The Swings and Roundabouts of Nationalist Fortune

There is, perhaps, likely to be an unspoken hope stalking the corridors of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre where the SNP gather for their spring conference this weekend. It is that, rather than being resolved via a second referendum, the Brexit impasse should eventually precipitate a general election.

For, so far as voting intentions for Westminster are concerned, the stars seem to be perfectly aligned for the SNP. The four polls of such intentions conducted so far this year, including one by YouGov in today’s Times newspaper, on average put the party’s support at 40%, up three points on its tally in the 2017 election, while at 23% and 21% respectively support for both the Conservatives and Labour is down by six points.

Given that many of the seats the SNP does not currently hold are highly marginal, an early election would seem to afford the prospect of an increase in its representation at Westminster – and perhaps finding itself in a position where Jeremy Corbyn is on the phone to Nicola Sturgeon seeking support for a minority Labour government. Such a scenario could open up the prospect being able to secure the Section 30 order needed to rerun the September 2014 ballot, something that it seems highly unlikely to be granted by a minority Conservative government dependent on DUP support.

Meanwhile, there was good reason why in a statement she made on Wednesday to the Scottish Parliament outlining her latest thinking about holding another ballot, the First Minister was keen to keep open the possibility that a second referendum might be held before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021. For while support for the party in a Westminster election is up on where it was in 2017, it is down on the party’s standing in the 2016 Holyrood election.

Three polls this spring have put support for the party on average at 43% for the Holyrood constituency vote, down four points on 2016, while its rating on the regional vote stands at just 35%, down seven points. These figures suggest that the prospects for a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021 could well rest on the performance of the Greens, support for whom has varied in recent polls between a 6% level that might prove insufficient and a 11% rating that could well ensure a pro-independence majority.

Little wonder then that Ms Sturgeon would like to hold a ballot sooner rather than later if she could possibly do so. Moreover, today’s YouGov poll for The Times has brought the First Minister good cheer in the form of the narrowest lead for Yes over No (just 1% before Don’t Knows are excluded) in any poll for two years. Moreover, all of the increase in support for Yes (and indeed for the SNP itself) since YouGov’s previous poll last summer has occurred among those who voted Remain. At 50%, support for Yes among those who voted Remain is now as much as 21 points higher than it is among those who backed Leave (29%). It seems that support for independence and support for remaining in the EU have come to be even more closely aligned than they were already – with (given the substantial Remain majority in Scotland) obvious potential implications for the future of the Union should Brexit eventually go ahead.

Of course, not too much should be made of one poll. Another released on Friday and conducted by Survation for the Scotland in Union campaign put support for remaining in the UK (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) at 61%. True, the question asked in that poll was not the one that appeared on the ballot paper in 2014, but rather an imitation of the question that was asked in the EU referendum. Even so, the level of support registered for remaining in the UK was on a par with that recorded when the same question was asked last November (60%). There will be much interest in whether further polling confirms the trend recorded by YouGov or the apparent absence of a trend suggested by Survation.

However, even if there has been a Brexit-induced swing in favour of independence, the SNP still face two important hurdles. The first is persuading voters, including not least those on their own side of the argument, that an independence referendum should be held within the timescale for which Ms Sturgeon is hoping. Survation’s poll found that even among those who voted Yes in 2014, only 38% think that a referendum should be held within the next two years. Only if a five-year time frame – taking us into the next Holyrood parliament – is specified does this poll (54%) and indeed YouGov’s (71%) uncover majority support for holding another ballot. Of course, even this somewhat more relaxed timetable is regarded as too speedy by most No supporters.

The second hurdle will be to persuade voters of the merits of the SNP’s new stance on the currency an independent Scotland should use, a stance for which the party leadership will be seeking the endorsement of the conference this afternoon. The new policy argues that although an independent Scotland should retain the pound in its initial years (though not, as proposed in 2014, as part of a monetary union with the rest of the UK), it should be working towards a position where it is able to adopt its own currency.

This is a proposal on which voters will require some persuasion. YouGov’s poll today suggests that keeping the pound in the long-term remains the most popular option not just among voters as a whole (48%), but in particular among those who backed Yes in 2014 (39%). Only just over a quarter of Yes voters (28%) think that Scotland should at least eventually have its own currency while one in five (21%) support joining the Euro instead.  The Yes movement evidently has a substantial task on its hands persuading its existing supporters of the merits of an independent currency, let alone those who, whatever their concerns about Brexit, have yet to be persuaded that independence might be the better prospect 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.