The latest poll on the state of Scotland’s parties, three months after Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation as First Minister, comes with a powerful caveat, one that should be pinned in large letters above the keyboard, large or tiny, of every Scot who holds strong political views. For when it comes to Westminster elections, the polling organisation YouGov reminds us, Scotland has one of the highest concentrations of marginal seats in the UK, with 22 of 59 seats expected to be won by less than five per cent, and is therefore “an extremely difficult political environment in which to forecast”.
According to this unusually extensive YouGov poll, the current decline in support for the SNP at a Westminster election, down ten per cent in the last six months, has reached a first-past-the-post tipping-point where it could strip the SNP of almost half of its current 48 Westminster seats, with Labour taking 23 of them, across Scotland’s Central Belt; but all of these results – affecting MPs as well known as Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard – are subject to a range of hugely variable factors.
What this and other recent polls do signal, though, is that the events of the last three months have plunged – or perhaps nudged – Scotland into a subtly changed political era, which offers new threats and opportunities across the political spectrum. In truth, the decline in support for the SNP is not as spectacular as most of its opponents might wish or expect; the party won 45 per cent of the vote in the 2019 general election, and is predicted in another poll, by Ipsos’ Scottish Political Monitor, to win 41 per cent now, despite the loss of the most popular leader in SNP history, and three months of torrid internal party crisis, reflected in fiercely negative media coverage.
Nonetheless, a substantial gap now seems to be opening up between the popularity of the SNP, and the popularity of independence among those expressing a strong political view on the matter, which according to Ipsos now stands at 53 per cent. Much will depend, in the immediate future of Scottish politics, on the direction of travel of those independence supporters now less eager to vote SNP; but if, as seems likely, many of them are SNP voters turning back towards Labour as the party most capable of unseating the Tories at UK level, then their decision will pose tough questions both for the SNP – notably whether they can win those voters back come the next Holyrood elections – and to Labour, which will struggle to hold onto voters who support independence for long, if it continues to mimic the hardline unionist attitudes and rhetoric of the present generation of Tories.
Nor is this intriguing gap the only one now opening up in Scottish politics. There is, for example, a lively possibility that Scottish voters, after 25 years of proportional representation in local and Scottish government, are becoming ever more adept at tailoring their vote to the level of government, and the electoral system, in which they find themselves. At the moment, Scottish Parliament polling is looking almost as grim for the SNP as the Westminster polls, with support down by nine per cent in both the constituency and list votes.
Two years into a new Labour government, though, that position could change radically in either direction; and if Labour wants evidence of how sharply Scottish attitudes to Westminster parties can shift, it need look no further than the recent fortunes of the Scottish Tories, whose support was as low as 14 per cent at the UK general election of 2015, soared to more than twice that in the election of 2017, and has now plummeted again to 17 per cent. Indeed in the 2017 election, the SNP vote fell to 37 per cent, and they lost 21 Westminster seats overnight, a result which suggests that those currently trying to predict the outcome of the 2026 Scottish Parliament election, on the basis of recent polls, may be playing something of a mug’s game.
And that, finally, points to a third intriguing gap opening up in our politics, the one between Scottish public opinion, and the mainstream narratives that tend to dominate our public debate. In the commentary, the scene is all drama and disaster, particularly for the cause of independence; SNP support is plummeting, Labour is resurgent, and the idea of independence is dead. Yet while each of those assertions contains small elements of truth, it’s also clear that around half of Scots continue to favour the idea of independence, and that even in this darkest hour, the SNP remains Scotland’s leading party by a considerable margin.
That the current shift in the landscape creates some intriguing possibilities is clear, in other words. What can perhaps most clearly be said, though, is that we are entering a phase of politics when the Tories will deservedly cease to be Scotland’s principal opposition party, leaving a scene dominated by Labour and the SNP, and therefore by one of the hidden truths about Scottish politics: the fact that away from the glare of media coverage, in the Scottish Parliament’s committee rooms, progressive politicians often work closely together, on social and economic measures designed to improve the lives of the people, and to protect our precious environment.
And that suggests this would therefore be a mighty moment for any new civic movement that may now emerge in Scotland to start focussing on those empowering areas of consensus where they exist, and to provide a counterweight to the destructive tendency of Labour and the SNP to focus their public debates either on exaggerated tribal abuse about the other party’s fitness to rule, or on the issue of independence – perhaps because these are the sole topics on which, to their own comfort and to the irritation of most Scots, they can always be sure to disagree.