It’s been a rough few weeks for the SNP. The fallout from the Scottish government’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations levelled against former First Minister Alex Salmond has been a constant headache, exposing deep tensions within the party and placing current leader Nicola Sturgeon under fierce scrutiny over her role in the proceedings.
It is in this context that the SNP has published a draft bill detailing their plans for a second referendum on independence. Set to occur sometime within the first half of the next Holyrood term, the content of the bill is broadly similar to the conditions set out for the last referendum. As in 2014, the franchise would be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds, along with foreign nationals resident in the country. The question, too – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – remains unchanged.
But the Scottish political landscape has changed a lot in the last seven years. To give the SNP their due, they – and independence – have been consistently polling well throughout the coronavirus crisis. Sturgeon’s government has won praise for its relatively calm and orderly response to the pandemic in comparison to that of a somewhat muddled Downing Street, and consecutive polls showed independence commanding a large plurality.
The recent scandal, however, has put a serious dent in that upswing of support. Nicola Sturgeon’s conduct with regards to the Salmond allegations fell short of breaking the ministerial code, judged an independent inquiry on Monday, but a separate committee of MSPs nevertheless found that she did mislead the Scottish parliament over the matter and that the government’s actions were “seriously flawed”. While Sturgeon herself remains roughly as popular as ever – she comfortably survived a vote of no confidence against her 65-31 – independence is doing demonstrably worse in the polls.
What really matters is the upcoming Scottish parliamentary election in May. On the one hand, voters have now experienced Brexit and the difficulties that come with extricating a country from a political union. That might make them warier of voting to leave another. What’s more, as I write this, Alex Salmond has just announced he will field candidates for his own pro-independence party in the May elections, which could well split the SNP vote, despite claims it will create a parliamentary “supermajority” for independence.
But on the other hand, if the SNP wins a majority, as it has been predicted that they will, they will be well-placed to demand another referendum. If the Scottish people choose to re-elect a nationalist party, with plans for a second independence referendum officially on the agenda for the very near future, the British government will not be able, in good conscience, to deny them what they want. To do so would only drive undecided voters towards a “yes” vote.
Pushing for a referendum isn’t a decision the SNP are going to take lightly. Make no mistake, if this referendum fails, there won’t be another. Support for independence has never been stronger, or more fragile, and it’s impossible to overstate the impact these elections will have on Scotland’s future. If the SNP manages to weather its current challenges and take a majority in May, the case for Indyref 2 will be solid. If they do not regain public trust; if they cannot convince voters that independence will be a solution to the problems of Brexit, rather than an exacerbation of them, and do not secure the mandate they need, Indyref 2 will be off the table for the foreseeable future. On that point, unlike the recent goings-on in Holyrood, the jury is very much still out.
Image: Scottish Government via Creative Commons