YouGov Mark St Andrew’s Day with Poll on Independence (and more)

Today is, of course, St Andrew’s Day and the deadline for responses to the SNP’s ‘National Survey’ on how Scotland should be governed. To mark the occasion, The Times commissioned a poll from YouGov on attitudes towards Brexit and indyef2 together with Holyrood vote intentions. Nicola Sturgeon must be wishing that it had not bothered.

As soon as it became clear on June 24 that the UK as a whole had voted to leave the EU while Scotland had voted decisively to remain, the First Minister indicated that the possibility of holding a second independence referendum was now ‘back on the table’. She then caused quite a stir at her party’s autumn conference last month when she announced the Scottish Government was about to launch a consultation on a bill that would pave the way for a second referendum. (That particular consultation, by the way, is due to end on January 11.) In taking these steps the First Minister gave the impression that she expected voters to share her affront at seeing Scotland being forced to leave the EU as a result of votes cast south of the border.

However, today’s poll casts further doubt on the validity of that expectation.  Polls in the late summer and the early autumn had already suggested that the balance of support for Yes and No to independence remained much as it was before June 23, with No thus still narrowly ahead. YouGov themselves put support for Yes (after Don’t Knows were excluded) at 47% in July and 46% in August. Now, however, the figure has slipped to 44%.

A two point drop in support is not, of course, statistically significant, but psychologically it is. For this is the first time that any poll conducted since the September 2014 independence referendum has put support for Yes at below the 45% registered in the referendum. Such a finding hardly suggests that Ms Sturgeon could be confident of winning a second independence referendum held any time soon.

In a previous blog we have suggested that one key reason why the Brexit vote has not been a boon for the Yes side is that while some voters may have switched from No to Yes because of their opposition to leaving the EU, others have made the journey in the opposite direction. Today’s poll adds to the evidence on this point. Just 81% of those who voted No in September 2014 now say that they would do so again, down from 86% just before the Holyrood election in May. At the same time, only 76% of those who voted Yes in 2014 say that they would make the same choice again, well below the 86% who said that they would do so when YouGov last polled before the EU referendum.

Meanwhile, the decline in support in independence seems to have been especially marked amongst those who voted to leave the EU. In July 33% of Leave voters said they would back independence, while in August 36% said they would do so. Now the figure stands at just 29%. In contrast, support for independence amongst Remain voters has held steady – at 51% it is much the same in today’s poll as the 50% recorded in August and the 52% registered in July. In short, the support for independence seems to have occurred almost entirely among the substantial minority of Yes supporters who voted to Leave in June. For them, at least, Ms Sturgeon’s decision to link the possibility of a second independence referendum to keeping Scotland in the EU would appear to have made independence seem a less attractive prospect.

If anybody has profited from the revival of the independence question it is not Ms Sturgeon and the independence movement but rather Ms Davidson and her Conservative colleagues. Today’s poll puts support for the party on 25% for the Scottish Parliament constituency vote and 24% for the list. Not only are these rather higher figures than the 22% and 23% respectively that the party won on these two votes in the Holyrood ballot in May, but they represent a record opinion poll high for the party ever since the advent of devolution.

The Conservative vote has, of course, long been almost entirely a unionist vote. Indeed, only 3% of Conservative supporters in today’s poll say that they would vote Yes. However, until now the Conservatives have had to compete with Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the support of unionists. It is in that competition that the party seems to be coming out ahead. No less than 45% of those who voted No in 2014 now say they would vote Conservative on the constituency vote. In contrast, when YouGov polled immediately before May’s Scottish Parliament election (when they put the Conservatives on 19% on the constituency vote) only 34% of No voters said they were backing the Conservatives.

Labour, in contrast, appear to be gradually sinking into yet deeper waters. With just 15% on the constituency vote and 14% on the list, the figures in today’s poll represent yet another all-time polling low for the party. No less than 27% of those who voted for the party in last year’s UK general election now say they are backing the Conservatives. It would seem that what might be thought to be Ms Davidson’s confident and comfortable defence of the Union is proving more attractive to many a hitherto Labour-supporting unionist than the seemingly more uncertain note being struck by Labour. Doubtless, it is not helping Labour either that only 23% think that Ms Dugdale is doing well as Scottish Labour leader while 44% think she is doing badly – give her a net satisfaction score of -21, her worst score yet.

But if the outcome of the Brexit referendum has so far failed to shift public opinion in favour of independence, that does not mean that Scotland has become any less enamoured of staying in the EU. Once Don’t Knows are left to one side, no less than 65% say they would vote to Remain in a second EU referendum, while only 35% say they would back Leave – little different from the 62% to 38% vote in June. What, however, would seem to be missing is any strong determination to see the country’s majority wish fulfilled. While 43% say they would support having a second independence referendum, 45% would not. Equally, while 42% would like Scotland to try and remain a member of the EU when the rest of the UK leaves, 41% are opposed to such an attempt. Even amongst those who voted to Remain less than two-thirds (62%) want a second referendum or an attempt to keep Scotland in the EU. It would seem that the referendum result may have given a somewhat exaggerated impression of the level of commitment amongst Scots to staying in the EU.

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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.