By James Kelly, author of the SCOTgoesPOP! blog

IMAGINE a parallel universe in which the post-indyref SNP surge never happened.

The 2015 General Election proved to be business as usual, with the familiar huge gap between Westminster and Holyrood voting patterns being maintained.

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Many Yes voters, albeit perhaps with greater reluctance than before, continued to back Labour in a doomed bid to keep the Tories out of office, as they had done as a matter of routine in other General Elections down the years.

But at the following year’s Holyrood election, independence exploded back on to the agenda as the SNP secured re-election on a manifesto pledge that Scotland should have the right to hold another referendum if it was dragged out of the EU against its will.

And then, in a 2017 snap General Election, the SNP finally made the breakthrough at Westminster, winning 35 of the 59 Scottish seats, easily outnumbering all of the Unionist parties combined.

By no means everything went their way, as significant numbers of No voters coalesced behind the Tories in a bid to “stop a referendum”, and in the process managed to stop SNP big beasts such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson retaining seats in areas where No had won heavily.

Nevertheless, Ruth Davidson’s bizarre claims that the Scottish Tories’ modest successes left indyref2 “dead” rang entirely hollow.

Her party was a whopping 22 seats behind the winner.

The SNP had 59.3 per cent of the Scottish seats – the rough equivalent of an overall majority of 120 at UK-wide level, greater than Margaret Thatcher won in her landslide of 1987. Quite obviously, it was a thumping SNP victory, and the “triple lock” mandate for an independence referendum had been handsomely secured.

If you ponder this alternative sequence of events, an odd but inescapable conclusion starts to dawn. When Unionist pundits on both sides of the Border line up to insist that the outcome of the General Election has killed off independence, what they’re really arguing is not that the defect lies in the SNP’s 2017 victory, but instead in the 2015 result.

Essentially it’s being claimed that the SNP mandate is negated because even more people voted SNP two years ago. In the cold light of day, that contention looks increasingly like a democratic outrage, and it will be entirely understandable if a clamour builds among SNP supporters for Nicola Sturgeon to stick by the pledge in her manifesto that winning a majority of seats would reinforce the impeccable mandate that already exists for an indyref.

The preposterous notion that the near-impossible feats of 2015 can be used against the SNP indefinitely, and that the benchmark for SNP failure will forever more be anything short of 94.9 per cent of the available seats, cannot realistically be allowed to stand.

Aside from anything else, the freakish 2015 result seems to have led to a convenient outbreak of forgetfulness among commentators about the fact that, historically, the SNP tend to do much better in Holyrood elections than Westminster ones.

It’s being assumed that the SNP’s 37 per cent of the popular vote constitutes a general fall in support that would carry through to any other election, but that simply doesn’t tally with the facts.

The lost SNP support can be split into segments which drifted away at different times and for different reasons, and at least one of those segments is comprised of people who can be realistically expected to return to the fold in the next Holyrood vote. The underlying reasons why some people may vote Labour for Westminster and SNP for Holyrood have not gone away.

THE first small group that the SNP lost was made up of committed No voters, mostly in areas of former Tory and LibDem strength, who found by the time of the 2016 Holyrood election that they could no longer reconcile their opposition to independence with a vote for the SNP. That was perhaps an inevitable realisation, and the real mystery is how the SNP ever managed to claim their support in 2015. By the time Theresa May called this election, they had been joined by another group who felt they could no longer reconcile their belief in Brexit with voting SNP.

But what tipped the balance and led to the SNP unexpectedly slipping below 40 seats was a late swing from SNP to Labour, which seems to have been entirely caused by the Britain-wide Corbyn bandwagon effect.

Most of those switchers were Yes voters who have not changed their views on independence one iota — we know from recent opinion polls that support for independence has not slipped even when the SNP vote has gone down. For as long as Scottish Labour delude themselves that their mini-recovery was founded upon hardline opposition to independence rather than Corbyn’s message of hope, there’s no particular reason to doubt that most of Labour’s new voters would return to the SNP at a Holyrood election.

Unfortunately, though, it seems more than possible we’ll be facing yet another General Election long before the next Holyrood election in 2021. That potentially poses a threat to the SNP, because momentum matters a great deal in politics, and it’s conceivable we’ll shortly see a further Labour surge in Scottish opinion polls that would put many of the SNP’s central belt seats at risk if there is a repeat election any time soon.

The flipside of the coin is that the Scottish Tories may well have reached their ceiling of support, and if the Tory-DUP administration becomes unpopular (as it surely will sooner or later), it’s the SNP who are best placed to reap the rewards throughout the north-east.

However, there is more that could be lost to Labour than could be regained from the Conservatives, so it’s probably in the SNP’s interests for this parliament to be sustained for a reasonably prolonged spell.

They do not hold the balance of power, but the arithmetic is tight enough that they will have some leverage, especially if discipline on the Tory back benches starts to break down.

Perhaps the SNP’s immediate priority ought to be to quietly use that leverage to secure constitutional concessions that Theresa May would never have dreamed of making if she had a majority.