A Question of Focus? The Choices Facing the SNP

The SNP seems set to start its conference in Aberdeen on Friday in a somewhat uncertain mood. Now just over two years into its third term in office, the party has to decide what to do with the three years that it has left before it has to face the voters again. Should it try to push for independence, try to stop Brexit, or simply try to administer Scotland within the framework of the current constitutional settlement?

The question of whether to hold a second independence referendum has been hanging over the party ever since its party leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated on the day after the EU referendum that the divergence between the pro-Remain vote in Scotland and the pro-Leave result across the UK as a whole meant that the question of a second independence referendum was back ‘on the table’. Since then she has been at risk of looking like the Duke of York, leading her troops to the top of the hill in March of last year with a formal request to the UK government for the power to call a second referendum towards the end of the Brexit process, only to lead them half-way down again in June, following the loss of 21 seats in that month’s Westminster election, with the announcement that she had put the request on hold for twelve months.

So far, it is not obvious that the decision about whether to try to go ahead with a second referendum or not is going to look any easier to make this autumn than it did twelve months ago. The four polls of voting intentions for a second independence referendum that have so far been published this year have on average (once Don’t Knows are put to one side) put Yes on 45%, No on 55%, that is, exactly where they were in the 2014 independence referendum. The Brexit debate has, it seems, had no significant impact (in either direction) on the overall level of support for independence, leaving the challenge facing the independence movement in any second ballot still looking like a formidable one.

Equally, there is little sign that voters are warming to the prospect of holding a second independence referendum. Panelbase found in March that while 42% think that a second independence referendum should be held either during or at the conclusion of the Brexit process, down somewhat on the 47% who expressed that view last June. YouGov put support even lower – just 35% said in January that there should be a second referendum should be held at the conclusion of the Brexit talks, 36% that one should be held after Britain had left the EU, and, again, 36% that one should be held within the next five years. None of these figures is significantly higher than they were when the questions were first asked last April.

On the other hand, the First Minister would be espousing a somewhat more popular cause (in Scotland at least) if she were to opt to back the idea of holding a referendum on the Brexit deal that the UK government eventually makes with the EU. A YouGov poll in October found that 46% were in favour of a referendum on the deal, while only 33% were opposed. Similarly, a Panelbase poll for the Wings over Scotland website last December reported that 47% were in favour, rather more than the 41% who were opposed. Meanwhile two polls of voting intentions for a second EU referendum conducted this year have on average put support for Remain on 65% (after Don’t Knows are left to one side). Of course, there is little prospect of the House of Commons voting for a second referendum unless the Labour party at Westminster falls in behind the idea, but if it did Ms Sturgeon might find it difficult not to order her MPs to enter the same lobby – even though the idea of having a second referendum on the details of the deal might be thought to set a precedent for how any future negotiations about Scottish independence should be handled.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of reason why the party should feel that the task of governing Scotland should be its priority. It remains well ahead in the polls, and in particular, seems not to have lost any further ground so far as polls of Westminster vote intentions are concerned since its setback last year.  However, it is not sufficiently far ahead to be sure that, even with support from the Greens, there would be a majority of MSPs in favour of independence in the next Holyrood parliament. Three polls conducted so far this year have on average put the party on 40% on the constituency vote, down seven points on what it achieved two years ago, while two polls of regional vote intentions have put the party’s support down by ten points. Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon finds herself much less popular than she was just 18 months ago. If the First Minister is inclined to play it long on holding a second referendum then her party will need to improve on its current level of popularity, so that holding a referendum at some point beyond 2021 looks like a realistic possibility.

Still, there is one governance issue whose potentially rocky shores seem so far to have been reasonably well negotiated by the SNP – how to use the new power to set the rate of income tax north of the border. The party’s decision to use that power to focus tax increases on the better off was, perhaps not surprisingly, relatively popular with voters. For example, in January YouGov found that 53% supported (and only 27% opposed) the idea that those on less than £26,000 a year should pay less tax than their counterparts in England and Wales, while those on more than £26,000 a year should pay more.  A number of other polls conducted at the time that the Scottish Budget was announced seemed to uncover a broad sympathy with the idea of increasing the tax take.

But, of course, with the power to set tax rates has come the responsibility (to some degree at least) to live on Scotland’s own tax revenues, and, as a recent report from the Scottish Fiscal Commission has noted, that could soon come to seem a difficult responsibility. If that does indeed prove to be the case, doubtless there will be a political battle over who should take the blame – and an argument about what the fall in tax revenues implies for what, most likely, will still be a continuing debate about independence, even if the First Minister does not press the indyref2 button any time soon.


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.