Fraser McMillan, University of Glasgow, discusses the events over the last few weeks relating to Alex Salmond, the First Minister and the SNP, asking what will be the impact on the SNP's prospects at May's election?
Fit a sotter it is! A muckle bourach. An affa fankle. The people of this country, especially those of us with roots in the North East, are spoilt for choice when it comes to describing a mess. Yet even the well-equipped Scots language seems insufficient to convey the extent of the labyrinthine snorrel that is the Salmond-Sturgeon affair.
It speaks volumes that even people who report on Holyrood for a living were struggling to parse precisely what was being so hotly debated - and why - during the incumbent First Minister’s marathon evidence session in front of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints last week, just five days after Salmond’s own appearance. If the situation has political anoraks confused, how should we expect ordinary members of the public to react? And might the affair jeopardise the SNP’s prospects of returning a parliamentary majority at the devolved election in eight weeks?
Before we delve into this, it is important to recognise that the high-stakes political and personal drama masks a human story with real victims at bottom. It is not difficult to imagine that the furore around this interminable investigation-of-an-investigation into the Scottish Government’s unlawful handling of the original complaints process been yet another ordeal for the women who originally accused Salmond of a variety of sexual offences.
Unfortunately, the government’s bungling of the procedure and Salmond’s refusal to go quietly into the night after being acquitted of criminal charges last year (he admitted to “inappropriate” behaviour) mean that this has ballooned into a political scandal which may have consequences for the incumbent administration. Achieving a parliamentary majority in Scotland is difficult by design, and it will be decided on fine margins.
This assumes that Sturgeon will remain in post to contest the May 6th election as SNP leader and First Minister. This is an entirely political question. Her assured inquiry performance committee last week was felt to have warded off immediate peril, and she refused to be drawn on whether she would resign if found to have broken the Ministerial Code by James Hamilton QC. This and the committee’s imminent report are banana skins for Sturgeon, but her fate will ultimately be determined in the court of public opinion.
There are reasons to believe the damage will be contained. Voters use cognitive shortcuts (or “heuristics”) to evaluate incoming information, meaning that the way they form opinions is heavily coloured by existing attitudes and beliefs. They rely especially heavily on these rules-of-thumb when the information they confront is complicated. The lay of the land heavily favours Sturgeon from this perspective.
Firstly, the nature of what she is alleged to have done wrong is complex. She is accused of handling a complaints process improperly and subsequently lying to Parliament about what she spoke about with whom and when. Sturgeon’s opponents and critics face an uphill battle in convincing voters to care about these alleged procedural breaches, particularly as the country emerges from another long and painful COVID-19 lockdown. At least one third of Scots don’t know what to make of the situation, but those who do trust Sturgeon on the issue significantly more than they do Salmond.
Sturgeon’s existing popularity throughout the last six-and-a-half years has likely fed into this. Partisanship and personal ratings are both powerful heuristics, meaning Sturgeon can rely on pre-existing public support to shape public perceptions of any new revelations. Last summer, due to positive reactions to her coronavirus response, she hit a net +50 approval rating. The First Minister entered the final act of the protracted Salmond saga with public goodwill to burn. Her predecessor, by contrast, stood at net -42 in the same poll. Given this disparity, Sturgeon is further advantaged by the prevailing media narrative portraying the affair as a personal power struggle in which she and Salmond are warring protagonists.
That said, the scandal still has potential to inflict electoral damage and harm the prospects for Scottish independence. As shown in the excellent Ballot Box Scotland poll of polls, SNP constituency vote intention skyrocketed to around 55% in mid-late 2020 but has receded since the turn of the year. The most recent polls have shown this dipping below 50% and Scottish independence vote intention returning to a dead-heat after a sustained surge in support for independence. The SNP vote and Yes support seem to fluctuate together in response to events such as the pandemic response, suggesting that “valence” considerations - assessments about governing competence - are important not only to party politics but the cause of independence itself.
This is both good and bad news for the SNP. Sturgeon is clearly an asset to the party and the independence movement, but both are vulnerable to changes in public perception of the First Minister and her administration’s ability to govern. While it is difficult to know if the current dip in polling is entirely attributable to the Salmond scandal, it should worry Yes campaigners that polling in the immediate aftermath of Sturgeon’s testimony showed that 29% of Scots say the saga has made them less likely to vote SNP and that 60% think she should resign if found to have broken the Ministerial Code.
That said, in some ways it is astonishing that the biggest scandal in Holyrood’s 20 year history has barely put a dent in the incumbent. While it is likely that most committed Yes voters will always side with the First Minister and most committed No voters will always dislike her, the smaller group in the middle are the ones who will decide if her party returns a majority in May. They will also ultimately determine if Scotland becomes an independent nation state.
Further Salmond revelations certainly have the potential to turn this crucial constituency against the SNP and Scottish independence, and small shifts in public opinion may be decisive in the coming weeks. But it seems unlikely at this juncture that the neverending stooshie will usurp valence issues like the pandemic response, override constitutional polarisation or, in turn, result in Sturgeon’s political demise.
Dr Fraser McMillan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, currently working on the ESRC-funded 2021 Scottish Election Study.
Image from Jasn on Flickr