THE INVESTIGATION INTO the Scottish Government’s handling of the Salmond affair has consumed column inches and online discussions. But that’s all happening in bubbles of political trainspotters. What about public sentiment? Does anyone care?
A new poll, undertaken by Savanta-ComRes for the Scotsman, shows the risks to but also the resilience of the case for independence. Support for “yes” has fallen below 50 percent when “don’t knows” are included, for the first time since December. Nonetheless, there remains a plurality in favour: with don’t knows excluded, the numbers lie at 53 percent, a six-point lead.
Inevitably, there was a fall in people reporting the SNP as a united party, a number now at 42 percent, 8 points down. Yet, embarrassingly, that number remains significantly higher than leaderless Scottish Labour (20%). And the SNP still remains on track for an astonishing 71 seats, with the Greens heading for eleven. Scottish Labour has been pushed back into third place, on 19, with the Conservatives on 24.
Still, the above is not altogether good news for the SNP. Factional bloodletting and internal machinations over regional lists are reflections of a party accustomed to power, expectant of re-election, and therefore prone to turn their competitive energies inward, towards culture war grandstanding. Rather than selling the party to the electorate, hopefuls sell their virtues to online cliques. Strong polls begin to suggest insulation from electoral scrutiny: go back to your constituencies and prepare to factionalise.
The numbers are also bad news for Scottish democracy. At times, even the unflappable Jackie Weaver would struggle to manage the SNP’s poisonous factions. Yet so far the public sees little alternative. Perhaps they have better things to worry about than the gossiping of wonks. However, while most normal humans will be unaware of Murrell’s magpie and the latest happenings on Wings Over Scotland, a halfway relevant opposition would surely exploit the psychodrama surrounding the Government. The operative phrase being “halfway relevant”.
In fairness, the Unionist MSPs have done a forensic-ish job in the Fabiani inquiry. But they cannot profit because they lack a vision for resolving Scotland’s underlying democratic crisis. With Johnson leading in the polls, this period of Conservative rule will likely stretch out longer than the Thatcher-Major era. Scotland’s true fundamentals are determined by a party backed by less than a quarter of the population. Conversely, assuming the SNP win in May, we will definitely have endured devolved nationalist rule for longer than those eighteen years of pain. All round, circumstances ripe for abuses of power.
The bigger problem for unionists is also the bigger problem of Sturgeonism. Devolution isn’t working and cannot work. More of it isn’t an answer, and may even exacerbate the underlying problems. Equally, the SNP’s case for independence is broken. Leaving aside the currency question and the EU, the idea that Holyrood democracy is intrinsically better has been tarnished, perhaps forever. You can no longer unambiguously claim that Edinburgh is the “clean” alternative to London rule. Bang goes another part of the 2014 Yes case.
In my view, Sturgeon’s shortcoming – the Shakespearean flaw that could be her downfall – isn’t her handling of the Salmond affair. That’s really a symptom of her stop-go model of independence mobilisation: marching them to the top of the hill and marching them down again. Her legitimacy rests on independence, internally and with swathes of the public; but there’s no evidence of a decisive manoeuvre towards it. As David Jamieson has said, we are perpetually six months from a referendum.
Sturgeon’s party membership, if not the public, is growing exasperated. Fantasies about the King Over the Water riding to victory are products of that disenchantment. This may mean Sturgeon has to go, simply because she has run out of answers to solve the riddle of the party’s underlying purpose. By staying on, she may be remembered as the leader who dithered and failed to conclude Britain’s historic crisis.