Scottish elections 2021: Are we stuck in an era of groundhog politics over independence debate? – Ian Swanson

We've heard the arguments repeated so often we could recite them in our sleep.

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One lot says coming out of a pandemic is no time for another independence referendum, all efforts must be focused on the recovery and you can't do both at once.

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The other lot argue the people of Scotland must have the right to choose their own future and the powers of independence are essential for charting the recovery.

Scotland's future in the UK after Brexit is an issue which splits opinion almost evenly ahead of the Scottish Parliament election (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Even now that all the manifestos have been published, with pagefuls of promises from all the parties, the debate does not seem to have moved on.

It's as if we're stuck in a groundhog campaign where everything always comes back to a clash between those who claim Covid trumps the constitution or those who insist independence is indispensable.

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Jaded members of the public might comfort themselves with the thought that at least the election is now just over a week away and then it will all be over. But will it?

Apart from the pandemic, the arguments this time feel remarkably similar to those of 2016 when the Tories made unprecedented gains by campaigning against a second independence referendum, but the SNP won comfortably with twice as many seats while Labour’s efforts to move the debate onto more bread-and-butter issues fell flat.

And the signs are the election outcome this time might not be that different. Whether or not the SNP can win an overall majority of seats in Holyrood – polls differ – it’s almost certain that the Nationalists and Greens together will again produce a pro-independence majority.

But Boris Johnson has made clear he has no compunction about ignoring such a mandate and refusing another referendum – there’s little reason to think Alex Salmond’s much-touted “super-majority” would make any difference – so we are back to where we started.

Support for independence did not change significantly from the 45 per cent achieved at the 2014 referendum for quite some time, then an increase saw a consistent if narrow majority in favour before it fell back to a roughly 50-50 split between Yes and No, which is where it remains.

Since younger voters are more favourably disposed towards independence, it is the Yes vote which is likely to gain as time goes on.

But given the Brexit vote and Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, the question might be asked why there has not been a bigger surge in support for independence already.

And, of course, voters could also change their opinion – either way – if and when there is another referendum and the two sides set out their new, detailed arguments.

Much has happened since 2014, not least Brexit and the pandemic, which means there are new issues to address and more questions to answer.

The experts have long said the crucial faultline in Scottish politics is no longer voters’ loyalty to the different parties but which side of the constitutional debate they come down on.

And at the moment it seems pretty clear the country is split almost evenly on whether Scotland’s future lies in continuing the 300-year-old Union or opting to make its own way in the world.

Are we now to conclude that we’re condemned to an era of groundhog politics with no escape from the independence debate?

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