Brexit, Coronavirus and the Economy: Three Key Issues in the Independence Debate

The last week or so has seen the publication of three further polls of attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status. Two of them, from Ipsos MORI (for STV News) and from Savanta ComRes, continued the gradual trickle of polls this year of how people would vote in another independence referendum. The third, from Survation (for the pro-nationalist site, Progress Scotland) did not address indyref2 vote intentions directly but contained a considerable body of evidence that can be used to analyse the current public mood.

Of the three, the one that made most waves by far was the poll from Ipsos MORI, which put support for Yes (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) at 58%, the highest ever figure recorded by any poll. It has long been the case that polls that produce exceptional results receive a great deal of attention while those that affirm an existing pattern are often ignored. The latter was certainly the fate that befell Savanta ComRes’ poll, which was made widely available to the media over the weekend of 10/11 October but was little reported. Conducted entirely on 9 October – which happened to be the last day of fieldwork for the Ipsos MORI poll – it put support for Yes at a more modest 53% (again leaving aside Don’t Knows), down a (statistically insignificant) one point on its previous poll in August.

Yet the fact that we have had two polls whose fieldwork dates overlap, one pointing to a further increase in support for independence and one not, means that at this stage at least we have to reserve judgement on whether there has been a further increase on the modest lead for Yes that has been consistently reported by the polls since June. This is particularly the case given that Ipsos MORI’s poll was their first of this year and thus we have no previous reading from the coronavirus era with which to compare their latest reading. What we can say on the basis of the two polls is that there continues to be a sustained lead for Yes – it is now nine polls in a row that have put Yes ahead, a wholly unprecedented picture.


There are two features of the demographics of current attitudes towards the constitutional question that should be noted. The first is the apparent disappearance of the ‘gender gap’. Back in 2014 men were much more likely than women to vote for independence. According to YouGov’s poll conducted immediately after the referendum men were nine percentage points more likely than women to have voted Yes while the British Election Study subsequently put the figure at eight points, and Scottish Social Attitudes at seven. Indeed, it may, perhaps, even be the case that a narrow majority of men voted Yes in 2014 and either way the No victory appeared to rest heavily on the support of women – who perhaps were more averse to what they considered to be the risks of independence.

Now, the picture appears to be rather different. On average the last nine polls have put support for Yes at 54%. These same nine polls on average put the figure for both men and women at 54% too. However, this is a point on which the polls are not in entire agreement. Panelbase still put Yes further ahead among men than among women (by 56% to 51% in their four most recent polls), whereas no other polling company does so. Rather the other companies either suggest that there is little difference or that Yes is now more popular among women than men. Either way, it seems that unionists cannot assume that in a second referendum women would provide them with the same rich seam of support as they did six years ago.

Meanwhile, the age profile of attitudes towards constitutional status is certainly working to the No side’s disadvantage. Not that a link between age and attitudes towards independence is new. Back in 2014 older voters were much less likely than their younger counterparts to vote Yes. However, it was not clear that those in their teens or their twenties were markedly more likely than those in their thirties or forties to have voted Yes. That is not the case now. On average, polls conducted since June have put support for independence among those aged 16-24 as high as 79% – compared with 56% among those aged 35-44 and just 33% among the over 65s. Most of those in the pollsters’ youngest age group of under 25s were too young to vote six years ago – and if those who enter the electorate anew continue to support Yes so heavily in future years then, other things being equal, it will with every passing year become gradually more difficult for No to win any second referendum ballot.


Still, our previous analyses have pointed to two principal explanations of the recent rise in support for independence – the pursuit of Brexit, which occasioned an increase of 4-5 points last year, and differential perceptions of the handling of the coronavirus pandemic by the UK and Scottish governments in whose wake support has risen by another 4-5 points. The latest polling casts some further light on the influence of both these issues.

Rather than asking people how they would vote in a second referendum, Survation’s poll asked people to use a 0-10 scale to indicate whether they completely supported or completely opposed independence. For what it is worth the average score was 5.3, in line with what one might expect if indeed Yes are narrowly ahead of No. But the interest for us here lies in the answers given to the questions that the poll asked about Brexit by those who gave a score of between 3 and 7, that is, by those (numbering just under a quarter of all voters) who do not have a firm view one way or another on the issue (and on whose vote the outcome of any second referendum would be likely to rest).

This group is predominantly pro-EU in outlook – 58% agree that they would want an independent Scotland to be a member of the EU while, just 13% actually disagree. And it appears that Brexit is a particularly important influence on their views on the constitutional question. Nearly half of them (46%) agree that ‘Brexit has changed my view on Scottish independence’, compared with only just over a quarter (28%) of voters in general. At the same time, they are almost twice as likely as voters in general (by 43% to 22%) to say that they are waiting to see what impact Brexit has on them before deciding how they would vote in an independence referendum. Between them these answers suggest there is a significant body of voters who are now in the middle on the independence issue whose views have been influenced by Brexit and could continue to be so in future.

Ipsos MORI in contrast addressed the question of the impact of Brexit by including the issue among a number of statements in support of independence and in favour of the Union that were read out to respondents, asking in each case whether voters found them convincing or unconvincing. Among voters as a whole, as many as 57% said that they found convincing the argument that ‘Scotland should be independent because the UK is leaving the European Union even though Scotland voted to Remain’, while only 39% said it was not convincing. More importantly, more than a quarter (28%) of those who voted No in 2014 said it was convincing – a proportion that falls to 16% among those who now say they would No, a difference that suggests that those who have switched from No to Yes are disproportionately represented among those who find the argument convincing.

However, not everything about Brexit is currently working to the nationalists’ advantage to the extent that they might have hoped. There has long been a disagreement between the UK and Scottish governments about which of them should be making decisions in those policy areas that have hitherto lain wholly or primarily within the competence of the EU but which are otherwise devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Government argues that they should all come to Edinburgh, while the UK government feels that some should come to London in order to ensure the efficient operation of the UK internal market – a view that is reflected in the Internal Market Bill currently going through the UK Parliament.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Survation’s poll suggests that many voters are finding it difficult to follow this argument. Nearly a third of voters (32%) say they do not know whether the UK government will or will not ‘transfer all relevant powers from the EU to the Scottish parliament and protect the devolution agreement’. This proportion rose to over two in five (43%) when people were asked whether the Internal Market Bill ‘will lead to scores of new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament’, or whether it is a ‘power grab’ by the UK government. It is perhaps all too easy for politicians to talk past each other on this relatively complex issue, leaving voters none the wiser.


Meanwhile further evidence of the very different perceptions of how London and Edinburgh are thought to be handling coronavirus is provided by the Survation poll – though it, like most of the interviewing for the Ipsos MORI poll, was conducted before Nicola Sturgeon announced on 8 October her two week tightening of the coronavirus rules in Scotland and, indeed, Boris Johnson’s introduction of three COVID tiers in England. Whereas 60% give the Scottish Government a score of at least six out of ten for its handling of the pandemic, only 16% say the same of the UK government. Similar differences arise when voters are asked the same question about Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson.

Crucially, even those who voted No in 2014 are far more likely – by 62% to 30% – to give the Scottish Government a score of at least six out of ten than they are the UK government. And among the crucial group of voters that currently lie in the middle on the question of independence, the figures are 68% and 20% respectively. The prevalence of the disease may so far have been almost as high in Scotland as in England & Wales, but even among those who might be thought to be inclined to back the UK government, perceptions of the role played by the two governments are miles apart on what has been the most important policy challenge in the history of devolution.

One consequence, according to Ipsos MORI, is that Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity has increased dramatically. Indeed, at 72%, the proportion who now say they are satisfied with her performance has returned to the remarkable heights that she enjoyed when she initially became First Minister, shortly after the 2014 referendum – a finding that confirms what YouGov ascertained during the summer. More importantly, the contrast between this evaluation and that of Boris Johnson (with whom only 19% are satisfied) is also to be found among those who voted No in 2014, only 28% of whom are satisfied with the Prime Minister while 55% are satisfied with the First Minister. This contrast is one that at a minimum is not helping to maintain the loyalty of those who voted No in 2014 and in practice may well be persuading some of these voters to think that maybe an independent Scotland could govern itself more effectively.


Still, we should remember that a key issue that helped shaped how people voted in 2014 was whether voters thought independence would be good or bad for the economy. Moreover, it was an issue on which voters were more inclined to be pessimistic rather optimistic. And it looks as though this is still an area where the case for independence is regarded by voters with a degree of caution.

True, according to Survation rather more people agree (45%) than disagree (34%) that ‘Independence would be good for the economy in the long run’, whereas a year ago opinion on this issue was evenly balanced. However, this still means that, even when they are implicitly invited to ignore any potential short-run disruption, still somewhat less than half of voters endorse the statement. Meanwhile, although only 16% of those in the middle on the independence question disagree (while 38% agree), perhaps what is equally important is that 36% say they neither agree nor disagree, while another 10% say don’t know. In short, there seems to be quite a lot of uncertainty about the economic consequences of Brexit among this key group.

Moreover, even though only 30% agree that ‘leaving the EU will be good for the Scottish economy in the long-term‘ and 44% disagree, voters are apparently still far from sure that independence would prove a less damaging prospect than Brexit. Among voters as a whole, almost as many agree (37%) as disagree (39%) that ‘Independence would be more damaging to the Scottish economy than Brexit’. However again the most striking feature of the responses of those in the middle on independence is that nearly half say either neither agree nor disagree (33%), or that they do not know (14%).

Meanwhile, the relative weakness of the economic case for independence in the minds of those voters to whom the nationalist movement has to appeal is underlined by the pattern of response to the statements in favour of independence and the arguments in favour of the Union that were presented to respondents on Ipsos MORI’s poll. Only 15% of those who voted No in 2014 said the claim that, ‘In the long-term Scotland’s economy will be stronger outside the UK than within it’ was convincing, far fewer than (as we saw above) said the same about the argument concerning Brexit (28%) or about other statements on not trusting Westminster to act in Scotland’s interests (33%) and Scotland wanting a different direction from England (38%). Meanwhile, no less than 31% of those who currently say they would vote Yes report that they find convincing the argument that leaving the UK ‘would be a major risk for Scotland’s economy and jobs’, many more than regard as convincing the claim that devolution gives Scotland ‘the best of both worlds’ (22%) or the argument that leaving ‘would leave Scotland isolated and weaker on the international stage’ (15%).

At the same time, there is the issue of what currency an independent Scotland should use, a subject of intense dispute between the two sides in 2014. At that time, the SNP was arguing that Scotland should keep the pound, preferably as part of a monetary union with the rest of the UK. Now the party is saying that Scotland should eventually have its own currency. However, Survation’s poll found that over half (54%) would like to keep the pound in the long-term, while only 19% back using the pound in the short term before eventually switching to a separate currency. Even among those who voted Yes six years ago, only 30% favour the latter strategy. Here is one issue in the constitutional debate where there is apparently still much more argument and discussion to be had.

Avatar photo

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.