Nicola Sturgeon may have called for a second Scottish referendum with public opinion polls clearly against any rerun but among the smarter intentions of her March announcement was to position the SNP to fight a snap 2017 general election on a manifesto to seek a further mandate for partitioning the United Kingdom.
Not too long ago the SNP campaigned under the pretence that a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster would suffice as a justification to declare a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Scotland.
These days we settle such issues by binary referendums and the SNP will now campaign on a manifesto seeking a mandate from the electorate in the coming general election to hold a second plebiscite on Scottish independence.
To achieve this the SNP will set themselves a target of winning a majority of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats and with them already holding 56 out of the 59 it is highly likely they will succeed.
However in the process it is also conceivable they will lose a number of seats. The Scottish Conservatives are polling at 28% and their campaign will be utterly focused on their opposition to another referendum.
The latest polls have put support for independence at minus 12 and minus 14 points. Recent polling also showed 4 out of 10 Scots are 100% opposed to leaving the UK. This is not auspicious territory to be running an electoral campaign on an indyref2 manifesto.
Sturgeon’s misjudged call for a second referendum has not gone down well with voters and if the silent Unionist majority is looking for a chance to administer electoral justice then this is their chance. Sturgeon’s honeymoon period is long over and she has betrayed the Trust that many non-independence supporters had in her when she reneged on her commitment to respect the result of the 2014 referendum.
The Scottish Conservatives gained seven first past the post constituencies at the 2016 Scottish election and finished second in a number of others. The Borders and the North East could see the largest Tory gains in June.
If the Conservatives can coalesce Unionist support under their banner for one day of voting they could produce the biggest surprise of the night. If they manage to deny the SNP a majority of Scottish seats it would be a resounding defeat for Nicola Sturgeon and would set back the course of independence. This outcome however is unlikely.
Another important election factor is the contingent of 1 million Scottish Leave voters, who despite being on the winning side of the EU referendum have felt like losers ever since due to the SNP’s attempts to use Brexit to drag Scotland out of the UK and back into the EU. With a mere seven MSP’s out of 129 voting to leave the EU and all 59 MP’s voting Remain, Leave voters are perhaps the most underrepresented constituency in Scotland.
With the SNP in 2015 and the Lib Dems in recent by-elections we have seen how the losing side in referendums are more motivated to vote at subsequent elections.
Therefore, pro-Brexit campaigns in key constituencies with strong Leave votes could be highly fruitful. The North East of Scotland in particular is susceptible to such a campaign. Angus Robertson’s Moray constituency registered 49% Leave support, Aberdeenshire 45%, Aberdeen City 40% and Angus 45%.
Only a minority of Scottish Leavers voted Conservative at the 2015 general election, and 400,000 of them voted SNP. Many of these voters have found themselves so alienated by the SNP’s subsequent Europhile posturing that they have abandoned their backing for independence. Their support is ripe for the taking and a campaign aimed at delivering on key Brexit issues like control over fishing and agriculture could reap dividends for the Scottish conservatives.
If the Conservatives take ten seats and gain 30% of the vote they will consider this a victory. The Liberals may pick up a few of their old seats as well. Labour are set for their worst election finish of all time in Scotland and across the UK. Post-Brexit, UKIP are finished nationwide and won’t trouble any Scottish constituency in June.
Although, any Tory gains will likely not be enough of a victory to stop the SNP using a return of over 30 MP’s as an electoral mandate to further their agitation for a second referendum.
However despite the gaining of such a mandate, SNP high command would not be filled with confidence at seeing their battalion of MP’s substantially reduced and their party’s total vote decreasing. Any such decline in support for the SNP would not augur well for an imminent referendum campaign.
The SNP will also have to flesh out the essentials of any prospectus for independence over the next six weeks and this is where they could fall flat. Will there be a brand new currency established? Or will Scotland join the Euro? What are the consequences of EU membership or will Scotland join the EEA before seeking to join the EU at a distant point in future?
The lack of any plans for all of these points will not instil confidence in anyone sceptical about the SNP’s plans to save Scotland from the supposed chaos of a hard Tory Brexit.
However, Theresa May could be considering this election as a chance to take the wind out of the SNP before the inevitable second referendum. The SNP may get an indyref2 mandate but by reducing their number of MP’s, slicing their vote share down and installing more Tory MP’s in Scotland their momentum would be damaged.
There is also the prospect of giant kills in the North East with the SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson and even Alex Salmond vulnerable to a pro-Brexit Unionist backlash from voters opposed to their anti-Brexit stance.
Overall though, a pre-Brexit referendum is highly unlikely and with the UK parliament reverting to a different electoral schedule, it is now possible for the Scottish parliament to revert back to its previous one of four year terms, meaning the SNP could lose the next Scottish elections and with them any chance of a mandate to enter into referendum negotiations with the UK government. After all the precedent is now established that the Scottish parliament is where such interests are pursued, not Westminster elections.
Further, judging by the actions of the Prime Minister this morning, if another Scottish referendum is due to occur again expect a time when Theresa May, after having scoped out the electoral territory and positioned her forces ready for a full campaign calls an urgent press conference and announces a snap referendum at a time when she feels her chances are strongest and the SNP’s are weakest. If another Scottish referendum happens it will be at the time of Theresa May’s choosing, not Nicola Sturgeon’s.