Nicola Sturgeon may have called for a second Scottish referendum with public opinion polls clearly against any rerun but one smart intention of her March announcement was to position the SNP to fight a snap 2017 general election on a manifesto to seek a further mandate for partitioning the United Kingdom.
Not too long ago the SNP campaigned under the pretence that a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster would be justification enough to declare a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Scotland.
These days we settle such issues by binary referendums and the SNP will now campaign on a manifesto seeking that further mandate for a second plebiscite on independence. To achieve this it will set itself a target of winning a majority of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats and, as it already holds 56 of these, it is highly likely it will succeed.
But it could lose several seats. The Scottish Conservatives are polling at 28% and their campaign will be focused on their opposition to another referendum.
The latest polls have put support for independence at minus 12 and minus 14 points. Recent polling also showed 4 out of 10 Scots are 100% opposed to leaving the UK. This is not auspicious territory to be running an electoral campaign on an #indyref2 manifesto.
Sturgeon’s misjudged call for a second referendum has not gone down well with voters and if the silent Unionist majority is looking for a chance to administer electoral justice then this is their chance. Sturgeon’s honeymoon period is long over and she has betrayed the trust that many non-independence supporters had in her by reneging on her commitment to respect the 2014 result.
The Scottish Conservatives gained seven first-past-the-post constituencies at the 2016 Holyrood elections and finished second in a number of others. The Borders and the North East could see the largest Tory gains in June.
If the Conservatives can coalesce unionist support under their banner for one day of voting they could produce the biggest surprise of the night. If they manage to deny the SNP a majority of Scottish seats it would be a resounding defeat for Sturgeon and would set back the course of independence. This outcome, however, is unlikely.
Leavers left aside
Another important election factor is the contingent of a million Scottish Leave voters, who despite being on the winning side have felt like losers ever since due to the SNP’s attempts to use Brexit to drag Scotland out of the UK and back into the EU. With a mere seven MSPs out of 129 voting to leave the EU and all 59 MPs voting Remain, Leave voters are perhaps the most under-represented constituency in Scotland.
With the SNP in 2015 and the Lib Dems in recent by-elections we have seen how the losing side in referendums are more motivated to vote at subsequent elections. Therefore, pro-Brexit campaigns in key constituencies with strong Leave votes could be highly fruitful. The North East of Scotland in particular is susceptible to such a campaign. Angus Robertson’s Moray constituency registered 49% Leave support, Aberdeenshire 45%, Aberdeen City 40% and Angus 45%.
Only a minority of Scottish Leavers voted Conservative in 2015, and 400,000 of them voted SNP. Many of these voters have found themselves so alienated by the SNP’s subsequent Europhile posturing that they have abandoned their backing for independence. Their support is ripe for the taking and a campaign aimed at delivering on key Brexit issues like control over fishing and agriculture could reap dividends for the Conservatives.
If the Conservatives take ten seats and gain 30% of the vote they will consider this a victory. The Liberals may pick up a few of their old seats as well. Labour is set for its worst election result of all time in Scotland and across the UK. Post-Brexit, UKIP is finished nationwide and won’t trouble any Scottish constituency in June.
Any Tory gains may well not be enough to stop the SNP using the return of over 30 MPs to further its agitation for a second referendum. But the party’s high command would not be filled with confidence at seeing its battalion of MPs substantially reduced and its total vote decreasing.
What kind of indy?
The SNP will also have to flesh out the essentials of any prospectus for independence over the next six weeks and this is where it could fall flat. Will there be a brand new currency established? Or will Scotland join the Euro? What are the consequences of EU membership or will Scotland join the EEA before seeking to join the EU at a distant point in future? The probable lack of any such plans will not instil confidence in sceptics about SNP plans to save Scotland from the supposed chaos of a hard Tory Brexit.
However, May could be considering this election as a chance to take the wind out of the SNP before the inevitable second referendum. More Scottish Tory MPs would stall the SNP’s momentum.
Overall, a pre-Brexit referendum is highly unlikely and the SNP could lose the next Scottish elections in 2020 and with them any chance of a mandate to enter into referendum negotiations with the UK government. After all the precedent is now established that the Scottish Parliament is where such interests are pursued, not in Westminster elections.
Further, if another Scottish referendum is due to re-occur, expect a time when May, after having scoped out the electoral territory and positioned her forces ready for a full campaign, calls an urgent press conference and announces a snap referendum at a time when she feels her chances are strongest and the SNP’s are weakest. If another Scottish referendum happens it will be at the time of May’s choosing, not Sturgeon’s.
This is an edited version of a post on the author’s own site