MORE than 11 years after coming to power at Holyrood, the SNP is still by far the most popular political party in Scotland and looks on course to win a fourth term of government at the next elections in 2021.
An opinion poll at the weekend showed the Nationalists on 38 per cent support for the constituency vote, comfortably ahead of the Tories on 26 per cent, Labour on 25 and the Lib Dems on nine.
For a governing party to have kept such a clear lead after so long in power is remarkable.
But the Survation survey was nevertheless worrying for Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues.
Calculations based on its findings suggest the SNP would end up 11 MSPs down.
Despite an increase in the Green contingent, the 129-seat chamber would no longer have a majority in favour of independence – and therefore not enough to agree to hold a second independence referendum. The projection shows the new parliament would have 52 Nationalists; the Tories and Labour would be level with 29 each; and the Lib Dems would double their numbers to ten, overtaking the Greens, who would increase from six to nine.
The SNP would still form the government, but whereas its current tally of 63 MSPs plus the six Greens is enough to get legislation passed, the make-up of the parliament after the election would leave the combined SNP and Green forces four short of the 65 seats which would give them a majority.
This, of course, is one of the arguments put forward in favour of an early return to the ballot box on independence. Ms Sturgeon must seize the opportunity to hold Indyref 2 now before she loses the chance, say many activists.
The First Minister was due to announce her plans about another independence vote at the SNP conference earlier this month, but that was on the basis that the situation with Brexit was going to be clearer by then, which it wasn’t. Instead, she appealed for “perseverance, pragmatism and patience”.
Some polls have indicated an increase in backing for independence, but it’s nowhere near the evidence of sustained majority support which Ms Sturgeon has previously said is needed before she will call a fresh vote. And the Survation poll showed opinion divided exactly as it was in 2014, with 45 per cent in favour and 55 against.
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said the SNP will only win its goal of independence when it is able to persuade a majority of people in Scotland that is the right future.
If the poll findings of a dip in SNP support are correct, it might be taken as an indication things are not moving in that direction – and going for Indyref 2 right now might just confirm that and mean no further referendum could be held for many years.
But the expectation is that the 2021 election will be fought largely on the question of independence and another referendum. That will be a chance for Ms Sturgeon and the party to make a convincing case, answering the questions voters felt were not satisfactorily dealt with last time and setting out why an independent Scotland is a better prospect than Brexit Britain.
If, despite that, the SNP does lose seats and there is no pro-independence majority, Ms Sturgeon will know the voters are not yet persuaded.