How Brexit Has – and Has Not – Made A Difference

The Sunday Times and Heart FM have marked the second anniversary today of the independence referendum with a new poll from Panelbase. Like last week’s polls from TNS and Ipsos MORI the headline finding is that the UK-wide vote in favour of Brexit has made little difference to the balance of opinion on independence.

Nevertheless, today’s poll suggests that the Brexit vote may in fact have made a difference to the views of some voters. Some do indeed appear to have switched in favour of Yes since June 23rd. However, at the same time, others have apparently moved back in the opposite direction. And the fact that they have done so suggests that the SNP could be making a mistake if it ties the case for a second independence referendum too closely to the debate about Brexit.

Panelbase was one of the companies that polled on the constitutional question immediately after the June 23rd vote and found that a small majority were now in favour of independence – by 52% to 48% (once Don’t Knows are left to one side). However, not only was that poll carried out quickly straight after the referendum, but also the sample size (626) was relatively small. Today’s poll reverses the figures, putting Yes on 48% and No on 52%. And these latest figures are, in turn, very similar to those obtained the last time Panelbase polled on independence before the EU referendum – in April when (on more than one occasion) 47% said Yes and 53% No. Once again, it seems that Brexit has made little difference to the level of support for independence.

But underneath the surface of the headline figures not everything is the same as it was back in April. In the first of two polls it conducted in April, Panelbase found that 89% of September 2014 Yes voters stated that they would vote the same way again, as did 87% of No supporters. The second time around the equivalent figures were 88% and 86% respectively. In today’s poll, in contrast, only 84% of those who said the voted Yes two years ago claim that they would vote that way again, while just 81% of No voters indicate they would vote the same way too.

Of course we should be wary of making too much of what might still look like quite marginal drops in the stability of support for and opposition to independence in just one poll. However, the evidence provided by Panelbase is consistent with that of the two polls conducted by YouGov in July and August, which (unlike TNS and Ipsos MORI) also asked how people voted in September 2014.

Back in April and May YouGov reported (on two occasions) that 86-87% of Yes and No voters would vote the same way in a second independence referendum. But in its two post-Brexit polls, only between 76-79% of voters have said that they would make the same choice again. In short, we now have three polls that all suggest that while Brexit may not have changed the balance of opinion on the constitutional question, it has resulted in more churn amongst individual voters.

Today’s poll gives us some clues as to why this may be the case. First of all, we should note that it confirms a key but perhaps underappreciated finding of a number of polls on how people voted in the EU referendum: that a substantial minority of those who favour independence voted to Leave the EU. Panelbase report that 38% of 2014 Yes voters who voted in the EU referendum backed leaving the EU, little different from the 41% of No voters who opted to do so. Far from being united in their determination to keep Scotland in the EU, supporters of independence are divided on the subject, much like almost every other political party and movement in the UK.

Second, when Panelbase asked those who have changed their minds since September 2014 why they had done so, just over half (54%) of those who switched from No to Yes say they have done so because they want to stay in the EU. That suggests the Brexit vote has indeed persuaded some people to switch fin favour of independence. However, while the issue is not as prominent amongst those who have switched from Yes to No, wanting to leave the EU is given as the reason for making that shift by more people (30%) than any other. Given the level of support for leaving the EU amongst Yes supporters this perhaps should not come as a surprise.

In the meantime, it looks from the First Minister’s recent statements as though retaining access to the single market is a bottom line for the Scottish Government in the negotiations with the EU that will eventually be instigated by the UK government. Yet that is seemingly not the way that many a SNP or independence supporter sees the issue. Much like voters in the rest of the UK, it seems that voters in Scotland are divided on the question of whether it is more important for the UK to have control over immigration or to retain its place in the single market. Each is regarded as the more important priority by 41% of Scots. Meanwhile, those who voted for the SNP in May take much the same view – 40% give priority to control over immigration, 43% to the single market – while those who voted Yes in September 2014 only tilt in favour of the single market to a limited degree (by 46% to 38%).

It looks, then, as though the SNP were correct in reckoning that a UK-wide vote to Brexit would persuade some people to shift from No to Yes on the independence question, albeit not in the numbers for which they might have hoped. At the same time, however, the party may have taken too little cognisance of the fact that a substantial minority of those who back independence would prefer to be outside the EU – and thus might find a UK that was outside the EU a more attractive proposition than a Scotland that was inside it. In truth, the independence movement is much more heterogeneous in its attitudes towards the EU than might be imagined from the outlook of most SNP MPs and MSPs. Consequently, ‘Banging on about Europe’ is unlikely to be a winning strategy for Nicola Sturgeon, much as it proved not to be for David Cameron.

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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.