A Question of Timing

Now that the summer is over, Scottish politics is kicking back into life. Last week witnessed the sealing of the agreement between the SNP and the Greens as a result of which the two Green co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, have joined the government. The SNP are now assured of the Greens’ backing on most matters, including above all the pursuit of an independence referendum. Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for the next year and confirmed her ambition – assuming COVID is over – to hold a ballot before the end of 2023, while this weekend the SNP hold (virtually) their annual conference at which we are promised that independence will be one of the main themes. Meanwhile, in an illustration of the continuing fissure in the independence movement, the Alba Party are going head to head with the SNP by holding their first ever conference over the weekend in Greenock Town Hall.

Since last May’s election four polls of vote intentions in a second independence referendum have been published. On average (after leaving aside Don’t Knows), they put Yes on 48% and No on 52%. These figures are exactly the same as those recorded on average by the five polls conducted closest to polling day on May 6th, suggesting that little has happened to public attitudes during the relative quietude of summer. On the other hand, it means that support for Yes is still adrift of the average of 53% recorded in the polls between May and August last year.

This picture suggests that it may well not be in the interests of the independence movement to pursue an early referendum. The chances that any such ballot would produce a majority for independence are certainly lower than they were a year ago, and the possibility of defeat is one that Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to ignore. Before it can pursue a referendum with any degree of confidence, the independence movement needs to tip the balance of support back in its direction, and preferably (from its perspective) not just to the level of twelve months ago but to above and beyond that.

True, the vast majority of independence supporters believe that a referendum should be held at some point in the next five years, a stance that Nicola Sturgeon will ultimately be unable to ignore. However, they are by no means necessarily insistent that a ballot need be held in the next year or two.

For example, when in June Panelbase asked people whether another referendum should be held in the next twelve months, within the next two to five years, or not at all within the new parliamentary term, only 41% of current supporters of independence chose the next twelve months, whereas 55% indicated that it should be within the two to five-year time frame. Just after the election, Stack Data reported that while 40% of those who voted Yes in 2014 wanted a referendum to be held in 2021 or 2022, just as many (41%) selected a later date in the current parliamentary term. Meanwhile, when shortly after the election Savanta ComRes asked their respondents in which year a referendum should be held, only just over half (54%) of current Yes supporters said either 2021 or 2022, while 39% picked one of 2023, 2024, or 2025.

Nicola Sturgeon can probably assume that she has at least some breathing space before she runs the risk of trying her supporters’ patience too much. Indeed, her failure to say anything in her Programme for Government speech about the timing of an independence referendum beyond what had already been said in the SNP election manifesto suggests it is a leeway that she is inclined to use.  But how might she use the time profitably? The post-election polls provide us with a couple of clues.

The crucial premise on which the SNP’s call for another independence referendum rests is that Brexit represents a material change to the circumstances in which voters made their choice in 2014. However, this also means that the arguments for and against independence have changed too. Yet they are ones to which voters have so far largely not been exposed – and it is, perhaps, a gap of which they were aware. In their polling, Stack Data asked voters whether or not they were confident that they knew what an independent Scotland would look like across nine policy areas, including public services, tax and joining the EU. The pattern of response differed little from one area to another – and on average just 30% said that they were confident, while 53% stated they were not (the remainder indicated that they did not know). This suggests that the independence movement may need to draw a sharper picture of its vision for an independent Scotland – not only is a hazy one unlikely to be effective at bringing voters on board, but it also runs the risk that it creates an opportunity for the unionist parties to fill the gap by imprinting an unfavourable picture of what independence might mean in voters’ minds.. The announcement on Tuesday that civil servants are now to recommence work on an independence prospectus suggests that the First Minister is aware that this is a challenge that now has to be met.

The second lesson from recent polls is that the areas where voters have most of all still to be convinced of the case for independence are the economy and, above all, the country’s external relations. In a poll conducted in early August, Redfield & Wilton asked whether the ‘Prime Minister and Westminster’ or the ‘First Minister of Scotland and Holyrood’ should have most power and responsibility across eleven policy areas. Across eight areas of domestic policy, including health, education and welfare, voters were far more likely to nominate Holyrood than Westminster – on average by two-thirds (66%) to around a quarter (26%).  On the economy, however, a more modest 56% said Holyrood, while 36% chose Westminster. Meanwhile, on immigration the figures were 41% and 50% respectively, while on foreign policy almost as many chose Westminster (44%) as picked Holyrood (56%).  It might be noted too that defence (56%) and the border with England (57%) were the two areas where voters were most likely to tell Stack Data that they were not confident of what independence might mean – yet of course having a distinct foreign policy and defence forces are a sine qua non of the independent statehood to which the SNP and nationalists aspire.

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.