Polls Swing High, Polls Swing Low

One indication of the dominance of the SNP in the Scottish political firmament these days is that, in what currently is otherwise a climate of relatively infrequent political polling north of the border, no less than four polls have been published during the run-up to the nationalists’ spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend.

Two of these polls were published before Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Monday morning that she was now minded to hold a second independence referendum in late 2018 or early 2019. We commented on them here. The remaining two, one conducted by YouGov for The Times and one by Survation for the Scottish Daily Mail, both first appeared on Wednesday morning. However, both started interviewing before Monday and thus only some of their interviews were obtained after the First Minister’s announcement. We thus yet await the first proper post-announcement poll, let alone one conducted after the Prime Minister’s indication yesterday that she will not grant the Scottish Government the legal authority it needs to hold a second ballot, or at least will not do so until the UK has left the EU.

In contrast to the first two pre-conference polls, from BMG Research and Ipsos MORI, both YouGov and Survation brought the First Minister less encouraging news. Neither detected any sign of an increase in support for independence. After Don’t Knows are left to one side, Survation put Yes on 47% and No on 53% (after Don’t Knows are left to one side), unchanged from the company’s last poll in September last year. Meanwhile YouGov put support for Yes at just 43%, while No were estimated to be on 57%. That represented an (insignificant) one-point drop in support for independence since that company’s previous poll in November, but given that that earlier poll had been the first since the September 2014 referendum to put support for Yes at below 45%, this latest finding still represented a new record low.

But, of course, we always have to remember that even when there has been little or no change of opinion, polls can sometimes swing high and then swing low simply as a result of the chance variation to which all polls are subject. What perhaps is most remarkable about the collective message of all the polls conducted so far this year, of which there have now been seven in all, is that at 47% the average level of support for Yes is exactly the same as it was in the dozen polls conducted between January 2016 and the EU referendum. Evidently Brexit is still failing to shift the balance of public opinion on the issue of Scotland’s constitutional status.

But, of course, the immediate subject of political controversy is not whether Scotland should become independent or remain in the Union, but rather whether a second referendum should be held at all this side of the UK’s exit from the EU. On this the latest YouGov poll was, rather surprisingly, silent. However, Survation did address the issue – and reported the lowest level of opposition to holding ballot before the UK leaves the EU in any poll yet. Just 46% said that there should not be a ballot within that time frame, while 41% said that there should. At the same time, the poll suggested there was majority support for holding a referendum after Brexit has taken place. However, because much of the poll was conducted before the First Minister’s announcement, we will have to await further polling before we can tell whether or not her move (let alone, Mrs May’s response) has helped increase support for an early ballot.

Mind you, it seems that the rest of Britain is clear that there should not be an early ballot. A ComRes poll for The Sun reported on Wednesday that 61% of people in England & Wales agree that the Prime Minister should refuse permission for a second ballot until the UK has left the EU. Similarly, a second YouGov poll also released on Wednesday found that, across Britain as a whole, 57% oppose a second referendum while the Brexit negotiations are in progress, while just 25% support the idea. On the other hand, the same poll found that as many as 47% think that Scotland should be allowed to hold an independence ballot once the UK has left the EU, while only 30% believe it should not, suggesting that even many a voter south of the border seems to accept that the SNP should not necessarily have to wait a generation before it can hold another ballot.

The opposition in England & Wales to an early second ballot reflects what still appears to be a widespread wish in the rest of the UK that Scotland should remain in the Union. ComRes’ poll found that only 25% of people in England & Wales support Scottish independence, while 58% are opposed. Similarly, YouGov’s poll reported that only 26% of voters in England & Wales back Scottish independence, while 50% are opposed. Mind you, that still represents a 16 point drop in support for keeping Scotland in the Union as compared with when YouGov last asked the question, shortly before the September 2014 referendum, though it is still higher than in a number of YouGov polls taken in 2012 and 2013.

Doubtless, this weekend’s conference will be dominated by the row about holding a second referendum. But in the meantime, of course, the Scottish Government has a country to run. It is beginning to get somewhat less than a star billing. YouGov reported that almost as many people (42%) now think the Scottish Government is running ‘education and schools’ badly, as think it is doing so well (44%). Approval of the government’s record on schools and education has been in more or less continuous decline since YouGov first began asking this question in the autumn of 2015. Meanwhile on the NHS slightly more people (48%) reckon the Scottish Government is performing badly as think it is doing well (45%). Again these figures too have been moving somewhat in a negative direction over time.

If Theresa May were to be successful in delaying a second independence referendum, not just until after Brexit but also until after the next Scottish Parliament in May 2021, the SNP will need voters to think the party has been doing a good job in running the nation’s public services. Otherwise they might not elect a majority of pro-independence MSPs once again. In that event its chances of holding a second ballot will have disappeared entirely.

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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.