Ian Swanson: SNP ahead, but it’s not over yet

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THE SNP is flying high – and its way looks clear to another victory at next year’s Holyrood elections.

An opinion poll last week showed the party building on the stunning success of last month’s Westminster elections and on course for a second overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, with 60 per cent support in the constituency vote and 50 per cent on the list, compared with just 19 per cent for Labour in both votes.

For any government to have such high levels of popularity after being in power for eight years is an incredible achievement.

So is it time for another referendum? Deputy SNP leader Stewart Hosie has spoken of a refusal by the UK Government to concede further powers for Scotland as a possible trigger for another vote on independence. And some activists argue the current desperate state of the opposition parties makes it an ideal time for another go.

There’s no doubt the general election result was a massive snub to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in Scotland and a huge vote of confidence in the SNP as the party that will stand up for Scotland’s interests.

But it does not mean the SNP could be sure of a Yes victory in a new referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon went out of her way to say the general election was not about independence.

And it could even be argued voters felt more able to back the SNP when it came for electing MPs because they were not having to wrestle with the problems and controversies thrown up by the referendum.

The independence issue has not gone away, of course. The SNP’s bid for full fiscal autonomy (FFA) – thrown out by Westminster on Monday – was the next best thing for which the party could try.

But critics cast doubt on whether the Nationalists really wanted FFA in the light of forecasts by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) that it would mean a gap in Scotland’s finances of at least £7.6 billion.

And the difficulty the SNP had in combating such claims should act as a warning to the party that it needs to work hard to find convincing answers to the questions its opponents – and voters – will have in any future 
independence referendum.

The economy is always going to be the decisive issue and despite its soaring popularity the SNP will be at a disadvantage if it cannot put forward a credible and persuasive economic case for a totally self-governing Scotland.

The party’s protests about the IFS deficit figures being “a snapshot” failed to defuse the alarm signals about full fiscal autonomy.

And the argument – fair enough in itself – that such extensive new powers would take years to implement sat uneasily with the party’s insistence during the referendum that independence could be signed, sealed and delivered within 18 months.

Last year’s 45 per cent Yes vote was an impressive achievement, but if the pro-independence camp is to secure a majority next time, the concerns which surfaced during the campaign about issues such as currency and pensions need to be better addressed, as do questions about the oil price.

It would be a big risk for the SNP to to hold another referendum unless it can be confident of winning.

The glow of the Westminster triumph and the prospect of another victory at Holyrood in less than 12 months should not distract them from coming up with a clearer and more convincing case for the independence in which they believe.