The SNP gathers in Inverness this week in positive mood; the first majority government at Holyrood, large leads in recent polls and their opponents searching to find leaders that can challenge the First Minister and policies to engage voters.
Yet on the issue likely to dominate the conference, the forthcoming independence referendum, the picture is less clear. Our poll in August illustrated that, while around two-thirds of Scots back more power and all tax-raising powers to be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood, only around a third support Scotland separating from the rest of the UK.
Other polls have shown higher levels of support for ‘independence’; crucially however, respondents in these polls are not presented with a definition of what independence means, possibly because such a definition has yet to be fully articulated. Instead, the SNP strategy appears to be to gradually build momentum over the period of the current parliamentary term, arguing for substantial new powers in the current Scotland Bill and continuing to demonstrate competence through its handling of the Scottish economy.
For this strategy to work, however, the SNP still need to persuade a significant proportion of currently unconvinced voters to back their call for a fully independent Scotland. Our August poll highlights that fewer than half (44%) of those who support full tax-raising powers for Holyrood also support full independence while 50% oppose independence. It is this group, who currently support greater devolution but oppose independence that the SNP must focus on if they are to win a majority in the referendum.
It could be argued that, even though the SNP and The First Minister are currently enjoying such high levels of public support, since only a third of Scots support independence, it’s going to be tough to win over sufficient numbers of the unconvinced majority. Analysis of our August poll gives some clues as to the nature of the challenge. Firstly, it is young voters who are most supportive of independence (49% of 18-24 year olds), possibly explaining the SNP’s enthusiasm for extending voting in the referendum to 16 and 17 year olds. Support for independence is weaker in the older age groups; for example only 33% of those aged 55+ support independence and this will be a particularly important group to target, especially as they are the group most likely to vote. On the plus side, it is the older age groups from which the SNP draws its largest support, despite being more wary of independence.
The other key group for the SNP to engage and persuade are those who live in the most affluent areas of Scotland, where opposition to independence stands at 70%, compared to 52% opposition among Scots who live in the most deprived areas. This may be because those in affluent areas are most worried about the possible economic uncertainty arising from a vote in favour of independence.
In this task the SNP face the combined forces of the other three main parties, both at a Scottish and UK-level. The UK coalition government, aware of movements in public opinion and the continuing growth in popularity of the SNP, is urging the SNP to settle the constitutional question by calling an early referendum, an idea already rejected by the Scottish Government. Meanwhile the opposition parties in Holyrood are currently undergoing reviews and leadership contests in an attempt to respond to the current SNP domination.
So, at the moment the SNP dominate the polls and set the agenda, at least until the opposition parties begin to emerge from their own internal reviews and leadership contests. But with the focus increasingly on the forthcoming referendum, the party has some work to do in persuading voters to back independence for Scotland.