Polls apart: The issue dividing Scotland is the one that will continue to dominate our politics
With just a week to go before the election, polling shows Scotland is split right down the middle on the issue most likely to dominate the next parliament.
According to the polling by Lord Ashcroft, which has been shared exclusively with Holyrood, a narrow majority of Scots now back staying in the UK.
But at a margin of 51 to 49, the result remains on a knife edge and amounts to what Ashcroft calls a “statistical dead heat”.
From last summer onwards, a series of polls showed a majority of voters in favour of independence, causing considerable unease at Whitehall about what could be done to save the Union.
But with the success of the vaccine rollout and the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, support for remaining in the UK has grown.
This latest polling shows that when asked how they would vote if there was a second referendum tomorrow, 44 per cent of respondents would favour independence, while 45 per cent would opt for the status quo.
The remaining 11 per cent of respondents either didn’t know, wouldn’t vote or preferred not to say. This gave a small margin of 51 per cent to 49 per cent against independence among those declaring a voting intention.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, of those likely to vote SNP with their first vote, the vast majority (84 per cent) are in favour of independence, while among Conservative voters, 95 per cent are anti-independence. The majority of Scottish Labour (75 per cent) and Lib Dem (79 per cent) supporters also back staying in the UK.
However, the situation is much less clear for supporters of the Scottish Greens, a pro-independence party which has committed to campaigning for a second referendum in its manifesto. Among those likely to use their constituency vote for the party, 43 per cent were pro-independence, while 46 per cent were against.
And despite some of the seismic changes experienced as a result of Brexit and the pandemic since the last independence referendum in 2014, there are signs that the majority of people have not changed their minds on the issue.
Over two-thirds of voters (71 per cent) said their opinion remained unchanged, a figure that rose to 89 per cent among Tory voters. Among the 29 per cent that said they had changed their mind, 19 per cent said they had done so only once, while one in ten Scots said their opinion had shifted more than once.
While Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was seen by many as justification for a second independence referendum, other voters have become nervous due to the increased political uncertainty, the pandemic and falling oil revenues, something the SNP previously used to underpin the economic case for separation.
Among those interviewed for Ashcroft’s unique focus groups, many wondered whether the successes of the pandemic response, namely the vaccination programme, the furlough scheme and business support programmes, could have been sustained outside of the UK.
There are also doubts about the ease with which an independent Scotland would be able to join the EU, and the implications for Scotland’s border with England.
While the country is split on independence, the SNP remains in a strong position going into the election. The party was the most popular choice in the constituency vote among 49 per cent of those polled who are likely to vote on May 6, followed by the Conservatives (21 per cent), Scottish Labour (17 per cent), the Lib Dems (eight per cent) and Greens (four per cent).
Among those likely to vote, the breakdown for the list vote was SNP 42 per cent, Conservatives 22 per cent, Labour 16 per cent, Greens nine per cent, Lib Dems seven per cent, while Alba and Reform UK are both on two per cent.
And while the debate over a second referendum is likely to dominate much of the next parliament, there are signs that voters are currently more concerned about other issues.
Respondents were offered a choice of 25 issues facing Scotland and asked which they saw as the most important.
Across all voters, healthcare and the NHS came first (43 per cent), closely followed by COVID-19 (42 per cent) and then the economy (33 per cent).
Even among SNP voters, COVID (43 per cent) and the NHS (42 per cent) were seen as the top issues, with a second independence referendum in third place (34 per cent).
For Tory voters, preventing a second referendum was tied second with the NHS on 42 per cent, behind the economy on 47 per cent.
Nevertheless, the issue of another referendum was one of the few which managed to cut through with voters in these extraordinary times.
When it comes to deciding which party to vote for, the number one reason given was their position on independence.
Among all voters, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) said a party’s position on independence was most important for them, followed by overall competence (20 per cent) and a vision for Scotland’s future (16 per cent).
Among those intending to vote for the Conservatives, more than a third (36 per cent) said the party’s stance on independence was key.
More than 2,000 Scots were interviewed online between 7-19 April for the poll, with eight online focus groups held with voters in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Ayr between 14-22 April.
SNP supporters aside, most of the poll respondents expected that taxes, food prices and energy bills would all rise in an independent Scotland.
Many voters also believe investment in Scotland by UK-based businesses and the overall standard of living would decrease following separation, while Scotland’s ability to deal with a future financial crisis or another pandemic was perceived to be weakened by a departure from the UK by many, except those supporting the SNP.
Reponses from the focus groups suggested many voters want independence but believe it is “not yet viable” in the current economic climate given the pandemic and the impact of Brexit.
In contrast, those already in favour of independence expect multiple benefits, including on equality, tourism, educational attainment and opportunities for young people, alongside an increased standing on the world stage and better opportunities for international trade.
However, even among independence supporters, there was concern over the delivery of some of the promises made around leaving the UK.
No doubt speaking for many Scots, one voter summed it up during the focus groups: “One of the things about independence that scares me is that I’m hearing a lot of promises, but it’s the delivering of them that’s going to be the big issue. Where’s the money going to come from? We can’t live off the oil and gas promise for ever and ever. It’s a big concern for me, that.”
Perhaps the clearest indication from the polling is where all the current party leaders stand.
Despite the recent controversy surrounding her government’s handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon remains popular, with almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of voters believing she has handled the pandemic well.
In focus groups, participants contrasted Sturgeon’s approach with that of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Westminster government, which was typically characterised as vague or chaotic.
Voters on all sides praised Sturgeon for her communication and some even felt she had been prevented from taking further steps to stop the spread of the virus by the government in London. Comments from the focus groups also suggest the daily COVID briefings have been a huge boost for Sturgeon politically.
“I felt like she showed up every day,” one voter said. “She showed up and gave her speech. And you know one of her speeches, I think it was when she just showed a personal side, there was a Scottish word she used and it was hilarious. ‘I’m scunnered, I’m gutted we cannot go out this weekend.’ I think it was a bank holiday weekend. And I think she was so personal.”
Asked to rate how positive or negative they felt towards various parties and party leaders on a scale of extremely negative (-50) to extremely positive (+50), Scottish voters gave Sturgeon an average of +6, while Boris Johnson scored an average of -23 and Labour leader Keir Starmer -8.
Asked what they felt about other Scottish party leaders, Douglas Ross received an average of -19 from the respondents, Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater an average of -13, Lib Dem Willie Rennie an average of -12, and Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar received an average of -5.
Alex Salmond, who has rejoined the political fray as leader of Alba, polled lowest of all, with an average of -34.
And while Sturgeon was compared favourably with animals such as lions, meerkats and owls, in the focus group, Salmond was likened to a snake, toad or even a warthog.
The Prime Minister was likened to a panda or a baboon, with one voter commenting: “He’s like a mosquito – seems a bit harmless and annoying because of his clown persona but actually probably is going to give you malaria.”