Study brings SNP some good news, but there's no escape from Scotland's independence stalemate – Ian Swanson

Academics say support for the SNP is unlikely to collapse
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Academics studying the 2014 referendum and its effect on Scottish politics have concluded that the continued high level of backing for independence means support for the party will not collapse, despite everything that’s happening.

The SNP’s poll ratings have certainly dipped since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as leader and the subsequent events which have engulfed the party, but support for independence has remained largely steady. And the academics say it is that desire for an independent Scotland which will “keep afloat” the SNP despite resignations, arrests and the ongoing police investigation.

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The team behind the Scottish Election Study, led by Edinburgh University politics professor Ailsa Henderson, has produced a book, The Referendum that Changed a Nation, looking at voting behaviour since since 2014. It challenges various myths about the referendum itself – such as the idea that “The Vow” published by pro-union party leaders, promising Scotland more devolved powers, was key in persuading voters to reject independence – but it also looks to the future, drawing on its findings about how voting patterns have changed.

Pro-independence campaigners at a rally ahead of the 2014 referendum. A new study says continuing support for independence will keep the SNP afloat despite its current troubles (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Pro-independence campaigners at a rally ahead of the 2014 referendum. A new study says continuing support for independence will keep the SNP afloat despite its current troubles (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Pro-independence campaigners at a rally ahead of the 2014 referendum. A new study says continuing support for independence will keep the SNP afloat despite its current troubles (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

And co-author Rob Johns argues that despite the recent dip in SNP support, many voters still feel strongly in favour of independence and associate the SNP closely with that cause. He argues that’s what will carry the party through its current difficulties. “The SNP has lost some support, there is no doubt about that. But it hasn’t by any means imploded and some of the more recent polling is actually showing the SNP vote ticking up again. What would be happening to SNP support if there were not independence? I think it would be something pretty cataclysmic probably.”

So what of the opposition parties’ dreams of voters turning their backs on the SNP and Labour’s hopes, in particular, of a dramatic revival? Professor Johns does acknowledge the SNP might not do very well when it comes to the UK general election expected next year, partly because voters will see the contest as an opportunity to eject the Tories from power at Westminster by voting for Labour, but also because the SNP cannot point to a clear route to independence. The study, therefore, does not seem to dent Labour’s hopes of a UK election breakthrough, even if it suggests that hopes of a permanent long-term shift of opinion resulting from the SNP’s problems would be misplaced.

And so far as independence goes, it looks as if Scotland will continue to be divided more or less equally between Yes and No, and with no obvious way of securing independence anyway. Minister for independence Jamie Hepburn has promised the series of government papers published under Nicola Sturgeon, arguing the case for independence, will soon resume. His job is to ensure the “golden thread of independence” runs through every policy area.

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But, however reassuring the academics’ analysis may be for the SNP’s survivial, public opinion on independence remains split, there’s no change of heart on the horizon over Westminster’s refusal to allow a second referendum, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that Holyrood does not have the power to initiate a fresh vote on its own, and the SNP has no clear alternative route. It looks like there’s no escape from Scotland’s independence stalemate.

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