The SNP's on course for victory in next year's election, but there could be trouble growing behind the scenes
If Scottish independence is delivered, notes academic Professor James Mitchell wryly, the statue that’s built should be of Boris Johnson.
Insensitive interventions in the Scottish debate by rightwing prime ministers have always had the effect of hardening up support for independence and Boris Johnson is shaping up to be the best recruiting sergeant since Thatcher.
On 16 November, in a meeting of Conservative MPs from the north of England, the Prime Minister described devolution as a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. The remarks could barely have been more damaging for the Scottish Conservatives or more helpful for the SNP, appearing to vindicate the party’s long-standing claim that the UK Government cannot be trusted to protect devolution because ministers secretly oppose it.
It was yet another fillip for a party that has seemed to be on an unstoppable rise this year. Nicola Sturgeon’s approval ratings sit at around 70 per cent, polls show her party on course for a victory in May’s Holyrood election – an astonishing achievement after 13 years in government – and for independence campaigners, Yes support is now on the right side of 50 per cent.
But the veneer of success hides unhappiness behind the scenes. Some activists feel cut off from the party leadership, there are perennial tensions between grassroots radicals and a cautious hierarchy, ongoing disagreements about the best route to independence and lingering anxiety about how damaging the Salmond inquiries could be both to the party and the independence cause.
More publicly, days before conference, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford had his own Johnson moment when he criticised English photographer Ollie Taylor for posting an image taken in Caithness, believing Taylor may have breached lockdown conditions to come to Scotland; in fact Taylor had moved north in August. Blackford had to apologise but was condemned by Taylor for “trying to stir up public hatred”. The First Minister was then forced to address his actions in parliament, insisting Blackford had acted with “grace and dignity” in saying sorry.
Tensions in the party may not spill over dramatically before the Holyrood election, given what is at stake, but even if the SNP is successful in May, as expected, a clear path to independence is by no means assured, in spite of the hubristic claims of some party figures. With the political and economic landscape in flux, and the debate proper on independence not even having begun, the constitutional question is still very much in play.
“There’s no doubt at all that the SNP today does come off as a wee bit complacent and arrogant,” says Mitchell. “They need to be more self-critical.
“They’ve closed down on internal debates. The anger [among certain activists] is because they don’t feel they are being heard and listened to.”
He believes the party could do with a period in opposition to “refresh” and bring forward a more substantial and radical policy agenda than it has pursued in several years.
Going into opposition is of course unlikely. Instead, the leadership’s grip looks set to get tighter and the policy approach to remain decidedly cautious.
This tightening of constraints has been a gradual process, reflecting a desire to control the independence narrative in the run-up to a second referendum.
This year, a potentially contentious motion on a so-called Plan B route to independence was among several rejected for debate, leading to complaints that the conference agenda had been “gerrymandered”.
If the election pegs out as predicted, it will mean a whole new crop of SNP MSPs entering Holyrood, but they are unlikely to bring a more radical edge.
“You’re losing a lot of experienced people,” says Mitchell, referring to the retirement of cabinet ministers and veteran MSPs like Mike Russell, Jeane Freeman and Stewart Stevenson. “The newcomers are unlikely to challenge the leadership, so the leadership is likely to have far greater control than in the past. The new MSPs will believe there is going to be a referendum and that will make them behave and do as they are told.
“It’s a very dangerous position. It’s comfortable, but it’s dangerous. You need people to challenge you and those people need authority to do that.
“We know who the names are. I don’t anticipate there will be troublemakers.”
Leaders who are not challenged tend to become more distant, he adds, and that is “a worry”.
Jim Sillars, the former depute leader of the party and a frequent critic of the leadership, has similar concerns. He says: “I’ve always warned about the eventual consequences of the cult of personality. It usually ends in tears. Every single political god has feet of clay.
“We’ve had the party run by one person, and the government run by one person, and that’s very unhealthy.
“Where’s the collegiate leadership we used to have in Gordon Wilson’s day? That’s a weakness which could prove quite damaging.”
These issues will fester, but they do not appear to be registering with the public. Mitchell can’t see an argument on tactics becoming a threat to the party’s public standing any time soon, though warns that a split over policy and the vision for Scotland could be damaging.
The more immediate threat to leader and cause, however, is the Salmond inquiry. No one knows exactly how it will play out, though the Scottish Government has come under sustained criticism for withholding evidence.
Mitchell says: “I think the public and the SNP membership are puzzled. There’s obviously more to it than meets the eye. I guess it comes down to what the report says when it’s published. There’s something wrong, something smells, partly to do with the way the SNP runs itself, and also the Scottish Government, which isn’t necessarily the SNP.
“It has the potential to be really explosive. The likelihood in the long term is that Salmond is damaged and the question is about Sturgeon, the damage that could be inflicted on her. We don’t know what that will be.
“The party has done a very good job of projecting a particular image of her. If you say you’re pure and wonderful, then it doesn’t take much to damage that.”
Sillars thinks the inquiry could turn out to be “decisively damaging” to the First Minister.
That remains to be seen, but in other respects activists gather at an auspicious moment, with historic high levels of support for independence echoed by strong polling for the SNP in Holyrood voting intentions.
Recent predictions showing them winning an outright majority.
Now more than ever, says Professor Sir John Curtice, the UK’s leading polling expert, support for the SNP and support for independence are closely linked. Unlike in 2011, when many people voted SNP while opposing separation, 90 per cent of those who now say they back independence also say they will vote SNP. If support for independence stays high, Curtice thinks an SNP victory will be hard for their opponents to prevent, adding that May’s election looks like a “quasi-referendum” on independence.
The high levels of support for independence can be explained by two “separate processes”, Brexit and coronavirus, he adds. After the EU referendum in 2016, some Remain No voters switched to yes and some Leave Yes voters to no. That meant the overall split remained broadly the same, at 45/55, but the way those tranches of support were structured had changed.
At the beginning of the year, there was a rise in support for independence, fuelled by disaffection among Remain voters fed up about Brexit.
“The picture since March is different,” he goes on. Since then, support for independence has risen both among Leave and Remain voters, indicating Brexit is not the decisive issue, but probably coronavirus and what Curtice calls the “chasm” of difference in people’s perceptions of how Sturgeon and Johnson are handling it. Two polls have shown that a significant group of No voters from 2014 look more positively on independence because of coronavirus.
Sillars believes this is decisive: “We are living in a surreal world at the present time, where Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to be articulate has contrasted with Boris Johnson’s mumbles and bumbles, which I think is a factor in the opinion polls trending towards independence.
“The substantial reason for the boost in support for independence I think is the Johnson government. I’ve been in politics for over 60 years and I’ve seen governments in trouble and this is the most incompetent government I’ve ever seen. The incompetence seen day after day has started to melt the glue that holds Scotland to the UK.
“There’s not a substantial difference in how the pandemic has been handled between Scotland and the UK.
“And I don’t discount the amount of time Nicola Sturgeon has had from the BBC. I think the SNP has benefited hugely from that.”
Sturgeon has rarely looked discomfited by her opponents at Holyrood either. “The SNP has never been more fortunate in having such weak opposition,” says Mitchell.
Sillars is making no assumptions about the SNP winning an outright majority, noting that if the party clocks up too many constituency victories, it could be hard for them to pick up list seats.
Still, they look set fair to emerge dominant again and in addition, SNP figures have started claiming that independence is the “settled will” of the Scottish people, a conscious echo of John Smith’s 1994 phrase describing decades of majority support for a Scottish Parliament. “That’s obviously rubbish,” says Curtice. The change in the polls is recent, he points out, and is not linked to an intense debate about the constitution.
Will Brexit coming into effect on 1 January turbo-charge support for independence? “I think to be honest that probably the crucial thing now is what happens in January, February and March.” Bare supermarket shelves, a delay in the vaccine reaching Britain and “enormous queues of trucks” would do little to boost the UK Government’s position.
Mitchell too dismisses the notion that independence is now the settled will of Scots, pointing out that the polls are “broadly 50/50” and the increase in support for independence is soft. “There’s no doubt at all that there’s all to play for for both sides.”
With post-COVID debt and unemployment, and a new set of challenges created by Brexit, a second referendum would not be a rerun of 2014, says Sillars, adding that assuming the election and then a referendum will be won in swift succession, is “childish”.
Looking to the SNP, he says: “It’s time to get feet on the ground and the brain starting to work. What are the other side likely to do? That’s the critical question.”
He expects to see Boris Johnson initially trying to sell “more union” – emphasising the perceived benefits of remaining in the UK – but then suspects another school of thought will open up among pro-UK campaigners about promoting federalism, changing the nature of the debate from for-or-against independence, to independence-versus-federalism.
Mitchell also sees momentum building behind federalism. Boris Johnson’s outburst against devolution will be seen in time as a gift to Labour rather than the SNP, he predicts, since it puts the Tories beyond the pale and allows Labour to open up a distinctive and potentially much more popular front – perhaps with a federalist message – from which they can fight a progressive anti-independence campaign.
“What Labour needs to do is have a clear, positive alternative message. Labour has potential here.”
After six of the most eventful years in modern political history, here in Scotland there is a lot more politics to come.