AMID a trying summer, there was some respite for the SNP at the weekend. A poll on Holyrood voting intentions suggested that the party was on course not just to emulate its 2011 landslide, but to beat it.
A gleeful SNP press office responded by claiming that, were a Scottish Parliament election to be held now, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was on course to lose her seat.
The poll brought into play a question that is being aired quietly amid the referendum: if Scotland does vote No to independence next year, what will happen politically to the party most associated with it?
A superficial analysis might conclude that, with independence having been rejected, the entire SNP project will come crashing to the floor amid a bitter tide of recrimination and regret. But another hypothesis sees defeat paradoxically helping to firm up the SNP’s position as – in Alex Salmond’s words – Scotland’s “national party” of government.
The theory goes as follows: un-convinced by the economic case and fearing a leap into the unknown, Scottish voters oppose independence next autumn. The margin isn’t huge, but is enough to settle the issue conclusively. The day after, far from engaging in in-fighting, the SNP accepts the verdict with good grace and pledges to get back to work, focussing in the short-term on the gradual extension of powers for Scottish ministers. The country takes note. Many voters feel a twinge of remorse about having doubted and stepping back from taking the plunge. The 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election provides them with the perfect opportunity to make amends. And so, on the rebound, they flock back to the SNP, and the 2011 landslide happens all over again.
Privately, Labour party figures acknowledge the very real prospect of such a rebound effect taking place, and the weekend’s poll will only have increase those concerns. They will also further bolster confidence in the SNP camp further that victory in 2016 is all but assured – as one party source puts it, this is the party where even when you lose, you can’t lose.
Plenty of bear-traps do exist of course. There is the question, already being asked, about whether Alex Salmond will remain at the top if he suffers defeat next year. There would also be the issue of how to “park” independence (the vague position at present is that, after a No, the issue will be settled for “a generation”). More immediately, the SNP Government with new financial powers, would have to confront the coming collision between its wrap around system of public services and its voter-friendly offer of low taxes.
The SNP can expect a sharper Labour party to be on its case on all of the above. But if the party’s discipline survives the blow of a No intact, there is every sign right now that the SNP will be in with a strong chance of having another bite at the cherry.