The outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU has, as the First Minister has remarked, put the question of Scottish independence back ‘on the table’. Nicola Sturgeon long ago signalled that a UK-wide vote to leave the EU combined with a vote in Scotland to remain would likely be regarded as the kind of ‘material change’ of circumstance that might persuade the SNP to hold a second referendum on independence. Certainly, the outcome on June 23rd was soon followed by an urgent trip by Ms Sturgeon to Brussels to appraise EU leaders of Scotland’s wish to remain a member.
However, the SNP have also signalled that they would only want to hold such a referendum if the opinion polls provided clear and consistent evidence that a majority would vote in favour of independence. A figure of 60% support has been mentioned. So, the first crucial question to ask about the outcome of the EU referendum is whether public attitudes towards independence have shifted in the wake of the referendum result and, if so, by how much.
As we wrote last time, there was certainly every reason to anticipate that there would be a shift in favour of independence if the UK voted to Leave. Before the EU referendum five polls asked people both how they would vote in a second independence referendum at present and how they would so so if the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU. These polls suggested that there would be a four to five point swing in favour of independence if the UK voted to leave. As a result, what hitherto appeared to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the Union could become a small majority in favour of independence.
Three polls, one from Panelbase and two from Survation, undertaken since the EU referendum have seemingly confirmed that expectation. Once Don’t Knows are left to one side, Panelbase (for The Sunday Times) put support for independence at 52%, while the two polls by Survation (one for the Daily Record and one for the Daily Mail) put it at 54% and 53% respectively. While the Panelbase poll had a relatively small sample of 626 respondents and the first of the two Survation polls appeared to contain a majority of respondents who reported that they had voted Yes in the September 2014 referendum, there are no such doubts about the second Survation poll, which was done at slightly greater leisure.
We need, in truth, a few more polls to confirm these figures and to demonstrate that they represent more than just a short-term reaction by Remain supporters to the disappointment of losing. But if subsequent polls do present a similar picture, then it will mean that there is majority support in Scotland for independence for the first time ever. However, at present at least, that support looks as though it is less than the 60% that the SNP have signalled they would like to see before holding a second ballot. In short, while certainly sufficient for the question of independence to be back ‘on the table’, the level of support for independence registered by the three post-Brexit polls is insufficient for anyone to be sure what the outcome of a second independence referendum would be.
Indeed, although Scotland voted by as much as 62% to 38% in favour of remaining in the EU, this does not mean that Nicola Sturgeon is leading a united band of supporters on the question of Europe. All three post-Brexit polls suggests that, in the event, those who voted Yes in September 2014 were no more likely to vote Remain on June 23rd than were those who voted No eighteen months ago. Panelbase estimate that the two sets of voters were equally likely to vote Remain, while both of Survation’s polls suggest that, if anything, No voters were actually slightly more likely to vote to Remain (by five points in one case and two points in the other). The argument that Scotland should pursue independence outside the EU may well be rarely heard inside the SNP these days, but is evidently still popular amongst a significant minority of independence supporters across the country as a whole.
However, the upside of this for Ms Sturgeon is that there are plenty of disappointed Remain supporters out there who have hitherto preferred to stay in the UK. Labour supporters who voted Remain may well be a particularly important target. First of all, according to Survation at least, the proportion of Labour voters in Scotland who voted Remain may well have been higher than the proportion of SNP supporters who did so. That means there are plenty of disappointed Remain supporters in Labour’s ranks. Second, the recent increase in support for independence looks as though it may have been particularly sharp amongst Labour supporters. Both of the Survation polls suggest that around a third of those who voted Labour in the Holyrood election in May now support independence, whereas in the company’s last poll before that election only one in five of those who said they intended to vote Labour were then backing the idea.
Ms Sturgeon may need to recognise that how Labour responds in the coming months to the prospect of a second independence referendum might well prove pivotal to the realisation of her ambition to keep Scotland inside the EU.