General Election: Why pushing independence message is smart SNP strategy – Ian Swanson

Nicola Sturgeon speaks at the SNP's general election campaign launch in Edinburgh. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Nicola Sturgeon speaks at the SNP's general election campaign launch in Edinburgh. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to put independence at the top of the SNP’s agenda has risks, but could help persuade disaffected supporters go out and vote, writes Ian Swanson.

BORIS Johnson wanted this election to be about Brexit – but he can’t control the direction of the campaign. In Scotland, independence and the question of indyref2 are inevitably rivalling the debate over the UK’s future relations with the EU as the hot topic of the campaign.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has declared that the issue at stake on December 12 is who decides ­Scotland’s future.

Putting independence so firmly at the top of the agenda carries risks for the SNP. The party needs to win more ­support if it is to boost its strength at Westminster and build a clear majority in favour of independence, but insisting indyref2 should happen next year risks galvanising opponents and helping the Tories to hang on to more of their 13 Scottish seats than they might otherwise.

However, Ms Sturgeon’s strategy may be more promising than it looks.

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The SNP cannot realistically expect to repeat its stunning success of 2015, when it scooped 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, leaving the three other parties with a humiliating one each.

The 2017 general election saw the number of Nationalist MPs cut from 56 to 35. Clearly they were still by far the biggest party, but losing 21 seats was not a good look and allowed the other parties to claim some sort of revival.

Analysis, however, suggests the reason for the 13 per cent dip in SNP support was not voters switching to other parties, but SNP supporters staying at home.

Nationalist dream enticingly close

Just as bold rhetoric about independence at a party conference will enthuse the activists, so an uncompromising message in the election ­campaign could inspire those who backed the party before to come out again and give their support at the ballot box.

Whether the whole Brexit debacle makes voters more likely to support independence in order to stay in the EU and avoid the possibility of prolonged Tory rule in the UK or less likely to back it because it would mean more upheaval, remains to be seen.

Recent polls show Yes and No more or less 50-50 – arguably not enough to give Ms Sturgeon the confidence she needs to call indyref2 immediately, but nonetheless enticingly close to realising the Nationalist dream.

Labour is opposed to a second independence referendum. Jeremy Corbyn has said one is “not necessary or desirable”. But he has also said it would be wrong to block a referendum if the Scottish Parliament wanted it. He has suggested he could agree to such a vote in the “later years” of a UK Labour government.

That goes against the instincts of the Scottish Labour leadership, which wants to do nothing to alienate its pro-UK supporters and risk them switching to the Tories.

But at the same time, it is difficult to ignore a mandate won at an election. The SNP argues it already has a “cast iron” mandate for a fresh vote thanks to its manifesto at the last election – and if indyref2 does not take place next year, it will be seeking a renewed mandate at the Holyrood elections in 2021.

Boris Johnson meanwhile has ruled out agreeing to a second referendum in any circumstances. He said: “There is no case whatever because people were promised in 2014 absolutely clearly that it would be a once-in-a-generation event and I see no reason why we should go back on that.”

But Mr Johnson has made ­promises before – and Ms Sturgeon might hope this one has the same ending.

What was that he said about preferring to be “dead in a ditch”?