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8 March 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:29am

How worried should the SNP be over the fall in support for Scottish independence?

The Salmond inquiry has damaged backing for Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and the wider Yes movement.

By Ben Walker

Does the success or failure of the Scottish independence movement depend on the standing of Nicola Sturgeon? It might not appear to but her popular leadership as First Minister and the positive perceptions of her handling of the Covid-19 crisis have undoubtedly helped to propel support for the “Yes” campaign. The furore surrounding her predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, however, has damaged the independence movement. 

Our poll tracker shows that support for Scottish independence stands at 52.2 per cent, while opposition to it is at 47.8 per cent. If undecided voters are excluded, these figures represent a significant fall since last autumn and winter, when support for Scotland leaving the UK reached 54.3 per cent.

In recent weeks, polls have started to show that a plurality (relative majority) of Scots are now marginally opposed to independence. The cause of this is not necessarily former Yes voters switching to No, but rather previously enthusiastic Yes supporters becoming less likely to turn out as previously unenthusiastic No supporters become more committed.

Tracking support for Scottish independence
The latest voting intentions on the question of Scottish independence – share of those declaring for undecided is included.

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There’s little reason to doubt that this shift in voter certainty can be mostly attributed to the Salmond inquiry, which has damaged Sturgeon, the SNP and the wider independence movement. A Panelbase survey for the Sunday Times found that a slim plurality (40 per cent) of Scots do not believe Sturgeon has been entirely honest about the Salmond affair, while 35 per cent believe that she has been. 

Although a majority (51 per cent) say the First Minister should not resign immediately over the matter (35 per cent think she should), an overwhelming 61 per cent say that, if found to have broken the ministerial code, Sturgeon should be forced to leave office. Significantly, almost four in ten SNP voters (38 per cent) share this view. 

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Our poll tracker has also recorded a small but notable fall in SNP support. In November last year the party was on track to win 55 per cent of the vote across Scotland’s 73 constituencies in May’s election. Today the party appears more likely to win around 51 per cent of the vote (an improvement on the 47 per cent it won at the last Holyrood election in 2016). 

But this is a blow that the SNP can absorb. In parliamentary terms, the party has collapsed from an astonishing lead over its opponents to… an astonishing lead over its opponents. While the possibility of the SNP losing its majority has increased, a pro-referendum majority (the SNP plus the Green Party) appears, for now, all but certain.

Sturgeon is still a popular figure but voter support for her is not unconditional. Should she be found to have broken the ministerial code, voters appear prepared to demand her head. Meanwhile, support for independence may have fallen but it is still, according to our poll tracker, in majority territory. To establish whether this is a permanent or a temporary shift, what we need is more polling conducted over a longer period of time. 

But it is worth asking this: if a political scandal such as this can damage support for independence, what might to happen if Sturgeon does ultimately resign? As I noted earlier, more than Brexit it was her popular handling of the Covid-19 crisis that drove sustained majority support for independence. In the long term, without the force of a popular First Minister, can the Yes movement triumph on the issues alone? I’m not so sure.