One remarkable development during the COVID-19 pandemic was a marked if temporary increase in the level of support for independence. Every published opinion poll conducted between June 2020 and January 2021 had Yes ahead of No when people were asked how they would vote in response to the question that appeared on the referendum ballot paper in 2014. This was the first time ever that polling had so consistently put independence ahead. There was circumstantial evidence that some people’s views on independence had been influenced by the widespread perception that the Scottish Government was handling the pandemic more effectively than the UK government. However, this perception seemingly became more tempered among those who had voted No in 2014 as the Holyrood election came into view (and the UK embarked on a vaccine roll out).
The issue of people’s evaluations of how the pandemic was handled was revisited in a report published on Friday. It is based on data collected by the Scottish Social Attitudes survey between October last year and March this year. Notably, this was the period when the Omicron variant first emerged and the prevalence of COVID-19 rose sharply in its wake, but when, at the same time, the lockdown restrictions were gradually being eased. The survey provides us with an opportunity to assess whether there was a continuing link between attitudes towards the constitutional question and perceptions of the Scottish Government’s handling of COVID-19 as the public health restrictions were coming to an end.
For the most part the report suggests the public still held a relatively favourable view of the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic at this time. For example, 60% said that during the pandemic the Scottish Government had the ‘interest of people like yourself at heart’ either ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, while only 17% felt that it did so ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’. Similarly, 65% felt that the Scottish Government understood well ‘the impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the lives of people like yourself’ while just 22% reckoned it did so badly. That said, the Scottish Government did not score quite so well when people were asked whether it had been good or bad ‘at listening to the views of yourself about how best to handle the coronavirus pandemic – only 44% said it had been good, though this still heavily outnumbered the 21% who said it had been bad. However, it may be that people felt their own views were not as important as those of the scientists on whose advice the government was relying to make decisions (and no less than 81% said they trusted the information provided by scientists during the pandemic ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’).
However, the views of those who said they would now vote Yes in another Scottish independence referendum were markedly different from those who indicated that they would back No. This is apparent in the table below, in which we show the distribution of responses among Yes and No supporters to the three questions about the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic that we have already referenced. In all three cases, the balance of opinion among those who would currently vote ‘Yes’ to independence is overwhelmingly positive. Even in the case of listening to people’s views, over half (56%) said that the Scottish Government had been good, while less than one in ten (8%) said it had been bad. However, among those who would have voted ‘No’, opinion was either evenly divided, or in the case of listening to people’s views, tilted in the opposite direction.
Table 1: Evaluations of Scottish Government’s Handling of the Pandemic by Independence Referendum Vote Intention
Of course, this does not prove that the pandemic changed anyone’s attitudes towards independence in the longer-term. In part the table is a reminder that, even in a pandemic, voters’ attitudes towards the actions that government takes can be influenced by their prior partisanship. Across the board, those who regard themselves as SNP supporters are more likely to evaluate the Scottish Government’s actions during the pandemic positively. It may also reflect a scepticism among some Conservative supporters in particular about the necessity for lockdown measures on the scale that were introduced. Certainly, Tory voters were markedly less likely to say that they trusted the information provided by scientists ‘almost always’ (just 28% did so, compared with 47% of all voters) and more likely to state that too much reliance was placed on the advice of scientists during the pandemic (27% of Conservatives expressed that view, compared with just 9% of all respondents).
That said, the fact that there is a marked difference of view between Yes and No supporters suggests that, even though the pandemic is now (hopefully) in the rear view mirror, campaigners on both sides of the independence debate may well decide in the coming weeks and months that they should pursue arguments about how well the pandemic was handled and how well an independent Scotland would be able to deal with a similar public health crisis in future. Such arguments seem likely at least to help both sides shore up their support. Indeed, there is a difference between Yes and No voters in their level of confidence in Scotland’s preparedness (with its constitutional status undefined) for another pandemic. While around four in ten (79%) Yes supporters say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly confident’ that the country would be ‘properly prepared’, only a half (50%) of No supporters share that view. It looks as though Covid may yet leave its imprint on Scotland’s constitutional debate.