Scottish Election 2021: SNP's independence hopes are fading fast despite BBC's Scottish news putting spotlight on Boris Johnson – John McLellan

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories about BBC political bias but, with eight days to go before the Scottish Parliament election, Wednesday’s main Scottish evening bulletins led with extensive coverage of Boris Johnson’s bother with the Number 10 redecoration bill, essentially repeating what had just been broadcast in the main UK programme minutes before.

We are used to Scottish stories which make the UK news being re-purposed, but there was little attempt to give the story a Scottish angle other than to ask if the row would sway Scottish voters, obviously without a definitive answer.

With bulletins available on catch-up, what was the point? The fiery exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions undoubtedly made for better television than the usual staged election photo-calls, made even more dreary by social distancing, but with nothing to add to main news coverage, it suggested BBC executives were either stuck for an idea (unlikely) or were determined to ensure the Prime Minister’s character remained at the forefront of the campaign, even though voters are electing a Scottish government.

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Whether consciously or not, the national broadcaster decided, on Wednesday at least, that this election should be decided on the record of the Prime Minister, not the record of a First Minister seeking another term of office.

Both have been accused of misleading Parliament, which a committee concluded by a majority that Ms Sturgeon did, but it is a matter of opinion whether you think allegedly trying to get a political supporter to fund the redecoration of your official residence is more serious than what you knew and when about the botched inquiry into the unproven allegations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor.

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With good reason, it suits the SNP to keep the focus on anything but its record and, with the Conservative opposition fighting to stop a second independence referendum, the media can’t take all the blame if the campaign is dominated by constitutional issues, but it’s more of a problem if the national public broadcaster frames a decision with implications for decades on passing personalities.

All the evidence indicates that views about Mr Johnson are already baked into voting intentions and with less than a week left and a quarter of votes already posted, the polls suggest it will take something much more dramatic to make a meaningful impact.

Boris Johnson gestures during a heated Prime Minister's Question time on Wednesday (Picture: Jessica Taylor/House of Commons)

Ms Sturgeon says the result is on a knife-edge ─ the SNP is launching a late advertising blitz from today ─ and it’s true that how a handful of constituencies fall will make a huge difference to the parliamentary dynamics, but for her it’s only whether she secures an absolute majority the system was supposed to prevent.

Polling differences are within the margin of error, but the most interesting was from Lord Ashcroft Polls which examined responses from over 2,000 voters, double the normal sample size, about expectations for an independent Scotland.

Obviously, either side will highlight what supports their arguments, but it revealed 63 per cent believe taxes would rise, 52 that food would be more costly, 46 that Scotland’s ability to handle another major crisis would decrease and 45 that inward investment will drop, and this is before the kind of intensive scrutiny we saw in 2014 which fully addresses Scotland’s circumstances and prospects post-Covid, but particularly post-Brexit.

There are already signs that this is beginning to happen, with Ms Sturgeon conceding in an interview with the Irish Times this week that a real border will be the inescapable consequence of an independent Scotland in the EU.

No matter how much Ms Sturgeon might wish it otherwise, the EU has demonstrated it will protect the integrity of its trade borders to the extent that it has forced border protocols in the Irish Sea to keep the frontier between Northern and Southern Ireland fully open. Queues for ferry crossings are nothing unusual, so more complex paperwork at Cairnryan goes relatively unnoticed, but if an independent Scotland is an EU member then hauliers would face the same controls at new checkpoints on the M6.

But it’s the currency which is the real stumbling block. Ms Sturgeon was all over the place on Radio 4 yesterday but conceded an independent currency is necessary and at least there is now no argument that the only way true fiscal independence from the UK can be achieved ─ and EU membership entertained ─ is with a Scottish central bank controlling its own borrowing and money supply.

But the third of people who think their food and energy bills and their general standard of living will be unchanged have yet to consider the implications of borrowing costs and credit ratings on the value of the new money they will have to use or the ability of the new country to maintain services at current levels.

The Ashcroft survey exposes just how vulnerable independence support could be to sustained exposure to the new reality of a Scottish economy in which the Institute for Government estimates total public expenditure is £1,700 higher and spending on devolved services 29 per cent more per head than England, and the outcomes worse, but with lower average GDP and growth.

The economic arguments are only going one way and no wonder Ms Sturgeon also admitted yesterday she doesn’t want an early referendum, but she also made it clear it could only be when enough people were persuaded and Ashcroft puts independence support at 44 per cent, confirmed by The Scotsman’s Savanta/ComRes survey which gave Yes 42.

The argument will become a theoretical one over rights and if, as some predict, turnout on Thursday only scrapes above 50 per cent, a quarter of the electorate backing a pro-independence party isn’t much of a mandate anyway.

Whatever BBC Scotland executives might privately hope, the chances of another referendum and independence are decreasing and the story next week should be about the future for Nicola, not Boris.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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