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20 December 2022

What’s behind the surge in support for Scottish independence?

The Supreme Court verdict appears to have increased backing for Yes – but there are deeper changes under way too.

By Chris Deerin

Five straight polls, five majorities in favour of Scottish independence. It’s not yet clear whether a definitive shift in public opinion is under way, but it must at least be taken as possible until proved otherwise. 

This sudden, sustained lead follows the recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court that Holyrood lacks the authority to hold an independence referendum without the say-so of Westminster. Some Scots react angrily to being told what the devolved parliament can and can’t do by a British institution such as the court, and to limits being set by the parliament in London. Even though the ruling was long predicted – it was really a statement of the obvious, and one delivered by Robert Reed, a Scottish judge who is also president of the court – YouGov found that about a quarter of anti-independence voters felt the decision should be Holyrood’s in the next five years.

But it also feels like something else must be going on. One survey put support for independence, once don’t knows had been excluded, as high as 56 per cent. The others have been between 51 and 54 per cent. Some may be within the margin of error, but it looks more like a trend. 

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SNP saw a surge in support for its party and for its cause. That was in part due to Nicola Sturgeon’s impressive performance in helming the government’s response. But there’s been nothing in Sturgeon’s recent actions to match that. Her gender reforms are unpopular with the public, her ramshackle plans for a National Care Service have been heavily criticised, and her party has been through internal turmoil due to a coup against the leadership at Westminster, with the Sturgeon favourite Ian Blackford being ousted.

However, it often seems that the polls are more likely to show increased backing for Yes when Westminster has been at its worst. It could therefore be that the Tories’ confrontational approach to public sector strikers has contrasted with the Scottish government’s more ameliorative handling of the situation. Scottish ministers managed to reach agreement a week ago with ambulance drivers and NHS staff to avoid the industrial action taking place in England, and have been able to blame the RMT’s walk-out, which has hit train services on both sides of the border, on Westminster. Sturgeon has at least shown herself willing to sit down with the trade unions. And although Scottish teachers are still planning action in January, it could be that some voters (and especially public sector staff) have reacted strongly against Conservative intransigence.

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The Scottish pollster Mark Diffley suspects that the increasing unpopularity of Brexit is having an impact too. He notes that polarisation between Remain and Leave voters in Scotland is becoming more closely linked to their constitutional preference – ie, more Remain voters are aligning with the pro-independence movement.

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The data must also be worrying Labour. Although UK polls put them on course for government at the next general election, the Scottish party is relying on a rising UK tide to lift its long-stranded electoral boat. An increase in profile for the independence debate may well help the Nats and the Tories, who both have strident positions, ahead of Labour. Keir Starmer’s position on sticking with Brexit may be political common sense and play well in England, but that doesn’t mean it’ll go down well in Scotland. And still, after 15 years of government, voters do not seem yet to have turned on the SNP or see any need for change, despite its anaemic record of success as the ruling party, and major problems within the health and education systems.

Unionists will hope these polls are a temporary blip. If not, they will need to prove, quickly, that they are reversible.

[See also: Will the SNP’s tax-raising gamble pay off?]