Has Brexit Not Cleared The Path To Indyef2 After All?

Summer is coming to an end. The streets of Edinburgh are about to be populated by politicians and their acolytes rather than festival goers. Next week the SNP announce their legislative programme for the coming year. And today the nationalists are finally getting around to launching their long-promised ‘summer offensive’ on independence.

In the meantime, the ‘silly season’ has given an opportunity for some of the dust raised by the outcome of the EU referendum to settle. It has seemingly not fallen in the way that the SNP hoped it would.

As discussed previously, three polls conducted in the immediate wake of the June 23rd ballot suggested that the UK-wide vote to leave the EU, a vote that contradicted the preference of a majority of Scots, had instigated a modest but potentially crucial swing in favour of independence. All three suggested that there was now a narrow majority in favour of independence whereas before the Brexit vote the same polls had consistently been reporting a narrow majority in favour of staying in the UK.

However, the impact of an event on public opinion is not necessarily best assessed by polling straight after it has happened. Any immediate shift in opinion may be no more than a knee-jerk reaction, while polls taken in a hurry are always at greater risk of acquiring a less than representative sample. In any event, two polls conducted by YouGov during the course of the summer break have both failed to detect the swing to independence apparently uncovered by those three earlier exercises.

In the first of its two polls, for which interviewing took place at the end of July, YouGov found (after Don’t Knows had been left to one side) that 47% would now vote Yes in an independence referendum, very similar to the 46% level of support that the company consistently obtained in polls that it did in the months leading up to May’s Holyrood election. Now in a second poll, conducted at the very end of August and published in today’s Times, it has replicated that finding; this latest reading suggests there is just 46% support for independence.

So on this – admittedly still quite limited – evidence, it looks as though the apparent swing in favour of independence in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote was no more than a short-term reaction, and that the balance of opinion on the constitutional question has returned to where it was beforehand. That still means there is a much higher level of support for independence than any unionist would find comfortable, but insufficient support for Nicola Sturgeon to be able to call a second independence referendum in the near future with any confidence.

There are a couple of clues in YouGov’s polling as to why this might be the case. First, the poll in July suggests that while a majority of Scots might prefer to stay in the EU, for many the issue is not necessarily a make or break one.  Only 50% of those who voted Remain on June 23rd said that they would prefer to live in an independent Scotland that was inside the European Union rather than a Scotland that was part of the UK but outside the EU. The proportion of those who voted No in the September 2014 referendum who take that view stands at just 18%, suggesting that the reservoir of No supporters who might be moved by the EU issue is in fact a relatively small one.

Second, today’s poll finds that what was one of the key characteristics of public opinion during the independence referendum campaign – a tendency amongst voters to doubt the economic case for independence – is still prevalent. Only around a quarter (23%) reckon that Scotland is harmed economically by being part of the UK, whereas almost a half (49%) feel that Scotland benefits economically. It is always likely to prove difficult for the SNP to secure majority support for independence unless and until it can reduce the level of pessimism about the economic consequences of independence. Trying to do so should probably be one of the key objectives of its ‘summer offensive’.

In the meantime, perhaps we should not be surprised if, given the latest polling evidence, Ms Sturgeon continues to be somewhat Delphic in her utterances on the possibility of holding a second referendum. Certainly she seems to be having some success in managing the expectations of her supporters. Although 88% of those who currently back the SNP say they would vote Yes in a second referendum, only 52% think that such a ballot will actually be held before the UK leaves the EU. Perhaps many a SNP voter also suspects that the time may not yet be ripe for an early ballot after all.


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.