By Alastair Cameron, Director, Scotland in Union
After a quiet summer for political polls in Scotland, we had something of a deluge in August and September. Most coverage was for ‘the big question’ of independence - and in six out of seven polls in August and September a majority said they want to stay in the UK. There have also been some interesting new angles explored. In September, for example, a Redfield and Wilson poll showed that most Scots agree that the UK Government should have the final say on another referendum, while a Stack Data poll illustrated how similar Scots’ views are to those of our compatriots across the rest of the UK.
Recent surveys have also given us insights into whether people want a referendum any time soon. Each of seven polls in this period asked some version of an indyref2 timing question. The wording has varied: Survation asked “Should there be a referendum within two years?”, while Panelbase suggested a series of timeframes. In none of these recent polls does a short-term dash to a referendum command a majority, leaving Nicola Sturgeon’s claimed plan to hold another referendum before the end of 2023 looking rather threadbare.
I use the words ‘claimed plan’ deliberately. It is plausible that Ms Sturgeon does not actually want a referendum before the end of 2023, but feels forced into pushing for one by her more committed nationalist fellow-travellers. An early referendum would be a risky, even reckless, gamble for the First Minister, and would appear out of character for a previously cautious careerist.
It is also quite a stretch to think we can go from where we are now, with no consensus even on the question wording, to overcoming the clearly re-stated reluctance of the UK government; passing relevant legislation and managing potential legal challenges; running a campaign; and then holding the referendum itself, within two years. Even SNP MSP Michelle Thomson said recently that she didn’t think a referendum will happen in 2023.
Many commentators have suggested that Ms Sturgeon’s pronouncement about 2023 was more to do with SNP party management, and with encouraging the radical nationalists leading the Scottish Green Party, than any real aspiration on her part. The leader of the SNP has form in this area: I recently came across an old article from May 2019, with the headline: ‘Sturgeon wants Indyref2 in “second half of 2020”.‘ However, this does not mean that pro-UK people should be complacent. In a game of high stakes bluff, there is always the risk of miscalculation, or unintended consequences. In addition, our First Minister has instructed civil servants to work on the matter, which means that public money is being spent right now on referendum preparation.
Recent polls show that most people want other matters prioritised. For example, the recent Survation poll showed only one in eight people think independence should be a priority compared to other areas such as the NHS and social care, education and covid recovery. Some of this may be because of covid, but the longer term bad news for the nationalists is that not only is there a consensus against within-two-years today; it’s that within-two-years has never really been popular. Many Scots do not necessarily oppose another referendum in theory, or even within 5 to 10 years from when they are asked, but the majority are consistently reluctant to support one within a closer time horizon, and this was true before the pandemic.
Across 36 polls since 2016 with a relevant question, there has never been a majority for a two-year option. Different questions have been used, but Savanta Comres polls provide us with a reasonably consistent view, as they have asked similar referendum timing questions eight times between December 2020 and September 2021. Comres options equating to ‘within two years’ have achieved maximum support of 39 per cent (January 2021) and minimum support of 31 per cent (April 2021), with the most recent being 34 per cent (September 2021). Support for a two-year option in this range is a significant proportion, and should concern anyone who is pro-UK, but it is a long way from a majority.
If the nationalists do continue to push for a referendum any time soon, and the UK Government continues to reply ‘now is not the time’, the evidence is that the UK Government will be better reflecting the will of the Scottish people.
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack recently said that there should be sustained 60 per cent support for another referendum before the UK Government will consider one. ‘Once in a generation’ remains a valid argument against an early indyref2, given that it was in the ‘White Paper’ for 2014 and was said many times by Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond during that campaign, but Mr Jack’s suggestion adds some nuance to the debate. Polling suggests that the Scottish Secretary is on firm ground, not just in the general rejection of a short term indyref2, but also because one of the recent Redfield and Wilson polls specifically asked people about the Scottish Secretary’s suggestion, and only 25 per cent disagreed with it.
Given all this evidence, it is unacceptable that Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow nationalists are committing public resources to preparing for something that most people don’t want, by instructing civil servants to prepare another separation ‘White Paper’. While much of this may be theatre, for the benefit of SNP and Scottish Green Party unity, those of us who value the UK need to continue to resist this waste of resources; and if the nationalists continue along this unpopular path, I think it is right that the UK Government should continue to refuse, to protect us from the division and distraction which another referendum would bring.
This article originally appeared in The Scotsman.
Data on relevant polling can be found below: