Autumn Leaves

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the independence referendum held on 18 September 2014. Earlier in the month there was an online SNP conference – though the party is planning another one at the end of November! – while just before the month began the SNP and the Greens concluded a deal that saw the two Green co-leaders join the Scottish Government. Unsurprisingly, this confluence of events witnessed the first sustained bout of opinion polling since the Holyrood election at the beginning of May.

It seems that not much has changed so far as support for independence and the Union are concerned. Five polls asked people how they would vote in response to the question that was posed at the 2014 independence referendum, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. On average (once Don’t Knows are excluded) 49% said Yes, 51% No, little different from the equivalent average of Yes 48%, No 52% in the five last polls to be conducted immediately before last May’s election. Scotland remains more or less evenly divided on its constitutional question, leaving neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Boris Johnson in a position where they can contemplate an early second referendum with any confidence.

At the same time, the Scotland in Union campaign commissioned another poll from Survation in which respondents were asked whether they would vote to remain in or leave the UK. As previous such exercises have demonstrated, asking this question elicited rather higher support for the Union, with (after Don’t Knows are excluded) 57% replying Remain and only 43% Leave. But this poll too suggests that little has changed in recent months – the figures were exactly the same as those in the organisation’s previous poll in May. Incidentally, the difference between the level of support for Yes and that for Leave has been replicated by the British Election Study when in May it asked random sub-samples of respondents different versions of the referendum question – 48% said they would vote Yes but only 44% Leave. Meanwhile, yet another variant – a choice between independence and remaining in the UK – that was posed by Opinium resulted (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) in 53% support for independence, a couple of points above the figure in the same poll for Yes. Doubtless, the debate about what question should appear on any second referendum ballot paper will continue.

As, of course, will the debate about when, if ever, a second independence referendum should be held. On this topic, all the polls ask different questions. However, a relatively consistent pattern emerges. There is only limited support for holding a referendum soon, but the country is more or less evenly divided on the merits of holding one at some point in the next five years. Meanwhile, support for or opposition to holding a referendum within that five-year time frame is very strongly related to people’s views about the substantive issue at stake.

Opinium, Panelbase, Savanta ComRes, and Stack Data all posed questions that asked respondents to name a time by which any referendum should be held – albeit in each case offering a different array of options.  Panelbase found only 17% wanted one within twelve months, Stack Data that only 27% reckoned there should be one this year or next, while just 31% told Opinium that there should be a ballot in the next two years and 34% advised Savanta ComRes that it should be either be in the next year or the next two years. Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal that a ballot should be held by the end of 2023 would seem to strike many voters as a little rushed.

However, the picture is rather different if we look at the proportions who say that there should be a ballot within the next five years. Among Panelbase’s respondents 53% backed a poll within that time frame (with 47% saying there should not), as did 50% of those who participated in Savanta ComRes’ poll (46% wanted a longer time frame or no ballot at all), while 46% responded in a similar vein to Opinium (44% did not). Stack Data offered its respondents a choice of specific years, but 53% chose no later than 2023-4, with another 9% backing 2025-6 (which, however, could mean a ballot just after the next Holyrood election in 2026).

Other companies simply asked people whether they supported or opposed holding a referendum within a specific time period – but the implication of their results is much the same. Redfield & Wilton reported that just 34% wanted a ballot in the next year (50% were opposed), while Survation found that just 38% wanted a ballot within two years (52% opposed). However, when in the same poll Redfield & Wilton asked about holding indyref2 within five years, opinion was evenly balanced with 42% in favour and 41% opposed. Meanwhile when YouGov asked people whether they supported the SNP and Green proposal to have a ballot within the next five years (and presenting it as a proposal of the two parties may have affected response) those in favour (44%) almost balanced those against (47%).

But in truth, the debate about the timing of indyref2 is, for most voters at least, a surrogate for the argument about the substantive question – and given that Scotland is more or less evenly divided on the latter it is, unsurprisingly, more or less evenly divided too on the former. Four of the recent polls enable us to examine the level of support for holding a referendum within the next five years separately among those who would currently vote Yes and those who would back No. On average these suggest that 92% of Yes supporters back another referendum during Holyrood’s current parliamentary term, while just 7% are opposed. Among No supporters, in contrast, 85% oppose holding indyref2 within that time frame, while only 12% are in favour. It is this stark divide that explains why at some point Nicola Sturgeon will feel it necessary to attempt to hold another ballot – and which explains why Boris Johnson will want to avoid one if at all possible.

Meanwhile, the latest polling underlines some of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments put forward by the two camps in the eyes of public opinion. On the one hand, the Yes side still have plenty of work to do if it is to win the argument about the economy. Opinium report that rather fewer people (35%) think that independence will benefit the Scottish economy than reckon it would be damaging (40%), just as was the case when the same question was posed shortly before the September 2014 referendum. The picture appears to be similar to 2014 too when people are asked about the implications of independence for their own financial situation. Meanwhile, when Opinium asked people whether they supported or opposed various currency options for an independent Scotland, only 37% said they supported using the pound in the short-term and Scotland having its own currency in the longer-term, that is, the SNP’s current preferred position. In contrast, 61% backed keeping the pound in the longer-term. Of course, a key reason for the popularity of keeping the pound is that it is the preferred option of no less than 70% of those who would currently vote No. However, even among Yes supporters rather more (78%) support keeping the pound than back eventually shifting to a separate currency (60%). Currency still retains the potential to bedevil a second pro-independence campaign in much the same way as it did the first.

However, on the other side of the ledger there is Brexit. Much of Scotland still wants to be part of the EU. Redfield & Wilton found that 65% would vote in favour of the UK rejoining the EU, while just 35% were opposed. In the same poll supporters of an independent Scotland joining the EU outnumbered opponents by 49% to 30%. When Redfield & Wilton presented their respondents with the choice between an independent Scotland joining the EU and having a EU-like relationship with the rest of the UK, 40% opted for the former and only 29% the latter. And even when Opinium presented their respondents with four different options for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, nearly twice as many (45%) said the UK should rejoin as said that the relationship should be no stronger than it is now (23%).  Thanks to this mood, Brexit continues to undermine support for the Union. Whereas on average only 33% of those who voted for Brexit would currently vote Yes in a second independence referendum, among those who backed Remain, Yes continues to be the most popular option (by 54% to 46%). Much still seems to rest on how Brexit now plays out in practice.


P.S. Now in government for the first time, the Scottish Greens hold their party conference this weekend in Edinburgh. YouGov suggest that voters are split down the middle as to whether they support (39%) or oppose (41%) the agreement – a reflection of the fact that 65% of 2014 Yes voters approve and 65% of their No counterparts do not. Opinium found that rather more thought the deal would be good for Scotland (44%) than reckoned it would be bad (33%), though again voters divided along Yes/No lines, with 79% of current Yes supporters saying it would be good and 69% of No backers bad. Perhaps of most importance to the party is that, according to Opinium, 94% of Green voters in May believe it will be beneficial. Meanwhile, with an average 10% rating on the list vote in the latest polls, up two points on the party’s tally in May, there is little sign that making the deal has done the party any electoral harm.

This may well reflect the fact that there has been considerable affinity between the SNP and the Greens for some time. This was certainly not the case when the Liberal Democrats at Westminster struck their deal with the Conservatives in 2010, the fallout from which the Liberal Democrats – who are also in (virtual) conference north of the border this weekend – have yet to recover. Their event will be their first conference under their new leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton. The one poll so far that has asked voters what they think of him, suggests that few know much about him at all. He will need to use the weekend to try and grab voters’ attention.

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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.