The message from the polls continues to be promising for the SNP, who are gathered this week in Aberdeen for their autumn conference. But the path towards holding a second independence referendum that delivers a majority vote for Yes still potentially contains many sharp corners and diversions.
Three conditions are likely to have to be in place for the SNP to be able to deliver a second independence referendum that produces a majority in favour of independence. The first, and most obvious, is that a majority of voters should be in favour of leaving the UK. On that, the latest polling – from Panelbase for The Sunday Times – continues to look promising for the party. After excluding those who said Don’t Know, the poll put Yes on 50% and No on 50%. This is the third poll in a row from Panelbase to report an increase in the balance of support for independence (albeit by just a point each time), and its message is consistent with the evidence from other polls this year from YouGov and Lord Ashcroft. There seems little doubt that the last few months have seen a modest but potentially significant increase in support for independence such that Scotland now appears to be more or less evenly divided on the constitutional question.
Moreover, the latest poll confirms the message of previous polls that concern about Brexit appears to be playing a role in fuelling this increase in support for Yes. Among those who voted Leave, support continues to flatline. On average, it stood at 32% in Panelbase’s polls last year and it has stayed at that level this year. In contrast, support for independence has increased among Remain voters from 51% to 56%. To this has been added a marked increase in support (from 61% to 69%) among those who did not vote in the EU referendum, nearly two-thirds of whom currently say they would vote Yes.
The potential impact of the Brexit debate on attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future is also evident in two further findings. First, there is a four-point swing (from 50% to 54%) in favour of independence when people are asked how they would vote in an independence referendum following a no deal Brexit. This is consistent with what was a five-point swing (from 47% to 52%) last April. In the latest poll, most of this swing occurs among those who voted Remain.
Second, the poll provides an indication of how Brexit could have an impact on the crucial debate about the economic consequences of independence. Rather more voters (45%) said they thought Scotland would be better off economically as an independent country within the EU than reckoned the country would be better off as part of the UK outside the EU (35%). In particular, only just over half (54%) of those who voted No in 2014 were clear that Scotland would better off in a UK that was outside the EU. Perceptions of the economic consequences of independence were closely aligned with how people voted in the 2014 referendum, and helped underpin the No side’s success. That success could be more difficult to repeat in a post-Brexit era.
Demographic turnover may be beginning to favour the pro-independence camp too. Younger voters were more likely than older voters to vote Yes in the 2014 referendum. If that pattern is a generational difference – rather than an indication that people become more averse to independence as they get older – we might anticipate that support for independence should be relatively high among those who did not vote five years ago (many of whom would have been too young to do so). On average in their polls this year, Panelbase have reported that two-thirds of this group would vote for independence.
Still, despite these favourable omens for the nationalist movement, holding an independence referendum in the second half of next year – as the First Minister has indicated she would like to do – still looks like a highly risky enterprise from her perspective. The polls are simply signalling that the result now looks too close to call, not that victory is in any sense ‘in the bag’ for the SNP. It is perhaps particularly worth noting that over a half of those No voters who do not declare that Scotland would be better off as an independent country in the EU than as part of the UK outside it simply say they do not know which would be the better option – still leaving plenty of room for their previous inclination to back the Union to kick in once more.
The second condition that is likely to have to be in place for the SNP is that there is a strong prospect that there will still be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after the next Scottish Parliament election, due to take place in May 2021. Securing such a majority will certainly be essential if a ballot is not in fact held next year. But even the chances of being able to hold a ballot next year are likely to be diminished if the UK government (of whatever partisan stripe) has reason to believe that the prospect of an independence ballot will disappear if it delays matters to beyond the next Holyrood election.
So far, however, the prospects for a pro-independence majority – though not one for the SNP alone – look to be favourable. On average in the three polls of Holyrood vote intentions to be conducted since last May’s Euro-election, the SNP have polled 43% on the constituency vote and 39% of the regional vote. Both figures are down (by 3-4 points) on what the party achieved in 2016, but the import of this is reduced by the fact that the polls are recording higher votes than in the last election for Other parties (including the Brexit Party) but at a level that could fail to secure representation. Meanwhile, at 7%, the Greens’ average standing on the regional vote is sufficient for them to win seats in most of Scotland’s eight regions. On average the last three polls point to the SNP winning 63 seats, which together with a prospective seven seats for the Greens points to a pro-independence majority of 11.
However, while having a pro-independence majority at Holyrood is a necessary condition for being able to hold a referendum, it is not a sufficient one. That brings us to our third condition – that the SNP have sufficient leverage at Westminster to persuade a UK government that it should grant Holyrood the legal authority it needs to hold a referendum of the kind that was held in September 2014. It is on this count where the prospects for being able to hold another ballot look much less certain.
There is little chance that the current House of Commons would be willing to vote in favour of holding another referendum. A minority Conservative administration that is dependent on the deeply pro-Union DUP for its hold on office is highly unlikely to grant one. It is thus, perhaps, not surprising that the SNP are calling for Boris Johnson’s government to be brought down via a vote of no confidence followed by a snap general election. It is evidently hoping that a new House of Commons might be more amenable to the party’s demand.
The SNP would certainly seem to have little to fear so far as its own prospects in an early UK election are concerned. Although the polls of Westminster vote intention point on average to no more than a modest increase (of three points to 40%) in its support as compared with 2017, sharp declines in both Labour and Conservative support mean that the SNP is currently on course to win some 50 or so seats. That could well be sufficient for the party to retain its position as the third largest party at Westminster even if, as UK-wide polls currently suggest, the Liberal Democrats were to enjoy a substantial revival in their fortunes.
But such electoral success would mean little if the Conservatives were to secure a majority. A Boris Johnson-led government that had a renewed mandate would almost undoubtedly still say, ‘No’. Winning 50 seats is only likely to advance the prospects of an early independence ballot if an election were to produce a hung parliament in which the SNP’s support was crucial to the maintenance of a Labour-led minority administration – Labour have, after all, said, ‘Maybe, sometime,’ to the possibility of holding another independence ballot rather than a firm, ‘No’.
However, the latest Britain-wide polls on average put the Conservatives eight points ahead of Labour, with some putting the lead in double figures. That could well be enough to deliver Mr Johnson at least a narrow overall majority. So far at least, Labour has shown little ability to increase its support above the low-water mark of 25% to which it fell in the wake of May’s European election, while the popularity of the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, continues to fall. Far from opening the door to another independence referendum, there is a risk that that the early general election for which the SNP seem so keen will simply result in that door being shut and bolted for many years to come.
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.