EDINBURGH: Britain’s early election could draw some support away from the Scottish National Party [SNP] but will likely bolster First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum, experts say.
SNP leader Sturgeon on Wednesday said that Prime Minister Theresa May’s opposition to such a referendum would “crumble to dust” if she wins a majority of seats in Scotland in the June 8 election.
In 2015, the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats and is widely expected to hold on to them, cementing a decade of electoral success. After the failed 2014 independence referendum, Sturgeon has said she now wants a second go because conditions have changed and Scotland risks being “dragged out of the European Union” against its will.
Scotland voted by an overwhelming 62 per cent to remain the EU – compared to an overall national vote of 52 per cent for Brexit – but it cannot hold another referendum without the government’s permission. And May has said that “now is not the time”.
“The SNP will absolutely win this election — there is no doubt about it,” said Craig McAngus, of Aberdeen University’s department of politics and international relations. “You can bet your house on the SNP winning well over 40 per cent, possibly into 50 per cent, and that will strengthen Nicola Sturgeon’s hand.”
But Scots are far from united on whether or not to hold a second independence referendum. Even some nationalists are suffering from voter fatigue after the 2014 referendum, the 2015 general election, the 2016 EU referendum and now council elections in May and another general election in June.
“Theresa May is gambling on the fact people in Scotland will feel they’ve had enough of independence and that now isn’t the time,” McAngus told AFP. “But she can’t resist another referendum indefinitely and Nicola Sturgeon still has a few cards up her sleeve.”
Sturgeon had pledged to set out her plans for another referendum in the coming weeks, although the snap election will give her a short pause for thought.
John Curtice, Britain’s leading polling expert and a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said the SNP would probably retain most of its seats and continue its drive for independence. “They are defending 56 out of 59 seats so really there is only one way to go – which is down,” he told AFP. “But if they get 45-50 percent of the vote that would not be enough to suggest that support for the SNP has significantly nosedived.”
May’s Conservative Party could make inroads in parts of Scotland that border with England. The SNP also has difficulties in Edinburgh, which elected Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in the city centre in 2016 and turned to the Liberal Democrats on the outskirts after SNP MP Michelle Thompson became embroiled in a police inquiry.
But the SNP could make gains in the northern isles, where local Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael has been heavily criticised for misleading voters. “One suspects it will be pretty close to 50 per cent voting for unionist parties and 50 per cent voting for the SNP – which is where we know the country is at.
“But I think it is going to make it more difficult for Theresa May to try to delay the referendum beyond May 2021,” Curtice said. “We know Theresa May has said ‘not now’, but she hasn’t said when, and her argument is somewhat undermined by her decision to suddenly call this election.”
“If it’s OK to have a general election in the middle of Brexit, why is it not ok to hold a second independence referendum?” he said.
McAngus said: “Another Scottish election with another pro-independence majority on a clear mandate that a referendum ought to happen means that it would be a brass neck for the UK government to say no.”
“Ultimately this referendum will happen in some form. It’s just a question of how long it takes.”