Few doubt that the Scottish National party will win the most seats in the UK general election in Scotland on December 12. The main question — and one with potentially far-reaching implications for the integrity of the UK — is by how much.
A solid SNP performance at the 2017 election secured it 35 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, but it was widely seen as a big setback because the party had won 56 constituencies in an extraordinary landslide victory in 2015.
Now many SNP supporters are hoping that this month’s election will deliver a similar scale victory to 2015, with the party taking seats off the Conservatives and Labour, and possibly the Liberal Democrats. That would give the SNP a platform to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Asked about his expectations for the December poll at an SNP election campaign event in Edinburgh’s port suburb of Leith on Friday, local party member Ian Dick aimed high: “59 out of 59!”
Mr Dick said the first few days of the campaign reminded him much more of the run-up to the 2015 election than the poll two years ago.
The SNP has been boosted by the August departure of Ruth Davidson, the popular Scottish Conservative leader. It has also been helped by the lacklustre Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, and confusion about his party’s Brexit policy.
John Curtice, the veteran pollster at Strathclyde university, said the woes of its main opponents meant SNP hopes of substantial gains were not unreasonable, even though support for the party appeared only slightly ahead of where it had been at a similar point in 2017.
“Somewhere around 45 to 50 seats [for the SNP] at the moment seems perfectly possible,” said Sir John.
Recent opinion polls have given the SNP about 40 per cent of the Scottish vote, with an almost 20-point lead over both the Conservatives and Labour. The 2015 election result — which left the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems with only one seat each in Scotland — came after the SNP took almost half the vote.
But Sir John said the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system meant the SNP could conceivably win 50 seats on December 12 from just a 40 per cent share of the vote.
An election next month is helpful for the SNP because it comes before a trial expected early next year of former party leader and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond was charged in January with 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape. He has rejected all the charges, saying he is “innocent of any criminality whatsoever”.
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, Scottish first minister and a former protégé of Mr Salmond, has so far made her demand for a new independence referendum her central election campaign theme, while also stressing the party’s opposition to Brexit.
“This is Scotland’s chance to escape the Brexit chaos by voting SNP and putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands,” Ms Sturgeon told the Leith event on Friday.
Many moderate voters may not share Ms Sturgeon’s appetite for another independence referendum, after Scots voted 55-45 per cent against leaving the UK in a 2014 plebiscite.
And the first minister’s move to prioritise independence risks alienating people who think stopping Brexit should be the focus for Scotland, which in the 2016 EU referendum voted 62-38 per cent to stay in the bloc.
But SNP strategists eyeing the best way to secure more seats at Westminster believe it is more important to mobilise independence supporters than to reach out to pro-UK opponents of Brexit.
Still, some in the SNP caution against raising expectations too high about how many constituencies it can take off other parties.
An SNP veteran of past campaigns said the 2017 election result was a major achievement for a party that before the 2015 poll had only six MPs at Westminster. The Conservatives’ pledge about resolving Brexit appealed to voters weary of the issue, added the veteran, who raised doubts about the effectiveness of the SNP’s message.
“Boris Johnson has a clear [Brexit] message: ‘Get this done’, and it really resonates. I’m hearing it everywhere,” said the campaigner. “The SNP message is ‘Escape Brexit and vote for us to give the solution to Brexit, which is independence.’ In a winter election, does that cut it? I’m not sure it does.”
There are potentially major issues for Ms Sturgeon, even if the election goes well for the SNP: a landslide victory for the party would not in itself force a UK government to accept her claimed mandate to hold an independence referendum next year.
The first minister said on Friday she was sure that UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would agree to another independence plebiscite if he became prime minister. But she also stressed that the SNP would never put a Conservative government into power: a pledge that might reduce the party’s leverage in a hung parliament at Westminster.
Mr Johnson has made clear he would not approve another independence referendum any time soon. “The SNP could have 50 seats, but they ain’t going to do it much good if the Tories have a comfortable overall [House of Commons] majority,” said Sir John.