What if she fails? It’s a question that until recently hardly seemed worth asking. Even on Thursday, as Scots went to the ballot box, the overwhelming likelihood was that Nicola Sturgeon would be granted her pro-independence majority.
But there are majorities and there are majorities. As the campaign ends, the polls suggest there is a very real chance that the SNP will not win outright. In this week’s Scottish election podcast, the New Statesman’s polling analyst Ben Walker told me the Nats have been the major losers of the past few months. “In the final few days of this campaign we’ve seen the polls diverge quite notably. There’s a fine line between [the SNP] netting two or three more seats or even losing two or three.” In short, Walker says the SNP has dropped seven percentage points in the polls since February, the largest decline of any party.
In 2011, under Alex Salmond, the SNP secured an overall majority of 69 seats in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, which gave it a mandate for 2014’s independence referendum. In the 2016 Holyrood election, the first under Sturgeon as leader, that haul dropped to 63, which meant minority government throughout the last parliament and a reliance on the Greens to pass legislation.
For much of the past year, boosted by her determined handling of the pandemic and the unpopularity of Brexit and Boris Johnson, it looked as if Sturgeon was on course to replicate Salmond’s 2011 landslide victory. That has certainly been her ambition, but the polls suggest it is now an outside bet.
The difference between an overall majority and a minority government is perhaps not huge, day to day – the Greens will happily nod through most SNP bills. But everyone loves a winner and, due to previous expectations that she would sweep all before her, Sturgeon will be deemed to have fallen short. There would be disappointment among SNP followers, and the First Minister will lack a degree of untrammelled agency in her pursuit of a second referendum. The Greens, who Walker predicts will double their seat total to ten, will expect much greater influence on government policy in return for their support, and possibly even ministerial office.
On the unionist side, if the number of SNP seats remains around the levels of 2016, or even falls back slightly, Johnson will be able to argue that despite Brexit – the “material change of circumstances” that has given life to demands for indyref2 – the election has shown the Scottish people have no enhanced appetite for a second vote on leaving the UK. Sturgeon’s manifesto request for a mandate cuts both ways.
In such circumstances she will also face increased and public pressure from parts of the Yes movement to step up the aggression and radicalism in her approach to independence. There is the prospect of Salmond and one or two other Alba members on the Holyrood benches, and if so they will be a constant thorn in the First Minister’s side, demanding more confrontation with Westminster and less caution. Salmond has called for independence negotiations to begin within days of the Holyrood election. Sturgeon’s strategy of slowly wooing 2014 No voters and the “indycurious” has long tested the patience of the more hardline independence campaigners.
[See also: Why the SNP fears Alba is still a threat]
Even within the SNP itself, her critics will surely be emboldened. The party politicians and activists who have previously spoken out against the controlling style of Sturgeon’s leadership, the performance of her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and on issues such as trans rights, have not gone away (other than the MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey, and a few councillors, who have defected to Alba). Joanna Cherry will still be Joanna Cherry. Stasis is viewed as fatal to the chances of securing independence, and so Sturgeon is likely to face increasing challenge to her authority and demands for internal change.
How would she react to all this? There is little in her personality that seems geared towards compromising with the ultras. In my interview with her in this week’s New Statesman, the First Minister doubled down on her gradualist strategy and took a wry swipe at Salmond et al. “The way I articulate it might be a lot less glamorous than some others who think it’s just about, you know, sort of arm-wrestling and flexing the muscle and demonstrating how committed we are,” she said. “But actually, the patient, hard work, the committed way of doing it, is the way that I think is going to deliver the success we want.”
Of course, the opposition parties will see all this as their chance to get back in the game. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has turned heads throughout the election campaign – “I think he’s very capable,” Sturgeon admits – and after more than a decade in the doldrums the party once again has a talented, charismatic leader and an argument. If Douglas Ross, Sarwar’s Tory opposite number, has fared less well in recent weeks, the prospect of a swithering electorate and some new arguments for blocking a referendum will quicken Conservative hearts.
We’ll know the reality soon enough. But without that overall majority, and if the Nat performance seems becalmed, Sturgeon could find her enemies – those on the opposition benches and those sitting behind her – whipping up one hell of a storm.
[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker]