For the next eight weeks, we’re going to have to endure a war of spin about what an SNP win really means.
That the SNP will emerge victorious seems a dead cert. It is a question of how decisive the win will be, what happens after and – crucially – who gets to decide.
Until recently, it looked as though the SNP were heading for an overall majority at Holyrood. Such a feat would be remarkable for any party let alone one that is besieged by infighting and looking worn after 14 years in government. Especially when our voting system is designed precisely to avoid one party winning outright.
A party that wasn’t quite so enamoured with its own popularity would have managed expectations better. To their own detriment, the SNP didn’t, and last week there was a new poll out which suggests the SNP are now not on course to win a majority.
The Opinium poll, commissioned by Sky News, shows the SNP with a 22-point lead. When respondents were asked about how they intend to vote in the upcoming election, the SNP got 46 per cent of the constituency vote. Using a swing calculator method that Sky News describe as “crude” leaves the SNP one seat short of a majority.
The analysis train has been a-chugging ever since the poll was published. At least it will keep commentators entertained until the next one. Which, at the rate we’re going, will probably be in about an hour or so.
Unionist parties have exploited claims that a win without a majority isn’t really a win at all. To get that message across, they have cannily utilised the London-based media’s gaps in knowledge about Scottish politics.
It’s no surprise that so many are willing to lap it up. If the SNP win – but don’t *really* win – then what does that mean for a second independence referendum? The popularity of the SNP is used as a weather vane for testing Scotland’s appetite for it.
The Opinium poll also shows that a majority of voters support independence, by 51-49 per cent.
Pre-2014, elections were seen as a reasonable way for a party to secure a mandate to enact its manifesto commitments.
But if we have learned anything since then it is that when it comes to Scotland, polls – and even election results – don’t matter as much as the spin that surrounds them.
The Scottish Conservatives can only dream of “squeaking” a Scottish Parliament win that leaves them one short of a majority. They have fought and lost every election since 2014 on campaigns that amounted to nothing more than “say no to indyref2”. Moreover, they have lost each of those elections to the party saying yes to indyref2.
Yet still we continue with this stale, tedious debate about whether and under what circumstances we should put the question back to the people. It might be thrilling for political geeks but it is not a productive use of our time.
There was a poll last month which showed that the constitution is still the top priority for Scots in deciding how to cast their vote.
Nicola Sturgeon could pledge a lifetime supply of Merlot for every household that owns at least one Royal Family commemorative plate. Douglas Ross could counter her offer with a promise of Fortnum & Mason vouchers for everybody that owns a vintage 2014 Yes badge. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing matters, as long as we are stuck in this tiresome state where every aspect of our politics is viewed through a constitutional lens.
Many people rightly point out that there are far more immediate concerns to be dealing with. Our drug-deaths crisis, the attainment gap, waiting times for mental health services and our economic recovery from the pandemic all require urgent political attention.
But for as long as our country is evenly divided on what our constitutional future should look like then politics won’t run as it should. It’s all well and good saying that we’ve got bigger things to worry about but when one of the first questions asked of the new Scottish Labour leader is whether he believes an SNP win in May would be a mandate for indyref2 – it’s clear we’re not ready to move on.
If you regularly check your ex’s social media accounts and mention them in every conversation then you have quite obviously not reached the zen-like state of conscious uncoupling.
Similarly, if you are a party that bases your entire vision for the country on your opposition to a vote, then that in itself is a tacit acknowledgement that the issue isn’t settled.
Let’s put aside predictions about the outcome, or the merits or otherwise of Scottish independence. What we are actually fighting about is whether or not to set aside a day – at some point in the future, when we’re all allowed to take off our masks – to ask a question and get an answer.
Depending on your political persuasion, you might think that seems like a waste of time. That the question has already been asked and answered. You might have not found the 2014 referendum campaign as “joyous” an experience as many Yes voters did. Perhaps you don’t see Brexit as a material change in circumstances.
But what is the alternative? Unless support for independence falls dramatically, this issue isn’t going to magically resolve itself. The UK government won’t win support for the Union by pretending that election results don’t matter. We could continue arguing about what we think voters in Scotland want from the future but it would be much easier just to ask them.
Like it or loathe it: the only way we’re going to stop talking about indyref2 is if we actually hold indyref2.