SNP gains at a snap general election would lend “added weight” to the party’s demand to stage a second independence referendum, a constitutional expert has said.
Recent polling suggests the Nationalists could expect to win back several constituencies lost at the last UK-wide poll in 2017, while activists are confident their strong anti-Brexit message will resonate with voters disillusioned with the Conservatives’ handling of negotiations with the EU.
But Nicola McEwen , co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, cautioned the “extraordinary” number of marginal seats north of the Border meant it was difficult to predict the result of an election yet to be formally declared.
The academic said the SNP would be “more confident and assertive on independence” during the next campaign than in 2017, when the party lost a third of its seats.
“They will focus on opposition to Brexit, no deal, and Boris Johnson,” she said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday.
She added: “If there is an election, I don’t think there will be straight drifts in support from one party to another as so many complex issues are in play.
“We have to be cautious about what the polls are saying for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve not had many Scotland-specific surveys yet, and secondly the parties have not begun campaigning.
“Campaigns matter a lot – previous elections and referendums tell us that. The SNP are polling better now than the result of 2017, but not yet at the height of 2015.”
SNP supporters could, however, still be left frustrated in their quest for a second referendum if the Conservatives retain power at Westminster.
“Assuming the SNP increase their vote share and their seats, it would certainly give added weight to the push for a Section 30 order,” McEwen said.
“The difficulty they have is the legal authority to hold a referendum still rests with Westminster.”
Visiting Aberdeenshire last week, the Prime Minister insisted he would not allow a Section 30 order, which would lend the Scottish Government the legal power to hold votes on the constitution.
Regardless, confidence among Nationalists remains high with a prospect of another major campaign getting underway.
Chris McEleny, leader of the SNP group on Inverclyde Council, has backed demands from grassroots members for a second referendum at the earliest opportunity.
He said his party was the only one with a “coherent message” throughout Brexit. “We’re clear that a vote for the SNP is a vote to stop a Tory no-deal Brexit and to give people in Scotland the choice on whether we want to be an independent country.”
Asked whether independence or Brexit would be the central message of any election campaign, he added: “For SNP activists, the message they want to see is a vote for the party is a vote for independence.
“Brexit, or Trident, are all examples of how Scotland does not have a choice. The Tories want us to leave the EU without a deal against the will of the people of Scotland.”
Kirsty Blackman (pictured, below right), the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, said the party relished the prospect of a general election, but was “taking nothing for granted”.
“It’s clear the SNP is winning the support of voters, who trust us to stand up for their interests. As the chaos at Westminster continues, it is increasingly unsustainable for dishonest Tory politicians, with no mandate in Scotland, to stand in the way of democracy.
“The people of Scotland must have the opportunity to determine their own future – and in any coming election stopping Brexit and ensuring Scotland has the right to choose a better future with independence will be right at the centre of the SNP campaign.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Conservatives are facing the prospect of fighting an election without Ruth Davidson as leader.
“There doesn’t appear to have been a drop-off in Conservative vote share in recent months given everything that’s gone on, but they don’t look capable of making gains,” said McEwen.
“I think in the context of a campaign is where the loss of Ruth Davidson might be felt most acutely. We don’t know yet what role she would play, but recent elections proved she was a formidable campaigner.
“She had more appeal in Scotland than Johnson, so almost acted like a counter-balance. It’s not obvious there is an alternative who can take up that role. I expect the Conservatives will do what worked so well for them in 2017 – put opposition to independence at the front and centre of their campaign.”
A spokesman for the Scots Tories said: “What is clear is that the SNP will exploit every opportunity to push for another divisive independence referendum.
“Only the Scottish Conservatives can stand up to the SNP.”