Has The Constitutional Wind Changed Direction?

The wind has seemingly been veering in that direction for a while. However, the latest Ipsos MORI poll for STV, which (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) puts support for independence on 52%, down four points on the company’s previous poll in late November, now provides further confirmation. It now appears that, far from being set on a trajectory of ever growing levels of popularity, support for independence has – for the time being at least – now eased back somewhat.

The Ipsos MORI poll is far from being an isolated reading. It is the third in a row to have registered a four-point fall in support, albeit over somewhat different time scales. Panelbase’s most recent poll in late January recorded a four-point drop compared with early November. More recently, Savanta ComRes reported a four-point fall between early January and early February. True, all three polls had previously recorded above average levels of support for independence and it may be that some of the fall they have registered now is simply a result of them coming into line with the results of other polls. However, it is unlikely that this is the full explanation – after all none of the polls published so far this year have identified any increase in support for independence.

Of course, the juxtaposition of Ipsos MORI’s poll with the increased publicity given this week to the Salmond affair has inevitably given rise to the suggestion that the allegations that have been made about the behaviour of the First Minister and her government are beginning to ‘cut through’ to the public. However, a word of caution is in order. The interviewing for this latest poll finished last Sunday, before the row reached the top of the media agenda. And if this poll is but an affirmation of a change that has been apparent for at least a month, then the onset of the decline may predate the gradual crescendo in media coverage of the Salmond inquiry in recent weeks.

That said, there is evidence in Ipsos MORI’s poll of the damage that the affair could pose unless Ms Sturgeon is able to refute the claims made against her. In the poll, most voters (58%) say that the parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the disciplinary harassment charges that were brought against Mr Salmond has not made a difference to their view of the SNP. However, even among those who voted SNP in 2019 there is a minority of around one in five (21%) who say they now have a less favourable opinion of the SNP, while just 5% express the opposite view. This is not a gap that Ms Sturgeon can afford to see grow – especially bearing in mind that it could have already grown since the Ipsos MORI poll was conducted.

But how might we account for the recent erosion of support for independence? An initial clue lies in looking at how attitudes towards independence differ between Remain and Leave voters. As we have noted previously, support for independence is, in the wake of Brexit, higher among Remain voters than Leave supporters. However, one of the features of the increase in support for independence in the wake of the pandemic was that it was at least as strong among Leave voters as it was among Remain supporters. This suggested that the rise in independence was occurring in quarters that hitherto the SNP found it relatively difficult to reach.

Ipsos MORI’s poll reveals that 59% of Remain voters would now vote Yes to independence. That figure is exactly in line with that in other recent polls for which this information is available. However, at 31%, support among Leave voters is nine points down on that in other recent polls. Meanwhile, one feature of the ComRes poll earlier this month was a seven-point decline in support for Yes among Leave voters compared with a four-point fall among Remain supporters.

There are other signs too that public opinion has become more polarised and partisan. The Ipsos MORI poll reports an eight-point fall among voters as a whole (since last October) in the proportion who say they are satisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s performance as First Minister. But none of this decline has occurred among those who voted SNP at the last UK election, 92% of whom are still satisfied with her performance. Equally, most of the seven-point increase in the proportion who are satisfied with the way that Boris Johnson is doing his job as Prime Minister has occurred among those who voted Conservative at the end of 2019 (among whom the increase is 18 points). Among SNP supporters the proportion who are satisfied with the Prime Minister has only edged up from 6% to 8%.

There is a similar pattern in people’s evaluations of how well the coronavirus pandemic is being handled by the Scottish Government. It was the public’s favourable reaction to how the public health crisis was being handled by the devolved institutions that appeared to instigate the rise in support for independence in the polls last year. But in a continuation of a pattern that has been evident in other polling, Ipsos MORI’s poll reports a five-point drop (to 67%) since last November in the proportion who think that the Scottish Government has handled the pandemic well.

However, this movement is confined to those who voted No in 2014. Among Yes supporters, the proportion who reckon the Scottish Government has been handling things well has held steady at 79%. So, here too what we are witnessing is a greater degree of polarisation, something that perhaps should not come as a surprise as May’s Holyrood election begins to come into view.

This polarisation matters. Last year saw some voters who were not long-term supporters of independence apparently come to the conclusion – in the wake of the pandemic – that perhaps the prospect of leaving the UK should be contemplated after all. So, the fact that the halo that once appeared to surround the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic now appears to shine a little less brightly among those who are not long-term supporters of independence or the SNP could help explain why independence now looks to be a little less popular.

If this interpretation is correct, it may be that the most important political event of this week will prove not to have been the (numerous) episodes of the Salmond saga, but rather the First Minister’s announcement on Tuesday of her plans for easing the national lockdown. Not for the first time, she has chosen a path that is more cautious than that proposed by the UK government, and one that seems aimed at achieving a lower level of prevalence. What may matter now is whether voters in Scotland still appreciate this more cautious approach – or whether their patience is about to run out.

John Curtice

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.