Will the SNP ever accept most of its voters don't back independence?

The Sturgeon paradox: The SNP keep winning elections (though NOT with the glory they claim) yet polls show support for independence is stalled… Will the party EVER accept many of its supporters don’t back its raison d’être, asks TOM HARRIS

Nicola Sturgeon has triumphed. Again. 

This time round the Nationalist advance came in Scotland’s local elections, in which the SNP actually increased its support since last time, with a net gain of more town hall seats (just) than any other party, establishing itself as the dominant force in local, as well as national, government.

However you feel about the First Minister and her party and the Nationalist project to dismantle the Union, it can hardly be denied that an increase in the popular vote after 15 years in office at Holyrood is impressive.

So, bolstered by this latest triumph, and with the SNP still riding high in most opinion polls, it’s full steam ahead towards the next independence referendum and independence, yes?

Well, no.

That triumph seems less impressive when the percentage of actual first preference votes – 34 per cent – is taken into account. And that is far outweighed by votes cast for the Unionist parties.

Nevertheless, it’s still better than what the SNP’s rivals managed to achieve individually.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised that her government will shortly be bringing forward a new Bill to enable a public vote on independence before the end of next year

Make no mistake: a second, rerun referendum on independence is very much to the fore of Miss Sturgeon’s mind.

She has promised repeatedly that her government will shortly be bringing forward a new Bill to enable a public vote before the end of next year. 

She has enough of a majority in the Scottish parliament – thanks to her little helpers in the Scottish Greens – to ensure that such a Bill will be successful.

And yet despite the continued popularity of Miss Sturgeon personally and of her party, that dream of independence is as far away as it seemed on the morning after the 2014 referendum.

There will be much heated debate in the months ahead over whether Holyrood has the legal right to hold a referendum without the explicit consent of Westminster.

But lawyerly arguments aside, there is a consistent disconnect between the First Minister and the people she hopes to lead to her promised land of Scottish independence. 

Put simply: this is an electorate willing to give her and her party repeated stamps of approval at local, national and UK-wide elections.

But even as they place their cross in the box marked ‘SNP’, they do not share Miss Sturgeon’s aspirations when it comes to ripping Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

This is a paradox. And for the First Minister it must be a frustrating one.

An electorate that has already rejected independence in a free and fair referendum has since offered overwhelming, unprecedented support to a party whose whole raison d’être is to fight for that rejected option.

Despite the continued popularity of Miss Sturgeon personally and of her party, that dream of independence is as far away as it seemed on the morning after the 2014 referendum, writes Tom Harris

Part of the answer to this paradox is basic electoral arithmetic: the 55 per cent of Scots who voted against independence in 2014 have since had a choice of an array of Unionist parties to support and have spread that support accordingly, effectively dissipating their impact.

Supporters of independence, on the other hand, although they comprise a minority of the electorate, were (and continue to be) happy to throw their weight behind one, single nationalist vehicle, the SNP.

In a first-past-the-post electoral system, that pattern meant a near wipe-out for the Unionist parties, as I found out to my cost in 2015.

After all, for years, Scottish Labour dominated the electoral map of Scotland with barely 40 per cent of the vote. Now the SNP are doing the same with considerably higher poll ratings.

But there is another explanation for the SNP electoral paradox: its opponents.

As any political strategist will tell you, the future belongs to the optimists, to those who can visualise for the electorate a bright, sunny tomorrow. 

When was the last time you heard a Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem politician fill you with hope for the future?

Miss Sturgeon’s manifesto may be full of holes, woolly thinking and economic fantasy, but there is no doubting here is a leader of a party who knows what voters want to hear.

Until recently, Scottish Labour had little to say other than how awful independence would be. It urged the public and rival politicians to ‘move on’ from the sterile constitutional debate and to talk about other issues instead.

They had a point, but too many voters suspected – probably rightly – that Labour just wasn’t comfortable talking about the constitution because it had nothing very much to say about it. 

And what it did say – federalism and even more devolution – turned off even many of its own voters.

Similarly, the Scottish Tories have struggled in the polls, thanks largely to Boris Johnson’s unpopularity north of the Border.

Scottish leader Douglas Ross has proved effective and impressive – but despite his everyman football referee background, he has been undermined by the revelations about Downing Street parties during lockdown.

Too much of Scotland still sees itself as a ‘Tory-free zone’, and the First Minister was happy to capitalise on Scots’ unhappiness with Boris Johnson by constantly talking about him during the recent campaign. It was a tactic that paid dividends.

The Scottish Lib Dems remain a power in the land, but are still struggling to escape the shadow of the coalition years, when they handed David Cameron the keys to Downing Street.

In all, Nicola Sturgeon has been lucky in the opponents she has had to face.

So why hasn’t unhappiness with the Unionist parties and support for the SNP at elections still not translated into support for independence itself?

The question is an urgent one for the Nationalists; although they enjoy being in control of Holyrood and of local authorities, and as much as they love being the dominant Scottish voice in the House of Commons, there isn’t a single one of them who wouldn’t trade their position and status today for the promise of independence tomorrow.

This is key to understanding the SNP: no one ever joined that party in order to fight poverty or to campaign for a better health service or for higher school standards. 

The only thing that gets them up in the morning is the dream of independence.

If, even a decade ago, you could foresee a Scotland in which the SNP beat every other party at every level of election, you would have naturally assumed that this vision of the future was one that was comfortably outside the UK.

Yet here we are, still firmly part of the Union with little prospect of that changing any time soon. It almost seems unfair: why is it that the party that enjoys more support than any other party in the country can’t deliver its flagship policy?

Perhaps it’s more than just electoral arithmetic or the poor quality of the opposition.

There is evidence that even some Unionists, although not great in number, occasionally vote for their local SNP candidates, in the belief that they will more effectively stand up for Scotland against the UK Government. 

Tom Harris writes: Miss Sturgeon’s manifesto may be full of holes, woolly thinking and economic fantasy, but there is no doubting here is a leader of a party who knows what voters want to hear

This doesn’t necessarily equate to support for nationalism itself; in fact it’s arguable that, given the result of the 2014 referendum, some Unionists might feel more comfortable with voting SNP because they’re confident that they are powerless to bring about independence.

It is these voters – psephologists refer to them as ‘soft Unionists’ – who are key to the SNP’s and Miss Sturgeon’s ambitions.

Resigned to the fact that there is not yet a settled majority of Scots in favour of independence, the First Minister hopes to persuade at least some of those Scots who voted No to independence eight years ago to change their minds.

She wants to do this by proving that the SNP is a safe, responsible party that knows how to govern. 

Reiterating this assertion in the next few years is key to diminishing the fears of those who might consider voting Yes next time, if only they are reassured about the SNP’s ability to govern.

Last week’s local elections, revealing a 1.8 per cent rise in SNP support since the last time these elections were fought five years ago, could be evidence the strategy of allay and reassure is working – except that, despite sweeping all before it, the total level of first preference votes the SNP received was just 34 per cent, barely a third of those who bothered to vote.

To make matters worse for the First Minister, a poll by Survation on behalf of the pro-UK campaigning organisation, Scotland in Union, found that just 29 per cent of Scots agree with Miss Sturgeon’s timetable for a second independence referendum by the end of next year. 

And when they were asked to choose between Leave and Remain, just 42 per cent wanted to leave the UK.

It’s almost tempting to sympathise with the First Minister. Unprecedented electoral success at every level, yet the main prize remains tantalisingly out of reach.

And time may be running out on this partly successful phase of Scottish nationalism.

Nationalists have pursued a clever strategy since Scottish Labour, their long-time enemy, was almost wiped from the electoral map in 2015.

In the period since, as evidenced by the First Minister’s constant focus on Boris Johnson during the local elections campaign, the SNP have sought to convince Scots that the choice is between them and the evil Tories.

The tactic seems to have worked – but only because Scottish Labour, until recently, was still stuck on the sidelines, irrelevant and directionless.

The results last week, along with evidence of recent polling, suggests that has changed.

Scottish Labour, now led by Anas Sarwar, a pleasant, engaging and razor-sharp politician, has established itself once again as the main alternative to the SNP.

This is an important achievement for Sarwar, and one that escaped his predecessors. And it is one that was feared by the SNP. 

The last thing they want is to be forced into a contest in which they face a centre-Left, progressive party – especially one that is sitting in second place in a swathe of SNP-held seats in the Central Belt.

It’s almost tempting to sympathise with the First Minister, Tom Harris writes – unprecedented electoral success at every level, yet the main prize remains tantalisingly out of reach

It will now be far more difficult, and far less plausible, for the First Minister to claim that Scots must choose her or risk being run by the Conservatives at any level of government. 

That doesn’t mean she won’t try, but she risks her own credibility by denying the reality of this new political landscape.

The clock is also ticking on the subject of the Scottish Government’s actual delivery of policies.

There is nothing Miss Sturgeon would like better than for Scots to forget all about the ferry fiasco, in which hundreds of millions of their money has been wasted on non-existent boats, a scandal for which no one in the Government wishes to take responsibility.

Add in doubts about an internal investigation into ministerial bullying and continued failure to close Scotland’s appalling education attainment gap, and the SNP strategy of reassuring dubious Scots that it can run an effective government may be running out of time. 

Miss Sturgeon has enjoyed an unprecedented level of political success in the past eight years.

And she has been given an unprecedented opportunity: to turn popular support for her party into popular support for independence. 

Questions are now being asked about why she has failed to capitalise on that opportunity.

Perhaps she saw the task too simplistically. Perhaps she was naïve in believing that Scots’ commitment to the Union could be so easily eroded by policy initiatives on baby boxes, bans on smacking children and making it easier to self-ID as a different gender to your biological sex.

That opportunity for nationalism has not yet gone away. There is still time for the SNP leader to capitalise on her and her party’s extraordinary political success. All she has to do is show her fellow Scots that independence will be worth it.

But here’s the thing: after eight years in charge, with numerous knock-out victories to her name, she still hasn’t managed it. Theresa May, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson – she hasn’t been short of ammunition to use against the UK.

But here we are. A leader with no more worlds to conquer, except one. And that victory seems as elusive as ever.

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