Is the UK set to break up in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic? In the second edition of the New Statesman’s bi-weekly series of poll summaries, we explore the extent of – and reasons for – growing support for independence.
While the Conservatives reign supreme in England, in Scotland antipathy towards Westminster and a dearth of effective opposition at home has resulted not only in a consistent poll lead for the SNP, but also in rising support for secession. And Wales, too, is now entertaining the prospect of leaving the UK, new polling shows.
A survey by YouGov, carried out last month, found 52 per cent of Welsh voters would choose No (to independence) in a hypothetical referendum, while 25 per cent would opt for Yes – up from 21 per cent in January. This four-point increase since the start of the year puts the Yes vote at an all-time high. Delving into the sub-samples, it’s interesting to note that more than double the proportion of women (23 per cent) as men (10 per cent) class themselves as “undecided”.
But the prospect of a break-up of the Union is not something English adults seem to consider as likely as polls suggest. English voters are slightly more reticent about the prospect of Welsh independence than they are about Scottish independence, with 6 per cent saying Wales should leave, and 51 per cent saying it should stay. On Scottish independence, English voters are marginally more supportive, with 13 per cent voicing enthusiasm.
Though the YouGov poll puts support for Welsh independence at an all-time high, readers should not get too excited (or disheartened). Prospective Yes voters are still in a significant minority and in a referendum would face a resounding defeat. Nonetheless, what we are seeing, as psephologist Roger Scully writes on his blog, is that independence for Wales is “no longer the preserve of a tiny group on the fringes of Welsh politics”.
It is a different story in Scotland, where support for independence has been the majority view for much of 2020. The Britain Elects poll tracker puts support among Scots for ending the Union at 53 per cent, an increase of eight points on the 2014 referendum result. Not one poll since March has found a majority among Scots for remaining in the UK.
This shift in favour of Scottish independence is now the most prolonged in polling history. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, support for independence eclipsed opposition but only for a few weeks.
The drivers of this sustained shift to Yes can be divided into three groups. The first is the pro-independence side’s apparent success in neutralising one of the key arguments of 2014: whether an independent Holyrood administration can perform competently when faced with a crisis.
The approval of 78 per cent of Scots for the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic contrasts with the disapproval of a majority of Brits of the UK government’s performance. Stoking anxiety about competence – suggesting Scotland needs the Union to weather financial and geopolitical crises – has been a key unionist strategy, and convinced many waverers to back No in the final few days of the 2014 referendum campaign.
Unionists south and, indeed, north of the border haven’t been doing much to help their side either, which brings us to the second set of factors. Scots continue to regard the opposition party leaders with mild dissatisfaction at best, and total disregard at worst. Not since former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s breakout performance in 2016 have Scottish voters looked to the leaders of the three unionist parties with any warmth – or even much recognition.
The third, and perhaps least manageable, set of reasons revolve around the demographic timebomb that is young voters. An analysis of all the latest polls suggests that those aged 16-34 overwhelmingly support independence, with some polls putting the support for Yes as nearly three in every four. By contrast, those aged over 55 split three to four against.
A reliance on the past assumption that young people don’t turn out to vote on the scale as older voters is understandable; but that assumption is by and large already factored into most polls. What’s more, turnout rates in 2014 among the young, even those aged 16 and 17, were remarkably high. In any case, those aged between 35-54 are also enthusiastic for independence, suggesting the current surge is not just driven by the “unreliable” young, but by working-age adults generally.
While much of the new majority for Yes appears to consist of those who didn’t vote at all in 2014, the number of switchers from No to Yes should not be discounted. More than one in five of those that voted No in 2014 now tell pollsters they’ll be voting Yes. The figure has only grown since the start of the year.
Without combative and effective leadership in the face of a popular incumbent government, the challenge for pro-Union politicians – both Labour and Conservative, north and south of Berwick – is undoubtedly an epic one. Davidson’s successes show there are, perhaps, votes to be won: her absence now merely highlights the lack of alternative unionists of similar stature. Those opposed to the break-up of the Union might need new figureheads, as well as more convincing arguments, if they want to turn back the independence tide.