was far more packed than usual, with UK and foreign press in town for Brexit, with a gap in their schedule before the big flag-flying, light-projecting event at 11pm. An astute move to schedule it for then.

While there were messages directed at the EU, it was, at heart, a message for supporters, those frustrated by the lack of action, who might have been hoping the SNP leader was about to announce a wildcat referendum, given Boris Johnson’s refusal to countenance a transfer of powers for an official one, or some kind of legal case to push for one.

While she said she was “not ruling out” a consultative referendum, there was a risk that it would not deliver the desired result.

Any referendum, she said, would need to be “legal and legitimate” in order for it to be recognised by other countries and just as in 2014, a transfer of powers through agreement with the UK Government was still the best way to achieve that.

They must “focus on building and winning the political case for independence”.

It was a sensible message and, in the circumstances, really the only message she could truthfully deliver. Keep calm and keep campaigning.

Sturgeon called for an “open and frank discussion” about the future of the country but also, “patience and respect”.

The independence movement must not allow its “sense of frustration” to take it down dead ends or weaken its sense of purpose.

They must not let the Tories turn a “positive, persuasive and invigorating discussion about the best future for our country” into an “arid and bitter argument about process and procedure”.

This wasn’t caution, she said. It was realism.

Asked outright if she was conceding that the Scottish Government did not have the power to hold a referendum and that it wouldn’t be able to hold one this year, she denied conceding that.

But that was pretty much what she was saying, referring to a referendum “whether it is this year as I want, or after the next Scottish election”.

Of course, Sturgeon could not say the 2020 date didn’t matter and wasn’t going to happen, but the speech was a recognition that it wasn’t.

In fact, a referendum this year would be crazy if it was even possible.

Why hold one with no time to campaign, no time to produce detailed information on which people can base a decision, without a clear majority in support, before people have experienced the effects of Brexit and while we are still in a transition period with the shape of the final Brexit deal still unknown?

How could the Scottish Government produce a white paper outlining what the Scottish/English border would be like in an independent Scotland when they don’t yet know what the rest of the UK’s relationship with the EU will be?

Not to mention also being in the run-up to an election next year. Better to ca’ canny.

Three opinion polls taken in the week before Britain left the EU suggested that support has grown for independence.

The first (in terms of date carried out rather than published), taken between 20 and 22 January by Survation, found Yes and No neck and neck on 50 per cent each once undecideds had been removed, while a YouGov poll taken on 22 to 27 January had Yes on 51 and No on 49 and a third poll by Panelbase between 28 and 31 January put support for independence on 52 per cent and 48 per cent against.

Of course, as Emily Gray, managing director of social research company Ipsos MORI, pointed out, all those polls are so close that there could be no certainty for either side as to who would win on the day.

She tweeted: “3 words - margin of error. What the recent polls show is that if #indyref2 was being held tomorrow, the result would be too close for pollsters to call. The *true* figure for Yes/No could be up to 3 percentage points higher or lower than the headline voting intention figure...”

But the polls also show a significant number of undecided voters, around 10 per cent, and it is those voters that the pro-independence side need to persuade if it is to have a chance of winning, or even getting, a referendum.

And in order to win those over to her side, Sturgeon will need to prove that the SNP is competent in government.

While the independence movement is bigger than the SNP, as Sturgeon alluded to in her speech with a promise to set up a new constitutional convention, and with the Greens also launching their independence campaign on the same day as Sturgeon’s speech, as the biggest party, the government that can push for an independence referendum and as the party of government, give a taste of what an independent Scotland might offer, it is essential that it delivers now.

Scandals such as this week’s with Derek Mackay and the failures to deliver in health and education could have brought down a government with a stronger opposition.

And the Alex Salmond case next month could do even further damage.

It is only because of support for independence and the lack of other options that is keeping support for SNP as high as it is, but if it wants to beat the odds and try to get a majority at next year’s Holyrood election, as well as win over that vital 10 per cent of undecided voters, the party needs to clean up its act and show it can deliver on its promises.

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