Already late, the launch of the SNP manifesto was held back until yesterday (30 May) by the Manchester bombing. The phrase ‘in Washington, everything is political’ now applies worldwide in the cynical world of professional politics but even the most hard-bitten were sobered by an attack on a demographic weighted to young women and children at one of the largest indoor arenas in Europe where life-threatening panic was superimposed on the explosion.
The assumption should be that the attack will not be a decisive element in the election outcome - remembering that for a few days Jo Cox’s murder seemed, with some evidence in the polls, like a clinching factor for the Remain side in the EU referendum. This may not have been the impression last week. The attack drove out like a summer storm wobbly days for Theresa May, with Jeremy Corbyn potentially outpolling Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, and the ‘dementia tax’ raising ironical questions about her stability under pressure. Her dogged, defensive interview with Andrew Neil on the evening of the attack was within hours consigned to the archive. She took twelve hours to appear after the atrocity but the new agenda of issues should have played to her relative strengths over Corbyn.
And yet when campaigning resumed the old wobbliness returned. Labour’s UK poll ratings have ranged as high as 38%, an issue being how far pollsters are adjusting data in response to their experience in 2015 that preferences honestly expressed for Labour in the polls were not carried through into votes cast. It looks like 1987, where some polls (including a BBC exit poll) were close enough to suggest a possible hung parliament and the outcome (an 11.8% Conservative lead) gave the Labour leader (in that case Neil Kinnock) the basis for fighting another day. The bar of performance and result for Corbyn is rather low and so far he has risen above it.
For the SNP the pause is of uncertain effect. The election is difficult for them anyway as it upsets prematurely their two mandates – their 2015 UK near-sweep and their 2016 devolved near-majority. Some seat losses to Conservatives may result from Labour weakness alone, and the first leaders’ debate of 21 May 2017 focused on their domestic policy performance (a second debate for STV was postponed and is now scheduled for Tuesday 6 June). On the basis of the few Scottish polls so far the SNP’s vote share seems to be heading close to Labour’s 2010 42%, which yielded 41 seats; the SNP would expect to do better than that now that the Liberal Democrats’ phalanx of rural seats has crumbled.
Independence planning is now very uncertain, with the parties’ texts having us reaching for the dictionary rather than the statute book. The Conservatives wish to pause until ‘the Brexit process has played out’ and ‘there is public consent for it to happen’ (p32) is vague (when is anything in politics ‘played out’?) and again declines precision on whether they will refuse a section 30 order, refer a Scottish Parliament Referendum Bill passed without it to the Supreme Court, or, if they were to lose in the Court, decline to give any political respect to the resultant referendum.
The SNP’s manifesto text is that ‘at the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known, it is right that Scotland should have a real choice about our future’ (p29). Nicola Sturgeon has not repeated her referendum timeframe of 13 March 2017 - autumn 2018 to spring 2019, perhaps ‘a short time after’ the Brexit date. ‘The end of the Brexit process’ is close to David Mundell’s phrase of 28 March 2017 ‘until the Brexit process is complete’ and is surely is a different date from ‘when the final terms of the deal are known’. It is possible that the two governments will connive to postpone a referendum beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections. Month by month we are spinning away from the widespread assumption before 2016 that a Leave vote would bring Scottish independence in Europe in its wake. That assumption rested on an SNP wish to promote the EU – Euro, Common Fisheries Policy, free movement and all – that, in the light of the party’s history, has unsurprisingly not been sustained.