A Coronavirus swing in favour of Independence?

The latest Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times confirms the message of other polls that the company has undertaken in recent weeks for a variety of (pro-independence) clients. Support for independence has grown further, such that, if the polling is correct, Yes might will win any independence referendum that was held now.

The poll puts support for independence at 54% (after leaving aside Don’t Knows), in line with a poll the company conducted in the middle of June and a figure that represents an equal all-time high for Panelbase polls (see here, here and here). It comes after a sequence of polls conducted in the first quarter of this year – both from Panelbase and from other companies – suggested that Yes and No were neck and neck.  Between them all of the polls conducted so far this year have put Yes on 51% and No on 49%. Never before has Yes been so highly placed in the polls over such a sustained period of time.

An increase in support for independence has, of course, been apparent in the polls for some time. Across all of the polls conducted last year Yes were on average on 49%, No on 51% – a four-point increase on both the equivalent figure for 2018 and the outcome of the 2014 referendum. Now it seems that opinion has swung yet further in favour of independence – indeed, across just the four polls conducted in the last three months it has stood on average at 52%.

However, it looks as though there may be an intriguing difference between the pattern underlying the latest rise in support and what appeared to be motivating the increase that was registered in last year. As we have noted previously, the increase in support for Yes registered in last year’s polls occurred primarily among those who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. It looked as though the UK’s pursuit of Brexit was serving to switch some voters from No to Yes.

This, though, is not true of the latest increase in support for Yes. A breakdown of the level of support for independence by how people voted in the 2016 referendum is available for three of the polls Panelbase have conducted so far this year. On average, they put support for Yes among Remain supporters on 59%, while 36% of Leave supporters express that view. Although support for Yes is therefore still much higher among Remain voters than Leave supporters, at three points the increase in support among Remain voters as compared with Panelbase’s polls last year is matched by a four-point increase among Leave supporters.

Much the same pattern of rising support among both Remain and Leave voters also appears to underlie a parallel increase in support for the SNP. The latest poll puts support for the party for a Holyrood election at what is a record high for Panelbase (see here and here). Across all polls conducted so far this year the party is averaging  51% and 46% respectively on the Holyrood constituency and regional vote. At present, the SNP appears to be well on course to emulate – and maybe even surpass – the nine-seat overall majority that the party won in Holyrood in 2011, a performance that paved the way for the independence referendum that was held in 2014.

As with independence, support for the SNP is much higher among Remain voters than Leave supporters. In Panelbase’s polls this year the party has on average registered (on the Holyrrod constituency vote) 57% among the former group but only 35% among the latter. However, at seven and fifteen points respectively, both figures represent a substantial increase in support as compared with the polls that Panelbase conducted in the run-up to last December’s election. Quite remarkably, in the latest poll the SNP are neck and neck with the Conservatives in vote intentions for Holyrood among Leave voters.

It seems then that the latest increase in support for independence and the SNP has occurred at least as much among those who do not share the SNP’s vision of rejoining the EU as it has among those who do. Something else must be going on.

What, of course, has been going on over the last three months has been a public health crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak. And because health is a devolved issue, many of the key decisions for Scotland about how to respond to the pandemic have been made in Edinburgh rather than London. Arguably, never has the difference that devolution can make to people’s lives been more visible than it has been in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Panelbase’s latest poll confirms the evidence provided by previous polling that, for most voters at least, Nicola Sturgeon has responded to the pandemic well while Boris Johnson has not. Overall, as many as 74% say that the First Minister has done a good job, while just 21% feel the same about the Prime Minister. But, intriguingly, this difference of perception is not simply the product of the partisan views of nationalists or Remainers. Among those who voted Leave 60% believe that Ms Sturgeon has done a good job, while just 39% believe that Mr Johnson has. Meanwhile – and perhaps crucially – among those who voted No in 2014, just 31% believe the Prime Minister has done a good job, while 61% feel that the First Minister has.

At this stage, it is impossible to prove that perceptions of the way that the two governments have handled the pandemic do indeed account for the latest increase in support for independence. (And we should remember that Panelbase is so far the only company to have polled on independence since the lockdown was introduced.) But given the prominence of the issue, those perceptions will have certainly done the nationalist movement no harm as it tries to advance the argument that an independent Scotland could govern itself more effectively than it can within the framework of the Union. The task facing those on the unionist side of Scotland’s constitutional debate may well have just got that bit harder.

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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.