Is the Scottish public really opposed to nuclear weapons?

A new poll by Lord Ashcroft contradicts previous findings and shows that more than half of Scots believe Trident should be replaced.

That the Scottish public is opposed to British retention of nuclear weapons, not least due to their location on the Clyde, has long been regarded as one of the safest assumptions of the independence debate. A recent poll by Scottish CND found that 60 per cent of Scots oppose "the UK Government buying a new nuclear weapons system to replace Trident", with only 14 per cent in favour. Unilateral disarmament, it seems, remains one of Alex Salmond's strongest cards. 

But a new survey by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor turned prolific pollster, suggests a more complex picture. It found that more than half of Scots believe Trident should be replaced, either with an equally powerful system (20 per cent) or a cheaper but less powerful system (31 per cent). How to explain the discrepancy? In his commentary on ConservativeHome, Ashcroft points out that, unlike his survey, Scottish CND's poll failed to mention that Trident was coming to "the end of its useful life", creating the misleading impression that the UK government "wanted to spend billions on new nukes just for the hell of it." He also criticises the group's use of the figure £65bn, which includes the running costs for thirty years, a number three times greater than "the true replacement figure". This seems reasonable; polls asking how much the government should spend on the NHS or schools typically cite the annual cost, not the lifetime one. (Although to add to the complexity, the poll also found that only 37 per cent support the UK having nuclear weapons "in principle", with 48 per cent opposed.)

To further test Scottish public opinion, Ashcroft asked a question including the replacement figure ("The cost of replacing Trident has been estimated at £20 to £25 billion pounds, and, just to be sure no one would miss it, underlined it too), but found it made no significant difference to the outcome. In fact, the number of Scots in favour of replacing Trident marginally increases to 53 per cent, with 24 per cent supporting an equally powerful system and 29 per cent supporting a less powerful one.

By a slim majority, Scots also believe that Trident should continue to be based in Scotland (43-39 per cent) and, even in the event of independence, only half say that Britain should not be able to continue leasing the Faslane naval base. 

This morning, the SNP has responded by stating that it is "extremely confident that a majority of people in Scotland want to get rid of Trident nuclear weapons" and by accusing Ashcroft of displaying exactly the bias he complains of. "His question only included the procurement cost of a Trident replacement, when independent research shows that its lifetime costs will be nearly £100 billion," the party notes. 

But regardless of the SNP's objections, the poll shows how malleable public opinion is. Ashcroft's survey didn't (but could have) mentioned the jobs currently dependent on Trident (520), and the Better Together campaign certainly will. Whichever side succeeds in getting its figures accepted as the "true" or most significant ones is likely to triumph in this debate. 

The Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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