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by Andrew Learmonth
28 April 2021
Poll finds narrow majority in favour of remaining in the UK

Poll finds narrow majority in favour of remaining in the UK

Support for independence has fallen despite the continuing popularity of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. 

Polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft - the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party - and shared exclusively with Holyrood shows a narrow majority of voters in favour of remaining in the UK.

And while the NHS and COVID-19 were regarded as the most important issues facing Scotland, a party’s position on independence was the most important attribute for voters when deciding who to back at the election. 

The peer surveyed 2,017 adults in Scotland between 7 and 19 April, and held eight online focus groups of voters between 14 and 22 April.

The poll confirmed that the SNP are still, by some considerable distance, the most popular party in Scotland, and Nicola Sturgeon the most popular leader. 

There was little love for her predecessor, with voters downright hostile to Alex Salmond. 

There was some good news for Anas Sarwar, whose brief time in charge of Scottish Labour has won him some plaudits. 

However, while voters rate him as competent, that isn’t necessarily translating into support for his party. 

Even though unionists may prefer Sarwar to Douglas Ross, they were still more likely to vote for the Scottish Conservatives. 

“In an ideal world it should be decided on education, the economy and so on. But unfortunately, we’re in a situation in Scotland where every election is constitutional and until that changes, I don’t think we’ll ever move forward. Everything is dwarfed by the Yes-No question,” one focus group respondent said.

Unlike other polls which ask for voting intention, the Ashcroft poll asks voters to rate how likely they are to use their vote for each of the parties, on a scale of 0-100. 

The SNP proved the most popular on the constituency vote, winning over 49 per cent of those who rated the likelihood of voting for at least one party at more than 50 out of 100. The Tories were on 21 per cent, Labour on 17 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 8 per cent.

The SNP also had the most intense support with the average likelihood to vote coming in at 93/100 compared to 90/100 for those leaning towards the Tories, 88/100 for Labour, and 85/100 for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

When it came to the list vote, the SNP were the most popular first vote choice for 42 per cent of those who rated the likelihood of voting for at least one party at more than 50 out of 100. 

The Tories were the first choice for 22 per cent, Labour 16 per cent, the Greens 9 per cent, the Lib Dems 7 per cent, while Alba and Michelle Ballantyne’s anti-lockdown Reform were each on 2 per cent. 

Because of the way the question is asked, it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate this into an estimate of how many seats each party will win. 

When asked which way they would vote if there were a second independence referendum tomorrow, 44 per cent of Scots said they would vote Yes to independence, while 45 per cent said they would back No. 

When the 11 per cent who said they didn’t know how they’d vote are removed, this gives No a small lead of 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

Of those likely to vote SNP with their first vote, the vast majority (84 per cent) were in favour of independence. By contrast, those likely to vote for the Tories were overwhelmingly against, with 95 per cent anti-independence.

This fell to 75 per cent among Labour voters, and 79 per cent of Lib Dems. 

Of those who voted Yes to independence in 2014, 82 per cent said they would do so again in a new referendum, while 11 per cent would now vote No. 

Among those who voted No in 2014, 79 per cent would do so again, 15 per cent would now back independence.

When asked whether they had ever changed their mind on independence, over two thirds (71 per cent) said that their opinion had been unchanged. 

Asked if Scotland’s best days were probably ahead of us or probably behind us, the SNP (84 per cent) and Greens (75 per cent), were most optimistic. 

The Tories were less enthusiastic, with 48 per cent saying Scotland’s best days were behind us.

How voters viewed the economic impact of independence, depended on how they were planning to vote at the next referendum. 

Half of all voters thought an independent Scotland would need to make “painful cuts in spending”, compared to 18 per cent who disagreed. 

Just over a third of Scots (35 per cent) expected Scotland to keep the pound after independence, while 22 per cent thought it would not. 

The majority of voters also expected hikes on taxes, food prices, energy bills, and unemployment.

However, SNP and Scottish Greens supporters were much more optimistic.

Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the poll suggested the country was as “divided down the middle” on the economics of independence as it was on the principle of independence. 

“The economic argument is not working to the particular advantage or disadvantage of either side,” the academic told Holyrood.

He added: “In some respects it's now very evenly balanced what the economic consequences of independence will be, with Yes voters and No voters both having different different views. But there's a bit of Yes voters going, ‘It'll just be all right, it won't make much difference’. Whereas unionists are determined in the opposite direction.”

The pollster said the response to the question on a hard border, showed that it hadn’t yet matured in the minds of voters. 

“Only 40 per cent of Yes voters go there won't be, so some of them are going actually maybe there will be, and the unionists have not yet necessarily quite cottoned on to the idea that there might be, 46 per cent of them say that there won't be. Interestingly the unionists at the moment are more likely to say that there won't be a hard border, than the nationalists.”

Ashcroft’s poll also asked voters if they thought Scotland’s ability to handle another pandemic would increase, decrease, or stay about the same after independence. 

Just under 29 per cent said it would increase, while 37 per cent said it would decrease. 

That’s far down on previous polling.

At the start of the year, a Panelbase poll, conducted for the Sunday Times, found that 42 per cent of voters believed an independent Scotland would have handled the pandemic better compared to 23 per cent who thought it would have been handled worse. 

Crucially, in that poll 20 per cent of those who voted No to independence in 2014 believe it would have been better. 

However, in Ashcroft’s poll that’s now fallen to 11 per cent.

Curtice said: “This looks like the pandemic is basically having no net advantage to the yes side whereas it seemingly was to a degree during the pandemic.” 

However, the poll did show that well over half of voters Nicola Sturgeon had handled the pandemic well. 

Voters across the board – SNP, Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats and even a third (32 per cent) of Scottish Conservatives supporters – felt she had done a good job as First Minister during the crisis. 

While over half of Scottish voters thought Boris Johnson had responded to the pandemic poorly.

Asked to rate how positive or negative they felt towards various party leaders, Sturgeon had an average of +6, Johnson an average of -23 and Labour’s Keir Starmer a score of -8.

Douglas Ross received an average of -19 from the respondents, Green co-leader Lorna Slater an average of -13, Willie Rennie an average of -12, and Sarwar received an average of -5.

The return of Alex Salmond - who re-entered the political fray just over month ago - has not gone down well with voters, with the former First Minister receiving an average rating of -34. 

Greens, Tories, Lib Dems and Labour supporters all rated him below an average of -30. 

SNP supporters rated him -29.

Nearly two thirds of Scottish voters, including nearly 7 in 10 SNP supporters, said their view of him had become more negative in the past year.

By contrast, Sturgeon’s reputation has improved, with half of Scots saying their view of her had grown more positive over the last year and 30 per cent saying it had become more negative.

Those taking part in focus groups were offered a selection of words and phrases and asked which they most associated with the various party leaders. For Nicola Sturgeon, over half of Scottish voters said she “stands up for Scotland”. Other popular choices for Sturgeon included words such as “determined” and “competent”. 

The words most often chosen to describe Alex Salmond were “arrogant,” “smug,” “dodgy” and “dishonest.” Despite being cleared of sexual assault charges in court, most felt his reputation would not recover.

While four in ten thought part of the reason had been to make a new independence referendum more likely, nearly twice as many saw it as an attempt to relaunch his own political career and three quarters thought he was seeking to undermine Nicola Sturgeon.

The most commonly chosen words for Boris Johnson included “dishonest”, “arrogant”, “out of their depth” and “out of touch”. 

“I wouldn’t trust him to run a bath. He openly lies. He’s lost three jobs from not telling the truth. Just because his hair sticks up and he gives you a wink doesn’t make it alright,” one focus group participant said.

Those taking part in the groups were also asked for their thoughts on the opposition leaders in Holyrood. Ross was seen as stuck in the shadow of Ruth Davidson, while Sarwar was largely seen as inoffensive. 

“He seems like a nice guy, but a bit dull,” one said.

“I think he’s quite clear and quite good. He’s asking the right questions. He’s got potential,” commented another. 

Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie was perceived mostly positively, while Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie had seemingly made little impact beyond his election campaign stunts. 

“He’s very good for a photo op. He’ll do anything. He’ll stroke a badger,” said one.

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - The big unknown: Interview with Humza Yousaf

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