Until now, all of the evidence that there has been a further swing in favour of independence in recent months has come from just one pollster – Panelbase. In the absence of any other polling, it was not unreasonable to ask whether, perhaps, they might just possibly have got it wrong, though the reaction of the UK government to the polling, with many a minister heading north, suggested that it at least was concerned that the figures might well be right.
Today, though, sees the publication of a new poll from a different pollster – YouGov for The Times. It more or less confirms everything that Panelbase have been telling us.
Support for independence in today’s poll is (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) is put at 53% – in line with the average for the last four Panelbase readings and an all-time record high for any YouGov poll. It compares with a figure of 51% the last time the company asked the regular referendum question (at the end of January) – and an average of 47% in three polls that it conducted during 2019.
Further evidence of the way in which the pursuit of Brexit has helped to bring about this increase is neatly demonstrated in analysis that YouGov have undertaken of today’s polling data. While nearly a quarter (23%) of those who voted Yes in 2014 and Leave in 2016 now say they would vote No, just over a quarter (27%) of those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016 have switched to Yes. Such a relatively small difference might be thought to give unionists little reason to worry – until it is realised that those who voted No and Remain are twice as numerous as those who backed Yes and Leave.
But at the same time, today’s poll also confirms the impression created by Panelbase’s polls that the latest increase in support for independence is as much in evidence among Leave voters as it among those who supported Remain. True, those who voted Remain (60%) are much more likely to say they would vote Yes in another referendum than are those who backed Leave (35%). But the latter figure represents a seven-point increase on that registered on average among Leavers in YouGov’s previous four polls, matching the six-point increase evident among those who voted Remain.
We have previously argued that given this recent rise in support among Leave voters, then rather than occasioned by Brexit, some voters’ minds may have been changed by the fact that, irrespective of their views about Brexit, they think much more highly of how Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have handled the coronavirus pandemic than they do of how Boris Johnson and the UK government have done so. However, the polling released today does not update the evidence on this (but see the Addendum below).
It does, though, reveal that Nicola Sturgeon’s overall popularity has risen sharply during the last six months. No less than 72% now think that she is doing well as First Minister, while just 22% take the opposite view – a level of popularity that she has not enjoyed since the 2015 Westminster general election. Even among those who voted Leave (57%) and those who backed No in 2014 (59%), well over half believe she is doing well.
In contrast, nearly three-quarters (74%) of all voters believe that Mr Johnson is doing badly, up from two-thirds (66%) in December. Crucially, he trails Ms Sturgeon both among those who voted Leave (56% of whom believe he is doing badly) and among those who voted No (61%).
Given the latest increase in support for independence, it is perhaps not surprising that support for holding another referendum on the issue has increased too. After all, attitudes towards doing so largely reflect people’s views as to whether or not they support independence. As many as 47% now say that there should be another referendum in the next five years, while just 37% take the opposite view – in contrast, YouGov’s polls last year on average put opponents of another ballot ahead by 47% to 43%. Meanwhile, there is now a narrow majority in favour of the view that there should be a referendum if the SNP win an overall majority in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. This, of course, is the very proposition to which the UK government is strongly opposed, but it appears that the oft-repeated claim that polls show that most people in Scotland do not want another constitutional ballot is beginning to be open to challenge.
Still, what is perhaps the most striking finding of all in today’s poll is the mood of optimism that – despite the pandemic – now appears to be widespread among voters. A year ago, just 32% felt that Scotland was heading in the ‘right direction’, while 41% believed it was heading in the ‘wrong direction’. Now 52% say the country is heading in the right direction, twice as many as take the opposite view (26%). The question that perhaps above all faces politicians of all persuasions between now and next May is whether the direction in which they would like to take the country is indeed the one in which most voters apparently hope it is now headed.
Addendum: 18 August
Data from the YouGov/Times poll on perceptions of how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled by London and Edinburgh are now available. These confirm the findings of previous polls that the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon are widely thought to have dealt well with the public health crisis – and the UK government and Boris Johnson badly – and that this perception is far from being confined to those who voted Yes in 2014 or Remain in 2016.
Among voters as a whole just 23% believe that the UK government is handling the pandemic well, whereas as many as 79% say the same of the Scottish Government.
Only 39% of Leave voters and 35% of No voters feel that the UK government has handled the coronavirus outbreak well, whereas 68% and 72% respectively believe that the Scottish Government has done so. Meanwhile, the contrast is even sharper when voters are asked the same question about Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. Just 33% of Leave supporters and 28% of those who voted No believe that Boris Johnson has dealt with the pandemic well, while the equivalent figures for Nicola Sturgeon are 70% and 73%.
The figures for the UK government represent a substantial downturn as compared with the results that YouGov obtained when they asked the same question at the height of the pandemic in late April. Then 47% of all voters believed it was handling the public health crisis well, while among Leave voters and No supporters the proportion stood at 62% and 57% respectively. In contrast, perceptions of the competence of the Scottish Government, both among voters in general and Leave and No voters in particular, have largely held steady.
Of course, as we have noted before, such figures are but circumstantial evidence that the (further) rise in support for independence this year – which (as noted above) has been as much in evidence among Leave voters as Remain supporters – has been occasioned by perceptions of how the pandemic has been handled. And as The Times itself reported last week, when asked about specific aspects of the public health crisis, voters are by no means wholly uncritical of the Scottish Government’s performance. But the evidence that there is a link between the two is strengthened by how people responded when asked by YouGov whether Scotland would have responded better or worse to the pandemic if it had been an independent country. Among voters as a whole, more than twice as many said ‘better’ as said ‘worse’. But crucially, even among Leave supporters more than one in four (27%) said ‘better’ while among No voters as many as one in five (20%) expressed that view. In contrast, just 12% of Remain supporters and only 4% of No voters felt that an independent Scotland would have handled the pandemic worse. These figures certainly suggest that, so far at least, perceptions of the pandemic have, at minimum, not made it any easier for supporters of the Union to persuade their fellow citizens of the merits of staying in the UK.
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.