New Year, New Polling

We have now had three polls of voting intentions in Scotland since the turn of the year, one from Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman, a second from Survation for the ScotGoesPop website, and a third from Panelbase for The Sunday Times. The last of these was part of polling undertaken in all four parts of the UK, with a view to examining more broadly the state of the Union across the UK.

All three Scottish polls suggest that the headline messages of polling in 2020 remain valid. First, there continues to be majority support for independence when people are asked how they would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the ballot paper in the 2014 referendum. Second, the SNP are sufficiently ahead on both the constituency and regional vote that they would be expected to win an overall majority at Holyrood if the election were to be held now. As a result, the country currently seems headed for a significant clash between the UK and Scottish governments over whether another independence referendum should be held.

That said, between them the three polls do not suggest that Britain’s exit from the EU single market and customs union at the beginning of the year has resulted in any further increase in support for independence or for the SNP. Indeed (after excluding Don’t Knows) both Survation and ComRes recorded a slight one-point drop in support for Yes as compared with December, while Panelbase reported a more substantial four-point fall since November. Given the chance variation to which all polls are subject, these figures are too thin a reed on which to build a claim that support for independence has fallen – but it does mean that, at 54%, a running average of Yes support in the last half dozen polls remains more or less where it has been since last summer. The post-lockdown increase in support for independence looks as though it may have been a step change in the balance of public opinion rather than a continually growing movement in favour of Yes.

The Panelbase polling did, however, provide further evidence that the very different views that voters have of the way the Scottish and UK governments have handled the pandemic so far have served to change the minds of some of those who have hitherto backed No. Voters are less likely now than they were last summer to say that Nicola Sturgeon has done a good job in responding to the pandemic, but at 61% the proportion who do so still outstrips the 22% who express the same view about Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, Panelbase repeated a question that YouGov asked last August in which voters were asked whether they thought an independent Scotland would have handled the pandemic better or worse. Of course, most of the 42% who said ‘better’ were people who had voted Yes in 2014 (hardly any of whom felt that things would have been worse). But, as in YouGov’s polling last August, it also consisted of 20% of those who voted No in 2014 – and the detail of Panelbase’s tables suggest that more than half of this group are now Yes supporters. True, some of these former No voters may have changed their minds on the constitutional question before the pandemic, but the finding adds to the circumstantial evidence that the very different views that voters have formed of the performance of the two governments during the pandemic is responsible for much of the increase in support for independence since last summer. This perhaps helps explain why in recent weeks the opposition parties have seemingly been keen to identify apparent weaknesses in the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic and to laud the role that the UK government (and the British Army) has played in facilitating the roll-out of the vaccine.

Although the UK’s exit from the single market has not had any immediate impact on the level of support for independence, its influence is still apparent. Across the three polls so far this year, on average 59% of those who voted Remain in 2016 say (after excluding Don’t Knows) that they would vote Yes, while only 39% of those who backed Leave express the same view. That 20-point difference is only slightly less than the 23-point gap that was evident on average in the polls in the second half of last year. But the extent to which the constitutional and Brexit debates have become intertwined is even clearer in Panelbase’s polling from which it is possible to ascertain that 72% of those who would now vote to rejoin the EU say they would vote Yes, while only 21% of those who would vote against rejoining. Given that, in line with the 2016 referendum, supporters of rejoining heavily outnumber opponents, this intertwining clearly puts the unionist camp at a significant disadvantage.

Of course, all of this might be regarded as academic given that there is no immediate prospect of a referendum and, if the UK government has its way, there might not be one for the foreseeable future. However, what cannot be delayed for long (even if the pandemic pushes the ballot into later this year) is a Scottish Parliament election. And Panelbase’s poll confirms the evidence of previous polling that that ballot itself currently looks set to a quasi-referendum on the constitutional question. No less than 89% of those who say they would vote Yes say that they will vote for the SNP on the constituency vote (and 90% that they will vote for the SNP or the Greens on the regional vote), while just 6% of No voters say that they will do so (10% on the regional vote). If this pattern continues it means that the outcome of the election will provide a good guide to the balance of support for independence versus staying in the Union.

This prospect also has potential implications for the game of political chess that is likely to be played if the SNP do win an overall majority in May. It has perhaps been forgotten that the SNP’s advocacy of an independence referendum originally arose out of electoral weakness; the party hoped that the stance would persuade people to vote SNP in Scottish Parliament elections even though they might be opposed to independence. Indeed, (as the Scottish Social Attitudes survey showed at the time) the support of nearly two in five of those who preferred devolution to independence was crucial to the party’s success in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. However, given the party’s electoral support now consists almost entirely of that half of Scotland that currently backs independence, it would seem that the party no longer needs electorally to argue that a referendum is the only pathway to independence. It might feel able, as it once did, to argue that winning a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster would be a sufficient mandate for independence.  If unionists do succeed in stopping a majority SNP government at Holyrood from holding a referendum, the battle for the future of the Union may simply be delayed until the next Westminster election.

Unionists also have cards that they can potentially play in any post-election constitutional clash. One idea that has been revived, not least within the Labour Party, is that any future referendum should be a multi-option ballot in which more devolution would appear on the ballot paper alongside the status quo and independence. Indeed, so-called ‘devo max’ appeared to be quite a popular idea in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, but including it on the ballot was explicitly ruled out by the UK government when Holyrood was given authority to hold the 2014 vote. However, Panelbase’s polling suggests that the idea may have lost its former appeal. Asked to choose between independence, the status quo and ‘further significant devolution of all financial matters’, only 17% all voters (and just 7% of current Yes supporters) backed the more devolution option. Where perhaps once there was a potential centre-ground on the constitutional question, attitudes may now be too polarised for such a stance to provide a possible resolution.

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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.