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You might begin to wonder just how bad things need to get before it has an impact on the popularity of the SNP. Earlier this week, the Scottish Government did a spectacular U-turn on exam grades in order to deflect from mounting public and political pressure, which finally culminated in a motion of no confidence against Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP. Swinney has survived the no-confidence motion and the SNP have survived yet another significant U-turn. Yet, against the odds, the Party seems to be thriving in the polls.
It has been a rough year for the SNP and one which few political parties could realistically survive. Just to recap, in February 2020 the Finance Secretary had to resign over alleged inappropriate grooming of a young male, just days before delivering the Scottish budget. The former First Minister, Alex Salmond, was found not guilty in court against 12 sexual assault claims, which has resulted in a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between the current First Minister and her predecessor, initiating an inquiry that will look into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against the former First Minister. Divisions within the Party are running deep. Public services have been chronically underfunded, and much of the nation’s services are struggling. On top of all that, Covid-19 deaths in care homes and other settings have tragically followed a similar path to the rest of the UK.
You would expect, in such circumstances, that the SNP – now 13 years in power – would be much weakened and in a state of disarray; yet that is far from the truth. The latest YouGov poll shows that support for the SNP at a Scottish Parliament constituency level stands at a whopping 57% – that’s 37% higher than their nearest rivals, the Scottish Conservatives. In theory, that would be sufficient for the SNP to win practically every constituency seat in Scotland next year. Adding to that, Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity is only growing – 72% of Scots think she is performing well as First Minister. And support for Scottish Independence has edged up and now stands at 53% – among the largest leads recorded for the pro-independence cause.
So why is there such a mismatch between the polls and the SNP’s performance? A number of factors are in play. Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon has been a very stable and clear leader throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Her daily press conferences have been resolutely calming and sincere. She has emerged as one of the outstanding leaders from the crisis, despite the daily death tolls. Added to that, while her chief lieutenants have recently faced errors of judgement, they have done so against a backdrop of years of relative competence, making accusations of complete incompetence harder to play. Opposition remains comparatively weak too – a fact more than recognised by the Scottish Conservatives, who ditched their leader in a bloodless coup last week. In the same YouGov poll that showed confidence in the First Minister, just 10% of Scots think Richard Leonard is doing well as Leader of Scottish Labour. However, undoubtedly the biggest underlying issues are related to independence itself and the UK Government.
The independence cause has been bolstered as of late. The Scottish Government has shown its ability to make sound judgements during the Covid crisis, often at odds with the incoherence emanating from London. Covid has provided the Scottish Government with an opportunity to cement its relationships across Scottish business and civic society. And Covid has also helped cement views about Boris Johnson, who remains the SNP’s primary recruiter. Only 20% of YouGov respondents believed that Boris was doing well – and 74% thought he was doing badly. Boris remains deeply unpopular in Scotland. Added to this is the continued sense of injustice that Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its wishes.
The race for next year’s elections has already begun. With only nine months to go, the SNP has been keen to deal with the exams fiasco as quickly as possible and move on. For the Opposition, it seems no matter how bad the headlines are for the SNP, the electorate is deaf to their concerns. Instead, the real challenge for the SNP is not how to deal with the latest scandal, U-turn or win next year’s election, but how to deliver independence.
Head of Scotland
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