An Unresolved Question? The Independence Debate Five Years On

Five years ago today, Scotland went to the polls to decide whether it should become an independent country or remain part of the UK. The ballot was meant to settle the issue for a generation. In practice, however, it appears to be as unresolved as it has ever been.

The result of the 2014 referendum was, of course, much closer than many unionists had originally anticipated. Indeed, it subsequently became clear that the ballot had resulted in a substantial long-term increase in the level of support for independence. Nevertheless, polls conducted since the ballot suggested that the level of support for staying in the Union was at least holding steady at the level recorded in the referendum.

Not even the result of the UK-wide referendum on EU membership in 2016, when a lead for Remain in Scotland was overturned by a narrow win for Leave across the UK as a whole, did much to disturb this picture. True, there were indications that a Europhile outlook and support for independence had become intertwined, but if this meant that some voters who had voted No in 2014 but Remain in 2016 had now swung to Yes it also implied that some who had voted Yes in 2014 and Leave in 2016 had moved in the opposite direction.

Yet this picture of post-referendum stability has now been disturbed. We first noted during the summer that there were indications that support for Yes had increased somewhat, and had done so primarily as a result of a swing in particular among those who had voted Remain. It seemed there was prima facie evidence that disenchantment at the prospect of Brexit had now persuaded some Europhile voters to switch in favour of Scottish independence.

Since the initial blog in which we identified these trends, they have been replicated by two further polls, one by Lord Ashcroft (on which we commented here) and one by YouGov. The latter found that, after leaving aside those who said Don’t Know, as many as 49% said they would vote Yes, the same as in April. Meanwhile, 57% of those who voted Remain in 2016 said that they would vote Yes, up ten points on the figure in June of last year. In contrast, at 30%, support for independence among those who voted No was three points down on the middle of last year.

As a result, there is a consistent pattern across all six poll readings of independence vote intentions published so far this year. On average, they put support for Yes (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) at 49%, four points up on the figure of 45% in polls conducted in the second half of last year. As a result, nobody can be sure what the result would be if an independence referendum were held now.

All of this increase in support for Yes registered by the polls has occurred among those who voted Remain. On average, the five polls find that 57% of Remain voters would now back Yes, compared with 50% in the second half of last year. In contrast, at 32%, the level of support for independence among those who voted Leave is little different from the figure obtained last year (34%). The claim that Brexit does not pose any risk to Scotland’s future membership of the Union now looks significantly more difficult to sustain.

Indeed, also seemingly becoming more difficult to sustain is the argument that Scotland does not want a second independence referendum anytime soon.  After the setback the SNP suffered in the 2017 UK election, support for another independence ballot fell back to a low ebb. However, two polls that have consistently asked the same question about when a referendum should be held suggest that the mood may have swung back again, leaving the country evenly divided on the subject.

First, Panelbase reported in March last year that just 42% wanted a referendum to take place either during the Brexit process or at its conclusion, well down on the 60% who expressed that view in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. But in their most recent poll in June the figure rose to 51%.

Second, in January 2018 YouGov found that only 36% thought that a referendum should be held within five years, while 54% were opposed. But in their most recent poll conducted at the end of the summer, slightly more (45%) said they were in favour of holding a ballot within that timescale than indicated they were opposed (44%).

A swing in favour of holding another referendum sooner rather than later is also recorded in a poll undertaken by Survation and published today by the Scotland in Union campaign. When six months ago voters were presented with a range of options for the timing of another ballot, just 31% opted for holding one within the next five years. Presented with a similar set of options now, 42% express that view.

This apparent increase in support for another ballot is not simply a consequence of the swing in favour of independence itself. True, those who voted Yes are consistently much more likely to back an early ballot than are those who voted No. However, both Panelbase and YouGov suggest that the swing since last year has occurred at more or less the same pace among those who voted No as it has among those who voted Yes. Is there, perhaps, a slowly growing feeling on both sides of the constitutional debate that maybe another attempt will have to be made to resolve the issue before too long?


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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.