Ms. Sturgeon’s Brexit Difficulties

The last fortnight has seemingly seen Nicola Sturgeon’s options narrow significantly. The Prime Minister has set out a vision of Brexit that is the very opposite of the Scottish Government’s stated preference to stay in the single market and continue to accept freedom of movement. The Supreme Court has ruled that the UK government is not legally obliged to seek Holyrood’s consent before giving the EU notice that the UK wishes to leave. Meanwhile the Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, has poured a lot of cold water on the idea that post-Brexit Scotland might be able to have a more liberal policy than the rest of the UK in respect of migrants from the EU.

Between them these developments would – as the First Minister herself has acknowledged – seem to leave her with little option but to hold a second independence referendum if Scotland is to maintain the close relationship with the EU that she believes is essential for Scotland’s future prosperity.

However, a new poll from Panelbase published in today’s Sunday Times adds to the existing doubts about whether seeking a Yes vote in a second referendum vote on the back of the argument that independence is the only way Scotland can continue to enjoy a close relationship with the rest of the EU will prove an effective strategy.

Not that Scotland has gone off the idea of staying in the EU. Today’s poll suggests that 61% would now vote to remain in the EU, a figure that is not significantly different from the 62% that were found to have voted for Remain when the ballot boxes were opened north of the border in June last year. However, today’s poll also affirms previous poll findings that, despite the SNP’s advocacy of ‘independence in Europe’, Brexit significantly divides the nationalist movement. As many as 35% of those who say they voted Yes to independence in September 2014 state they would vote to leave if a second EU referendum were held now. The willingness of this group to vote for independence is hardly likely to be bolstered by any pro-independence campaign that focused on keeping Scotland in the EU.

What we do learn anew from today’s poll is that support for the Scottish Government’s policy towards Scotland’s future relationship with the EU is not as widespread as it might like. True, there is little dissent from the idea that Scotland should continue to trade freely with the EU. As many as 65% agree with the proposition that ‘Companies in other EU countries should be allowed to sell goods as easily in Scotland as they can in their own country’, while just 11% disagree. Such figures suggest most people in Scotland would be quite happy for their country to remain a member of the single market.

However, only 40% agree that ‘People from other European countries should still have an automatic right to come to Scotland to live and work should they so wish’ while almost as many, 36%, disagree. Meanwhile, amongst those who voted No to independence in September 2014 (some of whom the SNP need to win over if it is to win a second independence referendum) only 28% agree with the proposition while 46% disagree. Public opinion in Scotland may be more liberal on immigration than it is in England, but linking independence to retaining freedom of movement is not obviously going to prove an effective way of increasing support for independence.

At the same time, it would seem that a majority of people in Scotland are not convinced that Brexit will prove as deleterious as the Scottish Government suggests. Just 40% think that immigration to Scotland from outside the UK will actually fall as a result of leaving the EU. But more importantly, perhaps, only 41% think that Scotland’s economy will be weaker as a result of leaving the EU. While this figure may be nearly double the proportion (21%) who think the economy would be stronger, it still represents well under half of all voters. Here it should be borne in mind that one of the key reasons why the Remain camp lost the EU referendum across the UK is that only around two in five voters believed that the UK economy would actually suffer from Brexit – the rest simply reckoned (or hoped) it would not make much difference and largely went on to vote for Leave. In any event, one might imagine that Nicola Sturgeon should not need any lessons in the potential limitations of arguments that look like ‘Project Fear’.

Equally, there is little sign that voters share the concern of some in the SNP that the UK government will use Brexit as an opportunity to take back some of the powers and responsibilities that the Scottish Parliament currently enjoys. Only 15% think that Scotland will have less control over its laws as a result of Brexit. Most (48%) simply think it will not make much difference.

All in all, then, it is perhaps not surprising that today’s poll finds that there is still a small but clear majority in favour of Scotland staying in the UK. After leaving aside those who said, ‘Don’t Know’, Panelbase put support for Yes at 46%, with No at 54%. That actually represents a one point drop in support for independence as compared with the company’s last poll last September. Such a drop could arise simply as a result of the chance variation to which all polls are subject, but the figures are in accord with the findings of polls undertaken by YouGov and BMG before Christmas that also suggested that support for independence is now at more or less the same level as it was in the September 2014 referendum.

Some voters have changed their mind in the wake of the EU referendum. But, as we have pointed out before, the problem from the SNP’s point of view is that for every voter who has switched from No to Yes following the UK-wide decision to leave the EU, another has switched from Yes to No. YouGov demonstrated this quite clearly in an analysis published on Friday. Thus, while only 74% of those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016 would vote the same way again in an independence referendum, equally only 65% of those Yes voters who backed Leave say they would back independence again. In contrast, and as we might anticipate, No voters who voted to Leave are still nearly all happy to stay in the UK (93% would again vote No), while Yes voters who voted to Remain are also still largely loyal to the independence cause (86% would vote the same way).

Meanwhile, it would seem that supporters of independence themselves may also be coming to the conclusion that Brexit may not provide an opportune moment for a second independence referendum after all. Just 27% of all voters now think that an independence referendum should be held before the UK leaves the EU. That represents a drop of five points since last September and one of no less than 16 points compared with the position immediately after the EU referendum result became known. Even amongst those who voted Yes in September 2014 rather less than half (47%) now think a second independence referendum should be held before the UK leaves the EU.

Still, perhaps for Ms Sturgeon there is a silver lining to this particular cloud. If many of her supporters are not convinced that an early indyref2 should be held in order to avoid Brexit, perhaps this means it will be easier for her to take a second referendum ‘off the table’ should she decide that holding such a ballot looks too risky 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.