Despite positive polling on independence, all is not well within the SNP
When the Supreme Court last month closed off Nicola Sturgeon’s legal route to another referendum, it felt like a major defeat not only for the first minister’s strategy but the wider Yes campaign. In more than eight years since the 2014 referendum, scarcely anything has changed. For all the turmoil of Brexit, the pandemic, and the economic upheavals we all now face, Scotland does not feel any closer to a second vote on its constitutional future.
Yet in reaching its verdict that the matter of legislating for the vote is reserved to Westminster, the UK’s highest court confirmed what many had long suspected – that the way out of the current impasse will be as the result of a political solution not a legal one.
While the court’s verdict was a clear win for the UK Government, it has created a considerable problem for ministers on what to do next. Some had suggested the preferred option would be for the five justices to demur, essentially refusing to deliver a ruling on a hypothetical. But in reaching its unanimous decision, the court has lobbed the grenade back squarely in the direction of Rishi Sunak’s government.
Since Lord Reed delivered the court’s judgment, a series of opinion polls have shown increasing support for separation, although not necessarily for the SNP’s current policy of using the next general election as a de facto referendum. In the weeks since the Supreme Court’s decision on 23 November, five polls in a row have put Yes in the ascendancy.
A YouGov survey of just over 1,000 voters found support for independence at 53 per cent compared with 47 per cent for the status quo when undecideds are excluded. It’s the first time in two years that the polling company has recorded a lead for Yes, causing respected pollster Sir John Curtice to conclude that just saying “no” to another referendum was no longer “a viable long-term strategy for maintaining public support for the Union”.
The YouGov poll followed others by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, Ipsos, and Find Out Now, all conducted following the Supreme Court decision and all suggesting a growing support for separation. Ipsos’ Scottish Political Monitor, published on 7 December, found support for independence had increased by six points since the last survey conducted in May. Among those likely to vote, 56 per cent said they would back independence compared with 44 per cent who favoured the Union – a near reversal of the 2014 referendum result.
Indeed, Ipsos’ long-term tracking shows figures to be trending in the wrong direction for those who want Scotland to remain part of the UK. The proportion of those who say they would vote No should a referendum be held tomorrow has been tracking downwards since 2013, when it sat at just over 60 per cent. The one figure that has remained relatively stable over the past year is on the question of when a referendum should be held, with only around a third of Scots in support of holding one in 2023. Increasingly, it looks like a majority of Scots want independence – just not anytime soon.
At the time of writing, the most recent survey, the Scottish Opinion Monitor (Scoop) poll, found 50.2 per cent of voters would vote Yes in a referendum, up from the 47.6 per cent in August.
We’ve been here with polling before, however. At the height of the pandemic, a series of polls showed growing support for independence as Scots contrasted the performance of Sturgeon favourably with that of Boris Johnson. But after a sustained period of support for Yes, the gains had been pared back somewhat in recent months.
Perhaps we shouldn’t make a direct link between the polling and the Supreme Court judgment. Indeed, those behind the most recent Scoop poll cautioned against doing exactly that.
Fraser McMillan, of the Scottish Election Study, said: “It’s quite clear that support for independence has increased in recent months. However, our data suggest that, as was the case at the height of the pandemic, recent Yes gains are probably more to do with diverging perceptions of UK and Scottish Government’s performance than more abstract procedural arguments. This raises big questions around what might happen to public opinion on independence in the event that Labour win a majority at the next general election”.
The SNP will convene early in the new year to discuss its strategy of using the election as a de facto referendum, knowing that independence remains the most popular part of the party’s offering amid failure to deliver on education, health, and its climate change commitments. And while there’s still likely around two years until the UK goes to the polls, the government at Westminster knows the constitutional question is not going away.
But if the Tories have suggested that evidence of a sustained period of support at around 60 per cent is required before countenancing another referendum – what has become known as Scottish Secretary Alister Jack’s “duck test” – then Labour, who are after all likely to form the next government, continue to be all at sea on the issue.
For many months, the party’s answer to the constitutional question has been former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission, which has been looking at how to radically reshape Britain to make it work better for everyone. The work was begun in 2020, when Labour leader Keir Starmer tasked Brown with producing plans to “settle the future of the Union” and better devolve power across the UK. The plan was published earlier this month and promised to “make the UK work for Scotland”. The word “referendum” is mentioned only seven times in the 155-page document and then only in relation to votes which have taken place in the past – not those yet to come.
The report concludes: “The recommendations of this report are long-term changes: the transformation of local economies and the building of more powerful local and regional democratic institutions will take time…It is our view that these recommendations could all be delivered and have impact within a single parliamentary term, and without recourse to a referendum.”
While the report did contain radical proposals – it recommends scrapping the House of Lords and replacing it with a new second chamber called the Assembly of Nations and Regions – it is unlikely to placate those who no longer see a future for Scotland in the Union. But on a visit to Scotland to launch the report, Starmer said the SNP plan to turn the next election into a de facto vote on the Union stood “in the way of common sense”.
“No amount of discussion by other people is going to change the terms of the general election,” the Labour leader told journalists.
All eyes are on what the SNP does next under Sturgeon and Stephen Flynn, the party’s new leader at Westminster who effected a coup of sorts to remove his predecessor, Ian Blackford. Blackford had faced criticism for his handling of complaints against former chief whip Patrick Grady and his sidelining of Joanna Cherry, one of the party’s most able MPs. But if events since his defenestration are anything to go by, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber was doing a passable job of keeping a lid on internal ructions.
A good example of the unhappiness that exists within the Westminster group was highlighted by the increasingly bizarre spat between SNP MP John Nicolson and Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. Hoyle had somewhat histrionically accused the MP of “misleading the people of this country” when Nicolson discussed private correspondence between the two in a Twitter video. When the Commons voted overwhelmingly to refer Nicolson to the parliamentary privileges committee over the matter, just 16 SNP MPs came out in his support.
Then there was the news the SNP had received a loan of £108,000 from its own chief executive (and Sturgeon’s husband) Peter Murrell. Details first reported by the pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland show the money was paid in June, with around half the sum re-paid by October. An SNP spokesman said the loan was a “personal contribution made by the chief executive to assist with cash flow after the Holyrood election”.
And amid reports of a split in the party following Flynn’s election as leader, which were initially dismissed as “a complete fiction”, MPs Pete Wishart, Stewart McDonald and Chris Law all quit the frontbench. In his resignation letter, Wishart pledged his support to Flynn while simultaneously telling him he was “bemused as to the reasons why you felt it was necessary to seek a change in our leadership…” The loss of McDonald, three times voted the best Scot at Westminster this year alone, is a particular blow for Flynn.
So little is known of the new leader, who was only elected as an MP in 2019, that lobby journalists found themselves mining a Holyrood article from February 2020 in which Flynn discussed his love of football, Bruce Springsteen, and The Sopranos, the celebrated drama about a mafia boss struggling to keep his warring family together. The new SNP Westminster leader has got off to a stuttering start, performing poorly at Prime Minister’s Questions – something Blackford was regularly criticised for.
But Flynn’s biggest challenge is likely to be finding an accommodation with Sturgeon’s plan for a de facto vote on Scotland’s future at the next general election. Writing in this edition of Holyrood, James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, says the SNP’s MPs are “pawns in Nicola Sturgeon’s game – the weakest and most dispensable players”. Mitchell says the Westminster group needs a “stronger voice that is heard in Edinburgh as much as Scotland needs a stronger voice in London”.
That will be the challenge for Flynn, an ambitious politician who will not want to be the pawn in someone else’s game.