Why Scotland would vote for independence if a referendum was held now

A decade of ineffective opposition to the SNP has done little to help the unionist cause.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Four years ago, as the political class reeled from the country's vote to leave the European Union, a shift took place in Scotland. Support for independence eclipsed support for the United Kingdom.

It wasn't the first time independence had taken the lead in Scotland, and it didn't last long. Newspapers were quick to commission further surveys to see whether the shift in Scottish opinion was permanent, and just two weeks later, independence slipped behind the union again.

What the flurry of post-EU-referendum surveys showed was that perhaps Remain-voting Scotland, if pressed on issues of Brexit alone, could be convinced of the arguments for independence.

Today support for 'Yes' is once more in the lead. This time, however, the shift doesn't appear to be a blip. Of the eight surveys taken this year, just two have put the union ahead. 

The latest, from Panelbase, gives independence its largest lead since 2016, at 54 per cent against 46 per cent.

It doesn't take a political scientist to see that these leads for independence are small, and indicate a race far from over.

The Britain Elects poll tracker – a model which incorporates all surveys – has the lead for independence well within the margin of error. 

Tracking support for Scottish independence

The shift in support for independence is nonetheless real. If a new referendum on independence were held tomorrow, the Yes campaign would go into the campaign with three key advantages.

1. The legacy of a pandemic

You’d be forgiven for thinking a pandemic would have rallied support for the perceived safety of the status quo. But historical polling shows the support for Yes creeps up in moments of uncertainty.

For example, support for both Scottish independence and leaving the European Union rose during the 2008 financial crisis. In that year, the SNP tied with or led Labour on Westminster voting intentions, and support for independence was at a relative high of 36 per cent. By the end of 2009, when the economic recovery began to materialise, support for independence had fallen to 29 per cent.

If the Scots can be said to have rallied around a leader during the Covid-19 crisis, then, that leader is not Boris Johnson but the already popular First Minister. The pandemic has allowed Nicola Sturgeon and her Holyrood administration to be perceived as more competent than the Westminster government.

How voters rate the Scottish and the UK governments' handling of the coronavirus pandemic

This is interesting for two reasons. The first reason is that this survey was taken in the opening days of May, when England and Scotland were virtually indistinguishable on lockdown politics.

The second is that it helps illustrate how the legacy of Covid-19 may be one which benefits the nationalists. So long as Westminster is perceived as less relevant and less effective to Scottish daily life than Holyrood, particularly in a crisis, the strength of sentiment regarding staying "better together" may not hold as much weight with voters as it did in 2014.

2. Brexit

Scottish independence saw a surge in support in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, and another bump after the UK left the EU on the 31st January.

Presently 52 per cent of Scots say the country should rejoin the European Union. This clearly adds a new group of voters to those who voted for independence in 2014. 

A small but notable number of people who voted Yes in 2014 but Leave in 2016 have shifted over to No – some stopping off to vote Conservative in 2017 – but these votes are far outweighed by the numbers shifting in the opposite direction. 

In recent polls, almost one in five of those who opted for No in 2014 now say they’d vote Yes. Compared to polls before the December election, this is up from one in ten. Almost a third of these new converts were born in England but resident in Scotland, and 35 per cent were Labour voters in 2019. 

As long as Brexit remains a political issue, it will push more Scottish voters towards independence. The question – with a second independence referendum not likely until 2022 at the earliest – is whether Brexit will still be a factor when the time comes.

3. A decade of ineffective opposition

In the eyes of the Scottish public, the SNP administration has been, with the obvious exception of Ruth Davidson, without an effective opposition for almost a decade now.

Over the course of the 2010s, Scottish Labour went through five elected leaders. Not one secured more than 40 per cent favourability with the Scottish public. During the 2014 referendum, not one of the leaders from either the three main English parties or their Scottish equivalents scored higher on trust than Salmond or Sturgeon. Only Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling proved competitive.

Ruth Davidson was the only public figure in unionist politics to eventually secure majority favourability, and her eventual departure from frontline politics did little to help public perceptions of unionist politicians. The slew of ineffective leaders from the pro-union parties has allowed voters to associate popular figures with the Yes cause. 

A decade ago, Scottish independence was the desire of fewer than one in three Scots. Five years ago, it had the support of 45 per cent of the population. Now, independence has become a more realistic possibility than at any time this century. With a parliamentary election scheduled for next year and current polls pointing to the incumbent nationalists holding on, we may know the fate of the union within five years. 

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

Free trial CSS