PROFESSOR of politics Rob Johns, who works with the Scottish Election Study, writes on Nicola Sturgeon's arrest and the SNP's polling fortunes. 

The Scottish National Party is in a dreadful mess. Former leader and former first minister Nicola Sturgeon had already described the events of the past few months as beyond her “worst nightmares” – and that was before she was arrested.

Opinion had long since been divided (largely on “indyref” lines) on how far the SNP retained the reputation for competent government that had propelled the party into power at Holyrood in the first place. Although Sturgeon was subsequently released without charge pending further investigations, opinion can hardly be divided on the state of that reputation now.

Chaos without a cost?

Where has all this left the SNP’s poll ratings? The answer, judging by the graph below, is: almost unaffected.

That graph is based on averaging the most recent three polls at four time points – one year ago, six months ago, February 15 2023, when Nicola Sturgeon resigned (which might reasonably be taken as the point at which the descent into chaos began), and June 11 – the day on which she was arrested and released. So the pair of columns on the far right in each cluster shows what has happened since that resignation. The SNP is down just two percentage points in both Westminster and Holyrood vote intention polls.

Graph of vote intention polls, June 2022-2023.

Admittedly, any effect of the Sturgeon arrest was yet to register in the polls shown here. But so little has happened to those polls over the months of turmoil that the (hardly unexpected) event of her brief detention seems unlikely to change the picture much.

Stubborn support for independence

The secret to the SNP’s resilience begins with the third cluster of opinion polls. Support for independence is basically unchanged since Sturgeon’s resignation. The gleeful predictions in pro-Union newspapers that the splits and scandals would inevitably lead Yes support to plunge were dashed more or less immediately, and in fact the tracker of indyref2 vote intentions has continued to hover in the 45-50% range as if nothing has happened.

This lack of movement in the indyref polls is not actually surprising. A long, heated and polarising referendum campaign left most people with deeply entrenched views and often a strong sense of identification with their side in the argument. According to Scottish Election Study data from November 2022, more than 70% of those intending to vote Yes also identify “very” or “fairly” strongly with that side, which helps explain why polls have been strikingly stable ever since 2014.

When there has been some movement, it looks to have been driven more by events at Westminster than at Holyrood. There was an upturn in support for independence in the autumn of 2022, which might be termed “the Liz Truss dividend” and the downturn that followed was in large part the unwinding of that effect (possibly aggravated by the unpopularity of the SNP’s gender recognition legislation). Anyone attributing these downturns largely to the turmoil since Sturgeon stepped down is not studying the polling chronology closely enough.

This tendency for independence support to be about what happens in London rather than Edinburgh is visible from other angles, too. For example, if Scots are asked in their own words why they would vote Yes, there are many more specific mentions of what they seek independence from – Tory governments, an unfair Union, Westminster politics – than there are positive mentions of the system or institutions that would be granted these powers.

How Yes keeps the SNP afloat

Voters still do not appear willing to desert an SNP that is mired in scandal, has lost its figurehead, and looks in no position to bring Scotland any closer to independence than it came in 2014. That is because voting SNP has become the partisan or electoral expression of support for independence.

At every election since 2014, the overwhelming majority of those with a Yes vote intention cast at least one ballot for the SNP. The phrase “at least one” refers to the fact that, when voters also have a PR ballot as in Holyrood elections, a significant subset of Yes supporters – around one in five in 2021 – give that list vote to the Greens.

This is why the overall level of SNP support is lowest in the middle cluster in the graph above. Even with a viable alternative Yes party, though, and even after the SNP’s annus horribilis so far, still at least two in three independence supporters would cast an SNP list vote. The SNP is the party of independence and the two seem virtually synonymous in the minds of voters, whether friends or foes.

What about Labour?

If Yes will keep the SNP afloat, will it also keep Labour at bay – maybe even denying Labour leader Keir Starmer a majority – in the upcoming General Election? The central argument here is that Labour cannot rely on the SNP’s travails to win back the voters who moved en masse to the SNP in 2015 via a Yes vote in 2014. There seems no weakening these voters’ commitment to independence nor their conviction that the SNP is the best – or rather perhaps the only – way of expressing that commitment.

So Labour’s hopes lie instead in persuading voters that independence is not on the ballot at this election and that all that matters is booting out the Conservatives. They were partly successful at this in 2017 as the Theresa May-Jeremy Corbyn race tightened, gaining six seats from the SNP. They were conspicuously unsuccessful at this in 2019 when Labour defeat looked inevitable, and lost all six straight back.

Again, however, the driver was the political context at Westminster. It will be the same in 2024. There is the prospect of a Labour spurt in the polls as the election approaches and thus some significant gains from the SNP across the central belt of Scotland.

But those gains are likely to fall well short than some of the more excitable recent predictions suggest. And gains are more likely to reflect Starmer’s healthy prospects of moving to Downing Street rather than the SNP’s turmoil. In other words, they would probably would have happened anyway – even if that motorhome was still in the showroom.

Rob Johns, Professor of Politics, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.