Sean Bell: Polls, pundits and the perils of heeding the loudest voices

“Will these polling results resemble the eventual makeup of Holyrood in 2021? Mibbes aye, mibbes naw. Will continuous and verifiable majority support for independence lead to a second referendum on the national question? Could be – but nobody’s quite sure how.”

THIS POLL is significant – trust me, I’m a journalist.

With that, I have hopefully put to bed any scurrilous accusations that Source is incapable of brevity, whilst simultaneously summarising the general reaction of the Scottish press to yesterday’s Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times showing a 54 per cent majority in favour of independence – the second in recent weeks to do so – as well as a titanic lead for the SNP ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary election.

Based on the survey of 1,026 Scottish voters conducted between 30 June and 3 July, the SNP would enjoy a four-point increase in the Holyrood constituency vote, taking them up to 55 per cent, and a further two-point increase in the regional vote, leaving them at 50 per cent. Should these findings hold true, the SNP would secure 11 seats more than in 2016, leaving them with an absolute majority of 74 – precisely the kind of result, as every Scottish political geek loves to tell anyone within earshot, that the Holyrood system was virtually designed to prevent.

Coupled with this landslide SNP victory, the Panelbase poll also suggests the Scottish Greens would increase their representation to nine seats, resulting in an overall pro-independence majority of 37. Including this weekend’s latest, the average Panelbase polling on support for independence over the past six months puts Yes on 51 per cent – the first time independence has been demonstrably ahead for such a sustained period.

Make no mistake, these are some truly staggering numbers for a party 13 years into government. Yet while these results have understandably attracted much attention – jubilation tempered with caution from the SNP and wider independence movement, further gloom for a unionist establishment not predisposed to good moods to begin with – a good deal of the reaction has been oddly restrained, even muted. As Newsnight policy editor Lewis Goodall emphasised, what’s happening in Scotland may be “the biggest story in Britain right now”, but it’s “barely registering in the Westminster conversation.”

Other than a pesky global pandemic, this may be because the latest proof that Scottish independence is the preeminent issue in UK politics only raises further questions, which no one on either side of the constitutional divide can reliably answer. Will these polling results resemble the eventual makeup of Holyrood in 2021? Mibbes aye, mibbes naw. Will continuous and verifiable majority support for independence lead to a second referendum on the national question? Could be – but nobody’s quite sure how. Will we freedom for freedom’s sake, in and through particular circumstances? You tell me, pal.

Admittedly, there has been loose talk in some quarters that a new plebiscite would be ‘irresistible’, provided public support holds firm and a fresh mandate is delivered to the SNP. To this, less optimistic voices within the independence movement make a fair point: such a proposition would, under the ramshackle logic of the British constitutional arrangement, be entirely resistible. At present, any guaranteed route to a Section 30 order is tucked neatly between the pages of Shakespeare’s lost folio and the formula for the Philosopher’s Stone.

So yes, Boris Johnson could very well tell the SNP, the Scottish people and all their aspirations to get stuffed – he has form, in this regard – but it is worth remembering that the self-appointed ‘minister for the Union’ has staked a considerable degree of his political capital on his supposed ability to frustrate secessionism and maintain the Ruritanian fiction that is ‘Britain’. If his premiership inadvertently oversees the opposite outcome, then we’ll talk about what Westminster can and cannot ‘resist’.

Until that day comes, the question will be that explored by Source’s Ben Wray this morning – what actions could be taken to facilitate an indyref? With any luck, this will improve the quality of debate around the so-called ‘Plan B’ for securing independence (those who paid attention to last autumn’s SNP conference may have noticed those advocating such a plan didn’t actually have one); there are only so many times you can “call for debate” before you actually have to, y’know, do it.

Beyond that, what do these recent polls tell us? On the next Holyrood elections, provisos are necessary – I distrust any journalist who poses as a soothsayer and we are ten months away from May 2021. To put that in context, ten months ago Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party, Jo Swinson was someone who’s name might actually be worth remembering, and Howard Hughes was a tragic historical figure and not a lifestyle influencer.

Still, we may draw a few qualified conclusions: the idea that any increase in SNP support can only come at the expense of the Greens, or vice versa, has been dashed – not just an encouraging outcome for those who favour a pluralistic independence movement, but a surprising one, given that the Holyrood voting system has been credibly accused of favouring major parties over smaller competitors. In a similar vein, the prospect of a commanding pro-independence majority also renders all those profoundly tedious conversations about tactical voting – an offence to democracy, if you’re curious – somewhat academic (no doubt to the dismay of certain brand-new Mickey Mouse operations in which some have invested a truly bizarre amount of faith).

The story of the hour – indeed, the preceding decade-plus – remains the enduring popularity of the SNP. Governments this old, with this many compromises to their name, generally do not expect this level of popular support. Some may attribute it to an elevation of cause over party among the pro-independence faithful; others draw attention to Nicola Sturgeon’s high levels of public approval over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, in marked contrast to her opposite number in Downing Street. There could be something to these explanations; beyond hazarding a few guesses, I cannot pretend to account for the phenomenon entirely.

I do, however, feel on safer ground theorising why SNP dominance has not collapsed, despite the many dark prognostications of backstabbing, plummeting popularity and civil war from would-be Nostradamuses (some of whom may or may not have newspaper columns). We have been told, portentously and pompously, that the SNP is forever on the verge of a mass-revolt from both party members and the Scottish public, even if it never quite transpires; that the flagship social policies of the Scottish Government, from GRA reform to the Hate Crime Bill, are in fact wildly unpopular; and that the SNP has been overrun by sinister infiltrators “who will stop at nothing to turn Scotland into something resembling a virtual North Korea”.

(Indeed, my favourite variation on this conspiracy theory posits that the Scottish Government is secretly orchestrated by a Legion of Doom-style cabal of SNP activists based in Stirling University; it has been over a decade since my graduation from that institution, but as I remember it, Stirling students are barely capable of orchestrating a barbecue, so you’ll have to forgive my scepticism.)

If there is any truth to this weekend’s Panelbase poll, and if the SNP does achieve anything like the landslide it points towards, we might allow for the possibility that there is a significant distance, in both priority and ideology, between voters and those who fulminate from opinion sections and the blogosphere. Indeed, we may cautiously conclude that some of the better-publicised lines of attack against the SNP – and its higher-profile critics – have impacted the Scottish public to a degree which serious political analysts such as myself refer to, in a technical sense, as “fuck all”. You may or may not believe this should be the case, but it’s hard to deny the apparent reality.

So, if such issues do not look likely to determine the SNP’s future or the 2021 election, what will? I can only answer that with a further question: what issues affect the greatest number of voters, and what will they do about it?

There are few more disingenuous pleas one can hear in Scottish politics than a call for focus upon ‘bread and butter’ issues – the kind which have, according to many unionists, taken a backseat for the past six years in favour of the self-indulgence of constitutional discourse. The hypocrisy of this shouldn’t need explaining – the constitutional arrangement of Scotland and the UK is the very definition of a bread and butter issue. The question of independence is one of money and power, political economy and daily realities, and anyone pretending it isn’t should search their memories carefully to recollect what kind of doom-laden warnings they voiced in the run-up to September 2014. But beneath the bluster, there is a point; bread and butter issues matter, even if voters tend to be a hell of a lot better at recognising them than most politicians.

The SNP should remember – along with everyone else – that the Scottish Government was only able to pass a budget in January of 2019 by promising the Greens a further round of cross-party talks on replacing the outdated, regressive and punitive Council Tax. In the near-year and a half since, these talks have not yet transpired. Council Tax remains the levy which may break many of Scotland’s poorest when an expected ‘tsunami’ of post-Covid personal debt eventually hits. In the meantime, Cosla has presented the Scottish Government with two options: increase Council Tax “in excess of 50%”, or allow local authorities a minimum of 20 years to pay back deficits accrued over the course of the pandemic.

Elsewhere, Holyrood’s Local Government Committee quietly dropped Labour MSP Pauline McNeill’s ‘Mary Barbour Bill’ from its schedule last week, essentially guaranteeing that Scotland’s best current hope of seeing some progress towards rent controls will not be debated before the 2021 election. At a time when private rents have gone up at double the rate of inflations year on year across the Central Belt, when poorer families can and do spend the majority of their income on the rentier sector, when rent arrears have exploded in the wake of the Coronavirus lockdown and the economic calamity that has followed, apparently this issue was not worthy of immediate consideration.

I cannot say whether these issues will have any bearing on next year’s election, or if they will make any dent in the SNP’s seemingly enchanted lead in the polls. All I can say is that these are matters which affect hundreds of thousands of people across the nation the SNP supposedly seeks to liberate. By now, they should be smart enough to avoid complacency; their sense of priority would indicate otherwise.

Picture courtesy of Jose Gabbaro Llop