The Supreme Court judgement that the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal authority to hold a referendum on independence was widely welcomed by unionist politicians. However, so far at least, it seems to have undermined rather than underpinned the foundations of public support for the Union.
Four polls of people’s vote intentions in a second referendum have been conducted since the Court published its judgement on 23 November. All four have recorded a swing in favour of Yes, and, as a result, all four have put Yes ahead – on average (one Don’t Knows are excluded) by 54% to 46%.
The Latest Polls
Questions could be raised about each of these polls individually. Two came from companies, FindOutNow and Redfield & Wilton, that have only a minimal track record of polling north of the border. The third came from a company, Ipsos, that tends to register somewhat higher levels of support for Yes than other polling organisations (though that does not necessarily mean they are wrong). Meanwhile, the fourth came from YouGov who have still not been forgiven by some in unionist circles for a poll it produced a fortnight before polling day in 2014 that showed Yes narrwoly ahead, a result of which Gordon Brown brokered a ‘vow’ from all three unionist parties that a No result would be followed by more devolution.
However, whatever might be thought to be their individual limitations, the fact that all four polls have registered a swing towards Yes strongly suggests that public attitudes have shifted somewhat in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement and the continued opposition of the UK government to any second independence referendum. Indeed, this is the first time for nearly two years that Yes has been ahead in four polls in a row. It would seem that unionist politicians would be unwise to presume that simply saying No to an independence referendum will prove a sufficient strategy for maintaining public support for the Union.
Impact of the Judgement?
Still, can we tie the swing towards Yes in the polls any more closely to the Supreme Court judgement than the juxtaposition of timing? After all, polls had previously suggested that most No supporters did not want another referendum to take place any time soon. For example, in October Savanta found that 94% of those who would currently vote No said that there should not be another referendum. It would thus seem unlikely that many previous No supporters would be sufficiently upset about the Supreme Court judgement to have been persuaded to change their mind about independence.
A couple of the recent polls have attempted to dig a little more deeply into the issue. Redfield & Wilton asked its respondents whether ‘Scotland should only hold a second independence referendum if the UK government agrees to it’. In fact, slightly more voters (43%) agreed than disagreed (39%). Still, the position among those who (at present) back No was less than unanimous. Nearly one in five (18%) disagreed, though they were counterbalanced by the fact that nearly a quarter (24%) of (current) Yes supporters agreed. In short, attitudes towards this proposition were not as strongly related to people’s constitutional preference as attitudes towards the principle of holding a referendum (on which the strength of the relationship was also evident in Redfield & Wilton’s poll).
But perhaps this question does not get at the nub of the issue. It may be that the answers given by some respondents reflected their understanding of the current legal position rather than where they think authority for holding a referendum should lie. Certainly, it is striking that the pattern of answers YouGov received was rather different when they addressed the subject more directly. Their poll asked whether ‘the Scottish Parliament should or should not have the power to call a referendum on Scottish independence without the agreement of the UK government’. While 30% of all respondents said that Holyrood should not have that power, as many as 51% indicated it should. Among the latter were nearly a quarter (23%) of those who voted No in 2014 (whereas just 12% of 2014 Yes voters took the opposite view). Perhaps this an indication that, whatever their views on having another referendum, some people who are inclined towards the Union nevertheless think it is Holyrood rather than Westminster who should decide whether one does take place?
Meanwhile, there is one other finding of note in both YouGov’s and Ipsos’ polls. At a time when, following an increase in support across the UK for rejoining the EU, Brexit appears to have been the subject of greater criticism in political and media debate, the divergence of views on the constitutional question between Remain and Leave supporters in Scotland appears to have widened. According to YouGov 58% of those who voted Remain in 2016 would now vote Yes in another independence referendum, while only 30% of Leave voters would do so. The 28-point difference compares with a 16-point gap in YouGov’s previous poll in October. Meanwhile, Ipsos put the gap at no less than 40 points, up from 23 points in May, with 64% of 2016 Remain voters but just 24% of their Leave counterparts backing Yes. We might note too that in Redfield & Wilton’s poll, 67% of current Yes supporters say that Brexit has strengthened their support for Yes. It may be that what is also lying behind the rise in support for Yes is a further strengthening of the intertwining of voters’ attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status and their attitudes towards Brexit.
As she intimated back in June, following the Supreme Court decision Ms Sturgeon is now minded to regard the next UK election as a quasi-referendum on independence. In truth, as we have noted before, voters already need little encouragement to reflect their constitutional preference in how they vote. According to Ipsos 87% of current Yes supporters would vote for the SNP or the Greens in a UK general election, while just 13% of No supporters would do so. However, this does not necessarily mean that all nationalist supporters accept the idea that a majority vote for pro-independence parties at the next election should be regarded as a mandate for independence.
According to YouGov, 52% of all voters, including 23% of those who voted for the SNP in 2019 and 23% of those who voted Yes in 2014 oppose the ‘Scottish Government declaring Scotland independent without a referendum’ if there is majority support for pro-independence parties. This formulation is, perhaps, a strong version of what might be meant by regarding the next election as a ‘quasi-referendum’. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Yes supporters who have doubts about that formulation would necessarily be dissuaded from backing the SNP should the party adopt such a stance. But it may be a warning sign that the SNP will need to be careful when it eventually specifies what it means in claiming that the next UK election will be a ‘quasi-referendum’.
As to whether there is a realistic prospect of a pro-independence majority at a UK general election, the evidence from the polls is not consistent. According to Ipsos, 54% of all voters would currently vote SNP or Green in a UK election, slightly more than the 52% who would do so on the constituency ballot of a Holyrood contest. Moreover, that figure held steady when people were asked how they would vote if the SNP campaigned on the single issue of independence. However, YouGov put the combined tally for pro-independence parties at 47% in a Westminster contest, but 52% for a Scottish Parliament one. Meanwhile, Redfield & Wilton (who did not ask Scottish Parliament vote intention) suggested just 43% would currently vote SNP or Green at a UK election. All three polls suggest that much might depend on whether the SNP can avoid losing support to Labour who, of the three main unionist parties, is most capable of winning over former SNP voters.
So, it seems that a little over half of voters in Scotland now back independence. However, even if that continues to be the case, it may not be sufficient to ensure a pro-independence majority is registered in the ballot boxes of a UK general election.
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.