DOUBTLESS THIS ELECTION has been dreary, but theoretically it should be decisive: Scotland’s Biggest Election Ever. Five years on from the Brexit vote, everything has been leading to this moment of truth for independence. But that mood of certainty is giving way to frustration and self-doubt. Whisper it, but the Yes bloc is experiencing an identity crisis.
As measured by the latest Savanta-Comres poll, public opinion has measurably cooled on both the SNP and Scottish independence. Back in December, Yes (49%) held a commanding lead over No (39%) but today those numbers have effectively reversed: No (49%) leading Yes (42%) by a sizeable margin. With undecideds excluded, this suggests that Scotland’s balance of forces on independence has regressed to 2014 levels, and all the shenanigans around Brexit have been for nought.
Of course, caveats apply. This poll is something of an outlier: the trend is against Yes, but in most cases not as severely as Savanta-Comres suggests. Nonetheless, it cannot be dismissed as a quirk of cooked up methodology, like the substanceless (and serially backfiring) Scotland in Union surveys. The numbers carry some weight, at least insofar as they suggest a trend.
Just as worrying are the voting intentions for May. The numbers no longer suggest a Yes majority among voters, even if the voting system will likely reward Yes parties with a comfortable lead in parliament. This could complicate Nicola Sturgeon’s (always questionable) narrative where the moral force of Scottish opinion would automatically force a referendum on Boris Johnson.
The roots of this slump are complex. Sturgeon’s talking heads have tried to present Alex Salmond and his Alba Party as the cause of any Yes decline. I have expressed my misgivings about Salmond and taken the flack for it, but as an explanation for voter behaviour, this lacks credibility. Salmond is not well liked, but to suggest that this peripheral figure is utmost in voters’ minds during a pandemic lacks seriousness.
If Salmond has had any impact, it lies in damaging Sturgeon’s whiter than white reputation. But that in itself hints at underlying weaknesses. For years, the case for independence has been founded on a mood of anti-Brexit emergency coupled with a cult of personality centred on an allegedly incorruptible leader. These are shallow foundations for establishing a new state. Beyond that, no serious intellectual or campaigning work has been commissioned to adapt the case for independence to new circumstances.
Put bluntly, since 2016 there has been almost no positive case for independence. There is a legacy vote from 2014, who loyally turn out to vote SNP, and a new influx of people panic-stricken by the UK’s economic prospects after Brexit. The latter group has started to ebb away, because Brexit, while no picnic, has not been apocalyptic, and many of the same questions about free trade are now being turned against Sturgeon.
Symptomatic of the problems is the absence of a pro-independence narrative on pandemic recovery. Slowly, but discernibly, the two questions have been disconnected into separate phases: recovery first, then we can consider independence. This may well prove good electoral tactics, but strategically it sacrifices everything to the unionist narrative. It suggests a Yes movement swaying to public opinion rather than leading it.
For years, the case for independence has been little more than “Brexit bad”. Like it or not, Scottish voters agreed, and they still do. But the reality simply isn’t apocalyptic enough to sustain a movement without a vision. Salmond is a sideshow: he’s neither the problem nor the solution. But the Yes movement has been short on leadership, so much of the movement is seeking somebody to make it all make sense, whether it’s a messiah or a scapegoat.