THE idea that support for independence would fall as a result of the SNP’s difficulties is down to a lack of understanding of the “passion of support” for independence, along with some “wishful thinking”, a politics expert has said.

A new poll from Ipsos last week found 54% would vote Yes in an immediate referendum, while 46% said they would vote No. 

A second survey from Redfield and Wilton showed a narrow lead for No – with 48% opposed to independence compared to 46% in favour.

The results come despite the SNP facing a long year of difficulties – which has included a leadership contest, police investigation into the party’s finances, a heavy by-election defeat and Health Secretary Michael Matheson’s iPad bill.

Rob Johns, professor of politics at Essex University, who works with the Scottish Election Study, disputed the notion of a link between support from the SNP and support for independence.

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He said: “The SNP went from a bad result in 2003 to just winning in 2007 and then winning handsomely in 2011 at the Scottish elections, and support for independence was still flatlining at a very low level.

“So it's very clear that people could be won to the SNP without being converted to independence.

“Then obviously the referendum and the whole Yes campaign was very SNP-led - it took on a kind of momentum of its own and became the most important thing to those who were converted to independence or who had been independence supporters all along.”

He said there was no logic to expect that someone who had been won over to independence in that campaign would now change their mind because of issues within the SNP.

He pointed out that one of the possible explanations for this idea is that many people – especially south of the Border – fail to make a distinction between the SNP and independence.

“When the SNP were on the rise 15 years ago, people kept saying does that mean more people support Scottish independence and you had to patiently explain no, it doesn't, it just means people think Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are a better bet running Scotland,” he said.

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“Then obviously the independence referendum changed everything in terms of the level of support for independence and the passion of support for independence - but I think some people haven't grasped that.”

He added: “I think the second explanation is just wishful thinking. There are so many people who really want support for independence to fall and every fresh incident that they look for, they think maybe that will be the one.

“But in the same way, people who support independence kind of expected Brexit and then expected the pandemic and then expected whatever else to be the thing that's suddenly caused another surge for independence.

“And they were wrong as well, as the people who voted No are also very strongly entrenched.”

Dr Paul Anderson, senior lecturer in politics at Liverpool John Moores University, said the Ipsos poll also showed that the top five most important issues included the cost of living and the economy, as well as devolved areas such as health and education.

“Those help explain why support for independence is still high because those are the things that people are associating with Westminster,” he said.

“So obviously Brexit still plays a big role in this, Liz Truss and the ‘economic event’, if we can call it that, and the ramifications of this.

“We still have high interest rates, high mortgage rates and people are linking this very clearly with economic policies and Westminster.

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“I think that helps explain why support for independence is still steady, because people are still unhappy.”

Anderson said in light of the decision by the Supreme Court that Holyrood does not have powers to hold a referendum, the focus for the Yes movement has to be on increasing support to build a “more democratic case” to take forward.

But he also said the Unionist side is facing challenges as well.

“So the numbers of 50/50 [Yes/No], those numbers are probably staying steady because the positive case for the Union isn't as articulated as well,” he said.

“They need to look at why people are in favour of independence and then look at that through the lens of Unionism.

“But the Unionism of the Conservative Party is not popular in Scotland. There is an opportunity for Labour there - but there is a challenge as well.”

So with the nation seemingly divided down the middle on the issue of independence, what are the prospects for the future?

Dr Stuart McAnulla, associate professor in politics at the University of Leeds, argued that having made up their minds on the issue of independence, most people will be resistant to change - especially in response to “relatively short-term party political events”.

He added: “A settlement on the issue remains out of reach given the fine balancing of polarised opinion.

“As things stand, neither side appears likely to gain the momentum needed to make a claim to represent the 'settled will' of the people on the independence question.

“The experience of Brexit suggests that there is no constitutional mechanism or electoral result that will draw a line under such divisions over sovereignty and identity.

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“The short- to medium-term question is largely about how best to manage Scottish affairs in ways that respect these ongoing differences.”

However, Dr Coree Brown Swan, lecturer in politics at the University of Stirling, said if independence was the top priority for the population, there could be continued high levels of support for the SNP, despite the party experiencing controversies.

She said: “Perhaps for the average voter, it is more long-term aspiration rather than an immediate ambition, meaning that in the short-term, and considering the SNP’s woes, people are more open to voting for Labour, despite the party’s opposition to independence.

“So this is a benefit for the Labour Party in the near term, but I think is ultimately a positive for the SNP long term.

“Even as the question of independence becomes less salient, there is still a significant percentage of the population who believes in independence when the moment is right, and this support isn't reliant on short-term personalities or circumstances.”