Now is (still) not the time for another divisive referendum

Polling on whether people in Scotland want to leave the United Kingdom has been volatile this year. A Survation poll conducted in March 2021, commissioned by Scotland in Union, found that 57 per cent would vote for Scotland to remain part of the UK. However, the old 2014 ‘Yes/ No’ question yields closer results, and in recent months has often delivered slim majorities for separation. Meanwhile, the proportion of ‘Don’t know’ responses remains significant, which is understandable when the nationalists have not set out clear positions on areas such as currency, and so many other uncertainties remain.

There are no grounds for complacency among people who want Scotland to remain secure in the United Kingdom, but there is also a more immediate question to consider: do people want another referendum any time soon?


The SNP’s re-launched draft Referendum Bill may mainly be an attempt to distract from their poor performance in government and to heal splits within their movement. However, if nationalists do well enough in the Scottish Parliament elections, there may be pressure on the UK Government to consider agreeing another vote on Scotland leaving the UK. If that happens, should the UK Government agree to talks about another referendum?


There is a strong case to reply “No, not until a generation after 2014”. Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow nationalists used the generational phrase (and “once in a lifetime”) many times during that campaign, and it was in the SNP’s ‘White Paper’. Wrenching constitutional change should surely not be put to the electorate on a regular basis, with the losing side entitled to a re-run every time. A period of constitutional stability would help our recovery from covid and encourage investment in Scotland, and only 8 per cent of respondents told Survation that constitutional affairs and independence should be a ‘top three’ priority.

As well as the generational point, though, there is a more immediate reason for the UK Government to avoid being pushed into discussing a new vote: most people in Scotland do not want another referendum in the short term.


It is reasonable to suggest that a referendum campaign could be run within two years, and some nationalists seem to believe it could be done much more quickly. We should, therefore, look at whether Scots have an appetite for another vote within that timeframe.


Savanta Comres has asked several times in 2021 when another referendum should be held, and the ‘within two years’ option consistently achieves support of 35 per cent to 38 per cent - a significant proportion, but a long way from a majority. Meanwhile, Opinium recently asked about referendum timing in a variety of scenarios: even in the scenario of the SNP winning a majority at Holyrood, only 32 per cent chose the two-year option.


Nationalists may seek comfort in higher figures for longer-term horizons, such as five years. However, an intriguing aspect of polling on this question is that since 2014 people have never seemed to want another referendum in the short term, even before the current pandemic has made recovery an urgent issue.


The two-year barrier is remarkably resilient. In September 2016, 41 per cent of respondents told Ipsos Mori that there should be a referendum within two years (in other words, before September 2018); fast forward to March 2019, though, and the proportion answering ‘within two years’ in a Survation poll had dropped to 22 per cent. Recent research for think tank Onward showed that more Scots think a referendum should be held after 2027 or never (38 per cent) than support a referendum this year or next (35 per cent).


Of course, nationalists tend to want an earlier referendum, and people who want to remain part of the UK do not, but some nationalists seem prepared to wait. More recently, the pandemic is probably a factor, but the data show the two-year barrier was there before covid-19.


My hypothesis is that people see five years as a long time in politics, but two years as the relatively near future. Many Scots do not necessarily oppose another referendum in theory, with ‘five years away’ still feeling quite theoretical, but the majority are reluctant to support one within a time horizon with more certainty. Further evidence for this is that when a ‘within a year’ option has available in polls, the proportions supporting it have been lower still.


Another clue to people’s reticence is in the Survation results from March: 57 per cent said another referendum would make Scottish society more divided, and only 29 per cent said it would not. Perhaps most people, having lived through the rancour of the 2014 and 2016 referendum campaigns, are simply unwilling to go through that again soon.

If the SNP, and their nationalist partners in the Scottish ‘Green’ Party, do well enough in the coming election, they will doubtless claim a ‘mandate’ for another referendum, whatever polls show the majority want. However, people vote for parties for a variety of reasons, and the polling evidence described above is stark. If nationalists demand another referendum, and the UK Government responds with ‘now is not the time’, current evidence suggests it will be the UK Government better reflecting the will of the Scottish people.


‘Once in a generation’ is a valid argument, but consistent polling on the two-year option adds another reason not to give in to nationalist demands. The Scottish Government should not make any referendum preparations until there is clear and sustained evidence that people in Scotland have changed their minds about timing, and the UK Government should continue to protect us from the division and distraction which another referendum would bring.


Alastair Cameron, Director of Scotland in Union


This article first appeared in The Herald, on Friday 26th March 2021.


1. Survation polling, March 2021: See here and here.


2. Analysis of referendum timing questions since 2014 (including polling referenced) is in the downloadable document here:

Indyref2 timing analysis v03
.pdf
Download PDF • 254KB

3. Onward research referenced.