Indyref2: Is it winnable?

Will Brexit work as a recruiting sergeant to the cause of independence?
April 7, 2017

It is not a surprise that the debate about Scottish independence has come to the boil once more. Far from proving decisive, the September 2014 independence referendum left Scotland more divided on the issue than ever before. The powder keg just needed relighting.

The European Union referendum has done just that. Scotland’s wish to remain in the EU was overturned by the weight of “Leave” votes in England and Wales. For nationalists this was a clear illustration that, while it is in the UK, Scotland’s “democratic wishes” are always at risk of being overturned. The UK government’s pursuit of a much harder Brexit than the Scottish government would like now adds insult to the injury.

However, it is far from clear that the Brexit row will persuade many voters to back independence. When the SNP embarked on its first referendum, it had a mountain to climb. The campaign got under way in 2012, when David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement. At that time, ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, which has long asked Scots about how they think Scotland should be governed, put support for independence at just 23 per cent—as low as at any time during the previous dozen years. Although “Yes” did eventually lose, in securing 45 per cent of the votes, it undoubtedly won the campaign.

That success has subsequently solidified, not melted away. In the most recent SSA, conducted in the second half of 2016, 46 per cent said they preferred independence. The polls have likewise been clear that those who were converted to independence during the referendum are not changing their minds. In the first half of last year, ahead of the Brexit vote, on average 47 per cent of respondents were saying they would vote for independence, not far behind the 53 per cent who stated they would opt to stay in the UK.

Despite Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to peg a second independence referendum to the “hard Brexit” that she maintains is Theresa May’s true aim, the European question has done little or nothing to change the balance of opinion on independence. Across five polls conducted in the run-up to last month’s SNP conference, support for “Yes” stood at 46 per cent, against 54 per cent for “No.” Excitement was generated by a couple of polls that put “Yes” and “No” almost neck and neck with each other, but these were counterbalanced by a couple of others that put support for independence below the 2014 result.

Brexit has failed to shift the balance for two reasons. First, although the SNP has long proclaimed “independence in Europe,” a sizeable chunk of 2014 “Yes” voters declined to back “Remain.” Around one in three voted “Leave,” not least because some nationalists want to wrest power back from Brussels as well as London. With the UK set to leave the EU, some of these voters have told the pollsters they would now vote “No.”

Meanwhile the commitment of the 62 per cent of Scots who voted to “Remain” is, in some cases, weak. Over half of all “Remain” voters in the most recent SSA said that Brussels’s powers should be reduced. That proportion is even higher (65 per cent) among those “Remain” voters who back staying in the UK—this hardly suggests that “re-entering Europe” is a rallying cry which could tilt them towards independence.

Faced with a choice between the EU and the UK, most unionists would opt for the UK. While a small minority have switched from “No” to “Yes,” they have done no more than counterbalance those who have moved in the opposite direction, leaving the balance of opinion unchanged. Meanwhile, a separate ScotCen survey has found that at least half of Scottish Remainers (along with most Leavers) are hoping Brexit will mean an end to freedom of movement. That suggests more voters are with May’s approach than Sturgeon’s, another indication of the limits of Brexit as a recruiting sergeant to the cause of independence.

The SNP do not need to win over many more voters to win a second referendum. Brexit, however, does not look like the catalyst that will enable them to do so.