What might the Holyrood election tell us about the appetite for Scottish independence?

People across Scotland and the UK, insofar as the rest of our fellow-citizens take notice of Scottish elections, are probably used to the idea that the SNP ‘sweep the board’ in elections. This was most obvious in the Westminster election of 2015 when their 50% of the total vote got them 56 out of 59 seats under the first-past-the-post system.

The conclusion many, including the cheer leaders of the SNP, draw is that a second independence referendum, and indeed independence, are both inevitable. An air of triumph attends every SNP event, from their Holyrood 2016 manifesto launch, to the royal progress of Queen Nicola around the country, complete with fleet of party-badged Mercedes people carriers (although it has to be said the real Queen indulges in neither selfies with grateful subjects nor photo opps with hapless babies).

All this, of course, is precisely the picture the SNP want to imprint in our minds, an image of both inevitability and, in Alex Salmond’s phrase, national destiny.

The truth is more complex, and much less flattering to the advocates of separation.

holyrood 2016 predition

The table above shows the results of the 2014 referendum and the 2015 general election (GE2015) in Scotland, together with some possible results from next week’s Holyrood election (HR2016 – in italics).

Some explanation is necessary.

First, for 2014 and 2015.

  • The ‘Turnout’ column is precisely that – the percentage of the registered electorate that turned out to vote.
  • The ‘% votes Yes/SNP’ column shows the percentage of actual votes achieved, in the first case for Yes in the referendum, in the second for the SNP in the general election.
  • The ‘% electorate Yes/SNP’ column shows the percentage of the registered electorate, voters and non-voters, that actually turned out to vote for, respectively, Yes and the SNP.

Second, for HR2016, shown in italics, a range of assumptions has been made.

  • Turnout could range from a high of 75% (higher than GE2015, lower than the referendum) to 50% (roughly the turnout in the last Holyrood election of 2011 but obviously pre-referendum excitement). As well as 75% and 50%, intermediate turnouts of 70% and 60% are shown.
  • The SNP will attract about 53% of all votes cast. This accords with the latest opinion polls as reported by the What Scotland thinks web site. It is the figure for constituency results. SNP are forecast to get fewer votes in the regional list (proportional) part of the poll, where minority separatist parties like the Greens and RISE pick up votes from people who, rightly, judge they are unlikely to win constituency seats.
  • I also assume the SNP’s forecast 53% of constituency votes is a rough surrogate for those voting who might want Scotland to be separate from the UK. We know from past polls that some who want independence don’t or won’t vote SNP, and that some who vote SNP (bizarrely to my mind, but there’s nowt as queer as folk) don’t want to break up the UK. I assume the two balance out.

The table shows the results of applying these assumptions. At best (75% turnout) they suggest that 40% of the total electorate might also vote for independence, at worst (50% turnout), only 27%. My best guess is that the true figure will be somewhere between these two extremes.

The conclusion is obvious. The likely current desire for independence has scarcely shifted since the ‘once in a generation/lifetime’ referendum promoted by the SNP. On that basis they have real problems. They are a country mile from the consistent 60% (or is it now 51+%?) of the total electorate they say they need over a period to justify (code for ‘win’) another referendum. They are also about to enter upon their third term of government in Scotland and it is a truth universally acknowledged in a democracy that parties in power for a long time go, well, pfft.

None of this sets a positive context for their push this summer (led by the egregious Stewart Hosie MP – yes, he’s another one who’s blocked me on Twitter) to make a new case for separation and, heaven forefend, ‘woo’ No voters to the case. But that, as they say, is not my problem. I may however return to the wooing as summer progresses, if it ever does.

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One Response to What might the Holyrood election tell us about the appetite for Scottish independence?

  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Good post, and something I noticed a while ago. The referendum figure in particular is a very good demonstration of why most countries require an absolute majority of the electorate for constitutional change: would the Nats really want to govern a new state that only 38% of its electorate actively supported? To be fair, their new 60% threshold suggests they may have learned that lesson. (But I’ll bet any second referendum would be a simple majority affair again.)

    “… it is a truth universally acknowledged in a democracy that parties in power go, well, pfft.”

    During the referendum campaign, I was fond of quoting the American Declaration of Independence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”. My point being that the vast majority of the Nats’ grievances are in fact, just such “light and transient” phenomena*, not least the supposed “natural” Leftward slant of the electorate. The last – so far, the only – party to top 50% of the vote in Scotland was… no, not Labour; it was the Tories. Within living memory. Electorates change.

    The Nats must know that if they keep their “once in a generation” promise, there’s no telling what their support will be when the calendar clicks round in, say, 2040. They must also be aware that one reason for the collapse in support for Québec nationalism over the last two decades is simple weariness with the PQ constantly harping on about it. You can’t keep that kind of fever-pitch up for long. I think it’s being artificially maintained as it is, because we’ve had three votes in as many years in which either the party or their cause celèbre has been the main issue (plus the longest campaign in history for two years before that). Back in the ’50s – when the Tories won their absolute majority – and ’60s, we didn’t vote so often, and national parties tended not to field candidates for local councils. People cooled off between votes; there’s been no real opportunity to do that since 2014. We have councils in 2017, but then there’ll be a couple of quiet years. It’ll be interesting to see how things go after that.

    *It’s worth reading the Americans’ beefs against George III and trying to apply them to modern Scotland. Out of twenty-odd, there are maybe two or three that might make it, at a stretch. One – “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance” – could easily be directed at the SNP themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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