It seems odd to say this of a party set to win the second most seats ever in Scotland at a General Election, but the SNP’s self-assurance is not what it was. One reason for this is the issue of EU membership where, in common with many Remainers, the SNP is now finding itself struggling to clarify its exact position.
62% of Scots voted Remain but, for all that, turnout was considerably lower than it was in England. In fact, as a total share of the electorate, the Remain vote in Scotland was not much higher than in England. As a result, the underlying idea presented by Remainers (and, often, the media) that Scotland would go for independence immediately in order to remain in the EU was always laughable. After all, judging by referendum turnout, Scots were disproportionately uninterested in the whole issue of Europe.
Widely missed also have been the polls and surveys showing that support for remaining in the EU bore almost no relation whatsoever to support for independence. In other words, how someone voted in the 2014 independence referendum tells us very little about how that same person voted in the 2016 EU referendum. More simply: supporters of Scottish independence are not particularly keener to remain in the EU than opponents of it.
Hence Nicola Sturgeon’s unusual lack of assurance during this campaign. She cannot simply say that an independent Scotland will re-enter the EU. Less than a third of Scotland’s voters chose independence and then “Remain”; and, in any case, Scotland does almost four times as much trade with the rest of the UK than it does with the rest of the EU. As we saw last June, referendums are not decided solely on economic interest, but that combination of public opinion and economic interest does mean that a simple swap of UK for EU would be deeply unpopular. The SNP knows it.
In some ways, the SNP’s uncertainty reflects that of many Remainers. It is by no means clear even across the UK that there really is a “48%”. The Conservatives’ gamble that internationalist centre-right Remainers would stay with them while Leavers join them seems set to pay off (not least in Scotland); there is no parallel the other way around.
Therein lies a massive challenge.