Over the course of the coronavirus outbreak, the polls recorded increased support for independence in Scotland and for the governing SNP– and the party may be returned to government next month with an overall majority, despite the emergence of the new Alba Party competing for nationalist votes on the regional list.
The polls have also painted an optimistic picture for the nationalists of the result of a possible subsequent independence referendum, with support for independence hitting an average of 54% last autumn. While support for independence has since declined, it is still a little higher than it was before the start of the pandemic when No had a narrow lead and few polls had placed Yes ahead.
The polls have also confirmed that Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic has been rated highly, while Scots have been critical of the response from Westminster. However, while the polls have told us that support for the SNP and independence have increased, and that the Scottish Government’s performance has been generally approved of, they do not tell us whether it is in fact the Government’s handling of coronavirus which has caused more voters to switch towards supporting the SNP.
A new paper uses data collected by the British Election Study (BES) Internet Panel in June 2020 to establish whether these links exist. Because the study follows the same voters over time, the survey can assess which voters switched to supporting the SNP between the 2019 General Election and at the end of the first wave of the pandemic last summer.
While this time frame allows this paper to assess the impact of coronavirus on the increased support for the SNP, the survey did not find any significant increases in support for independence – perhaps because it was simply collected too early. While support for the SNP increased after the 2019 General Election, and increased further during the pandemic, increases in support for independence only began to register in the polls in the summer of 2020. Therefore, this survey does not allow us to establish whether or not these later increases were in fact due to the Scottish Government’s performance during the pandemic.
The survey results show that, in line with polling results, Scots were largely critical of the British Government’s handling of the pandemic, with nearly two thirds saying the Government had handled it either very or fairly badly. By contrast, Scots were much more positive about the Scottish Government’s response, with the majority thinking it had handled at least one of lockdown, testing and PPE provision well.
These perceptions of government competence vary by political outlook. Unsurprisingly, Conservative voters had the most favourable views of the British Government’s handling of the pandemic and the most unfavourable of the Scottish Government’s performance, while SNP voters were most positive about the Scottish Government’s response and most negative about Westminster’s handling of the pandemic. Equally, those who supported both Yes and Remain in the independence and EU referendums were most positive about Holyrood’s handling of the pandemic, while No and Leave supporters were most favourable to Westminster.
Indeed, people’s political and constitutional preferences were more important influences on their evaluations of government performance than personal contact with coronavirus, such as contracting the virus or knowing someone who died from it.
Yet perceptions of the pandemic did not simply affirm people’s existing preferences – it also in some instances changed them. First of all this can be seen in what happened when the BES survey asked people to give a mark out of ten to say how much they liked or disliked the SNP and, separately, what they thought of Nicola Sturgeon. As Table 1 shows, among those who thought the Scottish Government was handling the pandemic well the average mark given to the SNP increased by 0.6 of a point between December 2019 and June 2020, while it fell slightly among those who took a more negative view of the handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, although Sturgeon’s rating increased across the board, it did so most among those who evaluated the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic positively.
These patterns were also reflected in the pattern of support for the SNP. Support for the party increased by nearly nine points among those who evaluated the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic positively, while it fell by nearly a point among those who took the opposite view. The results suggest that perceived competence on the issue of coronavirus was important to explaining the rise in support for the SNP over this time period.
The results also suggest something of a departure from the role that Brexit has hitherto been playing in shaping shifts in public opinion. The SNP’s base has grown in recent years in response to Brexit, with Remainers more likely to support the SNP. However, over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, it has not only been Remainers who have swung in favour of the SNP, so also have Leavers. Indeed, Leavers were more likely to move to the SNP over this period, suggesting that the political shifts of recent months are not merely a continuation of a Brexit effect.
The evidence in the paper shows then that the increase in support for the SNP after the 2019 General Election came from those voters who more highly rated the Scottish Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis during the first wave of the pandemic. It leaves open for future research the question of how much the pandemic can explain rises in support for independence later in 2020. However, the perceived competence of the Scottish Government in managing the coronavirus crisis may still contribute to a long-term process by which a devolved government doing things differently, and competently, leads to growing nationalism – a process it has been argued is now also happening in Wales. If this is the case, then the competence of the Scottish Government in handling the coronavirus crisis could have political implications for years to come.