Angus Robertson: Polling on independence shows it's not a question of if, it's a question of when
SNP delegates at the party’s spring conference are meeting at a period of unprecedented domestic and international political uncertainty. Brexit chaos continues more than two years after the referendum and following two postponed deadlines to leave the European Union.
Who would have imagined the circumstances that all outcomes from a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, a softer deal possibly involving a customs union, a new referendum and even total revocation are still all potential outcomes? Who would have predicted the UK could still take part in the next European Parliament elections?
Meanwhile, the SNP and the Scottish Government seem largely untouched and unfazed by the surrounding political instability. Party ratings remain high for the SNP with a double-digit lead over the increasingly split UK parties. Recent contests including the Leith Walk by-election confirmed its strong electoral position, with the vote for pro-independence parties increasing while the Tory and Labour vote went down. Given the SNP has been in government for 12 years, this is some achievement.
For SNP delegates, however, this is not enough. Feeling powerless to stop or influence the Brexit process that Scottish voters rejected by 62 per cent is turbo-charging the call for a second independence referendum. The party is also adopting new thinking about the independence case which will be made when that referendum occurs, including the question of a Scottish currency.
Delegates at the SNP spring conference will debate a motion informed by the detailed report of the Scottish Sustainable Growth Commission, which was led by former SNP MSP and economist Andrew Wilson. Not only does it significantly update the economic independence case, it adopts a different tone and trajectory to that in 2014, one that its authors hope will be more persuasive to those who were not persuaded in the last independence referendum.
Understanding the views of open-minded and undecided voters on independence is the core purpose of ‘Progress Scotland’, the polling and research organisation I launched earlier this year. Funded by subscriptions and donations, we are commissioning opinion polls and focus groups with the expert independent advice of Mark Diffley, one of the country’s leading pollsters.
In recent weeks we published findings from our first large-scale poll conducted by Survation, which will be presented to SNP spring conference delegates at a Sunday morning fringe meeting.
Most importantly, the poll confirmed that one fifth of respondents who voted in the 2014 independence referendum have changed how they would vote on Scottish independence or their views have changed a bit and they are not sure about how they would vote on Scottish independence. This highlights the opportunity for independence supporters to persuade open-minded voters.
While the European question and Brexit is now rated the biggest single issue in determining voters’ views in a future independence referendum, it is only one point ahead and within the margin of error of ‘the future of the economy’. In some respects, the most striking response from respondents who are open-minded or undecided on independence was that 77 per cent agreed that they would vote for independence if they were convinced that it would be good for the Scottish economy. Only five per cent disagreed.
In a related question, 40 per cent agreed that independence would be good for the Scottish economy in the long run and 17 per cent disagreed. These results should be hugely encouraging to independence supporters and underline the importance of building the most persuasive and credible economic case for independence. It will be a major focus for our future research to better understand voters’ views.
On the currency question, we are effectively at the beginning of the debate about the future case, but amongst poll respondents who embrace a Scottish currency, four times as many would prefer to keep the pound in the short term and switch to a new Scottish currency in the longer term when economic tests have been met, rather than switching to a Scottish currency in the short term. That option was supported by only six per cent.
While the economic case for Scottish independence and the currency question will dominate the headlines from the SNP spring conference, it is Brexit and a new independence referendum that dominates that wider news agenda and political debate.
This is confirmed in the ‘Progress Scotland’ poll where findings amongst respondents who are open-minded or undecided on independence include:
‘Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely’ – Agree: 63 per cent; Disagree: 13 per cent.
’Brexit has changed my view on Scottish independence’ – Agree: 45 per cent; Disagree: 22 per cent.
‘If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, I would be more likely to vote for independence in a future referendum’ – Agree: 56 per cent; Disagree: 15 per cent.
‘If Scotland became an independent country, it should be a full member of the European Union’ – Agree: 66 per cent; Disagree: 16 per cent.
‘I am waiting to see what impact Brexit has on me before deciding how I would vote in another independence referendum’ – Agree: 49 per cent; Disagree: 19 per cent.
The question of timing of another referendum is an absolutely key consideration for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and all SNP members.
Regardless of the mandate the SNP has been given by the electorate to hold such a vote, the UK Government is likely to refuse it for as long as possible. This will not make the question go away. Our polling shows that there is an expectation that there will be a referendum, there should be a referendum and that Scotland will become independent.
The headline figures among all respondents were that:
Scotland will become an independent country – 63 per cent Agree; 37 per cent Disagree.
There will be another referendum on Scottish independence in the next two years – Likely: 48 per cent; Unlikely: 44 per cent.
There will be another referendum on Scottish independence in the next five years – Likely: 59 per cent; Unlikely: 32 per cent.
There should be another referendum on Scottish independence – 61 per cent Agree; 39 per cent Disagree.
These findings are from the first round of research by ‘Progress Scotland’ and there is much more to come. We will be trying to better understand what is changing minds and what is not.