The Prime Minister comes north tomorrow to address Scottish Conservatives at their spring conference. She does so on the back of reports that the UK government is beginning to get concerned that Nicola Sturgeon might opt to pull the trigger on a second referendum, an expectation since heightened by a speech by the First Minister on Tuesday in which she suggested that, absent any compromise between the two governments over the shape of Brexit, a second ballot would be ‘necessary’.
Doubtless the Prime Minister will make the case in her conference speech for the maintenance of the Union, as will the Scottish party leader, Ruth Davidson, in her address on Saturday. But what will be of greater interest is whether Mrs May gives any hint of the stance she might take in the event that Ms Sturgeon announces – perhaps at her party’s conference in a fortnight’s time – that she wants the UK Parliament (as it would have to do) to authorise a second ballot.
Certainly one consideration the Prime Minister will have in mind is whether there is much evidence that people in Scotland actually want a second referendum any time soon. At first glance it seems not. During the autumn and winter BMG Research (here, here and here) and YouGov (here) have on four occasions asked straightforwardly whether there should a second referendum or not. Each poll has asked a somewhat different question (especially in respect of exactly when a second referendum might be held), but each has obtained much the same picture. Only just over a third (between 34% and 38%) say that there should be a second referendum, while around a half (between 47% and 55%) reckon there should not.
As you might expect, attitudes towards whether a second referendum should be held are tied up with people’s attitudes towards the merits of independence in the first place. Those who back the idea are inclined to want a second bite at the referendum cherry, whereas those who wish Scotland to remain in the UK are reluctant to see that prospect imperilled by a second ballot. But the link is much closer on the unionist side than it is amongst those in favour of independence. Both the BMG and YouGov polls suggest that at least four in five (between 78% and 87%) of those who voted No in September 2014 oppose holding a second referendum, while at most just two-thirds (between 62% and 67%) of those who voted Yes do want one.
In short, the relatively low level of support for holding a second referendum reflects an apparent lack of enthusiasm for the idea amongst those who favour independence. One possible explanation, of course, is that some Yes voters accept that the September 2014 referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ event, and thus are taking a stance in line with that acceptance. That is doubtless what the Prime Minister would like to believe is the case, justifying as it seemingly would any decision on her part to oppose any proposal for a second referendum.
Another possible explanation, however, is that, given the Yes side still seem to be behind in the polls (albeit no more than narrowly) some supporters of independence may want Ms Sturgeon to stay her hand for fear that a second ballot would be lost. In short their opposition may simply be tactical. If that is the case, they might not prove so supportive of the Prime Minister should she try to stop any attempt by Ms Sturgeon to hold a second ballot.
Distinguishing between these two explanations is nigh on impossible given the polling evidence currently available. But one clue that perhaps the reluctance of some Yes voters is more tactical than principled comes from two further questions on the subject posed by Panelbase, in one instance for the Sunday Times and one for Wings Over Scotland. In each case the poll contained two options for an ‘early’ referendum – one holding a ballot within the two year time frame for the Brexit negotiations and one doing so after those negotiations are over and the UK is set to leave the EU. Both these polls suggest that most supporters of independence are just as keen on one or other of these early referendum options as unionists are reluctant to see them pursued.
First, the Sunday Times poll. This has asked on more than one occasion whether a referendum should be held either (i) in the next year or two, during the course of the Brexit negotiations, (ii) after two years once those negotiations are over, or (iii) not at any point in the next few years. In the most recent reading, 27% of all respondents backed the first option, 23% the second, meaning that exactly a half were in favour of one or the other possibility. They thus counterbalanced the other half who did not think a ballot should be held any time soon. While once again around four-fifths (78%) of No voters expressed opposition to an early ballot, around four-fifths (83%) of Yes voters supported one or other option for such a ballot (47% in a year or two, 36% after two years).
The Wings over Scotland poll offered respondents four options, two of which referrred to an early ballot, two that did not, a balanced formula that methodologically is preferable to that deployed on The Sunday Times poll. The picture it paints, however, is very similar. Just over half (51%) of all voters back holding a referendum before the UK leaves the EU (32%) or after it does so (19%), while almost as many (49%) say either that there should not be one for 20 years (25%) or that there should never be one at all (24%). No less than 83% of Yes voters are in the former camp (55% want a referendum before leaving the EU, 28% after) while 74% of No voters are in the latter.
It seems then that for some Yes supporters the question about an early independence referendum is not one of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Perhaps some of those who want to delay until after Brexit is completed think that the case for independence will be easier to pursue once what they think will be the adverse consequences of leaving the EU are clear to voters in Scotland. Others, in truth, might be Yes supporters who voted to leave the EU and who want to Scotland to be taken out of the institution by the UK government before the country claims its independence, a group that could potentially cause Nicola Sturgeon trouble in any ballot held before Brexit takes place.
The Prime Minister might then be unwise to take the polls at face value and assume there is majority support for opposing any kind of second independence referendum. But in arguing for a delay until after Brexit is over, she might be on safer ground. Meanwhile, whatever she says in public, such an outcome might suit Ms Sturgeon too. An immediate post-Brexit referendum would give her more time to turn the polls around, and help her avoid some of the divisions within the nationalist movement about the merits of EU membership. In any event, the broader truth is that in a country that is still so divided on the merits of independence, it is difficult for either side to claim clear majority support in any aspect of the surrounding debate – and that includes the debate on holding a second ballot.