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16 September 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 9:50am

How Nicola Sturgeon could win a second independence referendum

Support for independence is higher than at the start of the first Scottish referendum campaign. 

By Mark Diffley

While the rest of the UK is fixated with the impact of Brexit and the negotiations that lie ahead, Scotland’s political summer (and beyond) has been dominated by talk of a possible second independence referendum.

By now, we have a clear sense of where public opinion stands on whether they want indyref2 (41 per cent) , as well as how they would vote on the issue (48 per cent would back independence). It is clear the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is facing a tough decision about when to push ahead with a ballot. In a nutshell, go for indyref2 soon while the broad political winds remain in your favour, or hold off in the hope that opinion moves in your favour as post-Brexit life in Britain becomes clearer.

The decision is fraught with dangers, risks and contradictions.

The case against a quick referendum is clear and, on the face of it, supported by recent polling. After an initial bump in support for independence in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit decision, we are now effectively back where we were two years ago, with backers of the union in the majority. Support for even calling another vote appears to be diminishing, with just 41 per cent believing that indyref2 should take place in the next two years. All of this despite the fact the vote for the UK to leave the EU goes against the wishes of nearly two-thirds of voters north of the border, a fact that was widely anticipated to boost support for independence, and was seen by the First Minister as an example of a material change that would make indyref2 inevitable.

Pessimists argue the fall in oil prices since the first referendum and the broader economic conditions that prevail in Scotland, make victory impossible for the nationalists in a second poll. This would make it even more difficult to persuade voters of a smooth transition to an independent Scotland than was the case in 2014. In other words, any advantage gained by changes in the political climate would be outweighed by having a more uncertain economic climate.

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But what makes this a difficult call for Sturgeon is that there is also a compelling case for holding a second referendum.

It’s true that post-Brexit opinion on independence has not shifted to the extent that she would have hoped, but support at around 45-48 per cent at the beginning of a campaign is hardly a disaster. Campaigns can change opinions, and the prize is tantalisingly close; certainly much closer than it was at the beginning of the first referendum campaign when support for “Yes” languished at around 30 per cent , only to finish at 45 per cent. The hurdle to get over this time is significantly lower.

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Then there is the wider political context – the SNP dominant in Holyrood, Labour in continued turmoil and uncertain about their stance on independence, hints that some of the media may be more sympathetic this time round, and a leader who is widely respected and motivated to secure independence.

The advantages that the nationalists have on the ground should not be underestimated. The SNP has around 120,000 members, many of whom have joined since the first referendum, all of whom will be highly driven to hit the streets. This would give the new “Yes” campaign a distinct advantage in organisational terms, as well as significant opportunities in the data and intelligence that they can gather and use.

And then there is Brexit itself, presenting both possibilities and dangers to the nationalist cause. It is argued that support for an independent Scotland will increase significantly once voters begin to appreciate the consequences of the vote to leave the EU. This may take a long time to materialise however and, in any case, a messy, chaotic Brexit may be counterproductive. A smooth, clean Brexit could help reinforce the case that big constitutional changes can be managed without the world ending; just as a chaotic Brexit may lead voters to conclude that a further significant constitutional change is unnecessary.

Ultimately, like all political decisions there will be an element of risk whenever a second referendum is called, and there will never be a perfect time. Knowing when those risks are at the lowest is the tricky bit.

Mark Diffley is research director for Ipsos MORI Scotland. Follow him @markdiffley1.