THE European elections were supposed to give the pro-independence campaign a boost ahead of the referendum. The expectation was that the SNP would get a third MEP elected, allowing Alex Salmond to claim the momentum was with the Yes side in the run-up to the September 18 vote.
But instead, the Nationalist vote stayed at the same level as the last European elections and it was the right-wing UK Independence Party which picked up the seat lost by the Liberal Democrats.
The SNP still polled more votes than any other party across Scotland and so “won” the election – although in Edinburgh, Labour squeaked ahead by just 37 votes.
But the failure to gain that extra seat or increase their vote is a big blow for the Nationalists less than four months out from referendum day. Mr Salmond had warned of the risk that Ukip could win a seat, telling voters it was a choice between the SNP and Nigel Farage’s party for the sixth seat. Some might say that was prescient, but others see it as a serious tactical mistake.
Talking up your opponents’ chances is always a dangerous move and in this case it meant effectively urging people to vote Ukip if they wanted to stop the SNP.
The Nationalists, in turn, blamed the BBC for helping to give Ukip a higher profile in Scotland than their level of support merited by “beaming up” massive coverage of Mr Farage and his doings from England. Political opponents have dismissed this as the easy option of always attacking the media. However, Ukip does seem to have hardly been off our screens in recent months and much of the coverage of last week’s English local elections appeared a bit over the top, given that the party’s share of the vote was down on the previous year and it did not win control of any councils.
The anti-independence parties have hailed Ukip’s win here as proof that Mr Salmond and his colleagues are wrong when they claim Scotland has different values from England. It seems a little perverse to take such glee in asserting that Scots are just as racist as people elsewhere.
But the idea that the picture is the same north and south of the Border is true only up to a point anyway. The fact Ukip were able to take a seat in Scotland was a surprise, but the party’s 10.4 per cent of the vote was still dramatically lower than the 27.5 per cent they took to top the poll in England.
In reality, the voting pattern for European Parliament elections probably tells us very little about how people are feeling about independence or whether they are likely to put their cross against Yes or No in September – even if you add up the votes of all pro- and anti-independence parties.
Despite the heightened political awareness thanks to the referendum and the increased turnout of 41.6 per cent in Edinburgh, there were still nearly two-thirds of voters across the country who did not bother to vote. Hopefully it will be a different story on September 18.
It is the blow to morale of failing to get a third seat when expectations were so high which has damaged the SNP and the Yes side more than any political significance in the result itself.
And paradoxically, Ukip’s success in England may work to Mr Salmond’s advantage. If he is right that the majority of Scots are uncomfortable with the politics and rhetoric of Mr Farage and his followers, then their rising popularity down south might help persuade waverers that Scotland would be better off on its own.