Scottish independence: SNP's divisions may be a sign that this is a movement rather than a party – Joyce McMillan

The week before Christmas, 2020; and the First Minister finds an extra gift under her Christmas tree, in the shape of yesterday’s Savanta-Comres poll for The Scotsman showing support for independence back at a record 58 per cent.

Voters are behaving as if they expect the SNP to sometimes have bitter differences like the split between supporters of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Andrew Milligan)
Voters are behaving as if they expect the SNP to sometimes have bitter differences like the split between supporters of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Andrew Milligan)

It is the 17th poll in a row to show a majority for independence, and the latest of many, since this summer, to show support above 55 per cent; and it reflects a phenomenon that is beginning to drive Scotland’s unionist parties to distraction, as they contemplate the gravity-defying levels of support for the SNP itself that accompany the strong public support for their central policy.

This poll predicts that – even under Holyrood’s proportional voting system – the SNP could win 71 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament in next May’s Holyrood elections, giving it a comfortable majority over all other parties, on a scale never seen at Holyrood before.

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All in all, it’s a poll fit to enrage Scotland’s unionists, so completely does this level of support for a party that has been in government for the last 13 years break all the recognised rules of British politics. The SNP’s record in office is not, of course, nearly as poor as some unionist rhetoric suggests; indeed their exaggerated and generally inaccurate scaremongering about “chaos” in Scotland’s public services says more about their current political desperation, than about the Scottish government itself.

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As this week’s appalling drug death statistics show, though, it’s not difficult to find areas in which the SNP, 13 years on, shows signs of exhaustion and poor policy delivery at best, and at worst of prevarication and incompetence.

BiFab, Ferguson Marine, Prestwick Airport; all three are stories of failure, and one is an outright tragedy for Scotland’s lost hopes of benefiting fully from the transition to renewable energy sources in which the country is so rich.

This week, the Scottish government published another policy paper on climate change targets, as part of its planned green recovery post-Covid; but it has repeatedly missed its own carbon reduction targets in recent years, and on its watch, a combination of climate change and destructive forms of land use has contributed to what Scottish Environment Link calls a growing “nature emergency”, with 11 per cent of Scotland’s species now threatened with extinction.

What’s more, the steely party unity that characterised the SNP’s first decade in government has now largely evaporated, thanks to a familiar combination of an increasingly insulated and isolated leadership, accumulating personal ambitions and resentments, and serious policy differences.

It was something of a revelation to learn, courtesy of the SNP, that this year’s anodyne series of online party political conferences could deliver anything more than a few bland speeches and resolutions. Yet the SNP conference in November seemed to administer a serious rap to the knuckles of the Sturgeon leadership, in the shape of NEC election results that often rejected their favoured candidates; and if online vitriol were a measure of anything much – which it usually is not – it would be tempting to conclude that the SNP was a party on the brink of disintegration.

Yet despite all this, unionists continue to struggle to find any successful line of attack against Nicola Sturgeon and her party. One reason for their difficulty is obvious, of course; all three main unionist parties are tied to UK counterparts which – for reasons both historic and contemporary – are now a liability, in Scottish politics terms.

Yet there is one other possible factor in play, hinted at by recent polls; and that is that the SNP may now be changing, under the very eyes of dismayed unionists, from a political party built around a single issue, into something more like the centrepiece of a national movement that inevitably contains multitudes, in Scottish political terms.

For the moment, a definite majority of Scottish voters are behaving as though the SNP, with all its weaknesses and divisions, will remain their party of choice until they see Scotland become a sovereign nation, perhaps within the next half decade; and as if, during that time, they will half expect the party and movement to contain many of Scotland’s shades of economic and social opinion within it.

They will expect to see, in other words, both the economic conservatism of Andrew Wilson, who chaired the party’s Sustainable Growth Commission, and the economic radicalism of socialist economist George Kerevan. They will expect to see both traditional hostility to Nato and to nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, and a more compromising attitude among some party leaders; and in a reflection of wider culture wars across the western world, they will expect to see deep and sometimes bitter differences over issues such as the gender recognition controversy, and the Alex Salmond case.

There are no guarantees in politics of course; and this moment of sustained public popularity may not last, particularly if the findings of the inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of the Salmond case force Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, at the height of her polling success.

And even if the First Minister clears that hurdle, the SNP as a party will soon have to firm up a view on a range of fiercely controversial policy matters, and write a 2021 manifesto that will doubtless alienate some independence supporters.

Yet where differences like those can constitute a weakness for a political party, they arguably represent a kind of strength in a movement on its way to asserting national independence. Recent polls suggest that Scotland may now be inching, with all its usual caution, towards a defining moment of that kind; and although every week is a long time in politics, it is just possible that the Conservatives and their allies may have left it too late, this time, to save the Union they claim to love, but have so disastrously neglected.

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