Don’t rely on Boris Johnson to boost support for Scottish Independence

David Cameron Continues His Cabinet Reshuffle

As a passionate supporter of Scottish independence and a huge fan of polling and psephology, one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole movement is interpreting the glacial like movement of support since the 2014 referendum.  In the highs and lows of the movement over the past four years, independence support has stayed pretty stubbornly between 46-49% (although in the past six months or so it seems to have climbed to around 47-49%).  James “Scot Goes Pop” Kelly has done an exemplary job in cataloguing opinion polling on this issue.

Comparing this to the dynamism of the independence movement during this period, particularly online, the polls have stayed resolutely stable in the face of a pretty remarkable range of events, from the introduction of EVEL to Brexit.  In fact, ever since the 2014 defeat, every season there has been some form of fevered speculation over what could potentially boost independence support.  In the wake of whatever (often substantially unreported) political event has occurred, much of the online, pro-indy commentary have argued that as a consequence of “[insert political or social event]”, a boost for independence support is inevitable.  In fact, there is no better example than Brexit, a seismic event that people initially expected to be a motherlode in boosting support for independence, but – as of September 2018 – has done little to shift its pre-Brexit position in the polls.

And while last week’s Deltapoll findings suggested that 52% of Scots would vote for Scottish independence after Brexit, I would argue that, alongside the pollster’s rather convoluted question to respondents, polls asking how someone would vote after a certain event, rather than how they would vote today, is unlikely to give a clear snapshot of public opinion.  For instance, I distinctly remember the hypothetical figures prior to the independence referendum which found that 54-56% of Scots would definitely vote Yes if David Cameron won a second term in office, or that a majority of Scots would vote for independence if Brexit was to occur in 2015-2016.  This week, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford argued that the likelihood of Boris Johnson becoming the next British Prime Minister would boost support for Scottish independence.  While I’d love to think that this might happen, bitter experience suggests I should curb my enthusiasm, at least until there is some real clarification on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Noting the hesitant advance of independence support is not to suggest that Indy supporters should despair.  In fact, many should take heart from the fact Yes support is around 48-49%.  In fact, it is somewhat astonishing, given the unremitting media unity against independence.  I think it shows something more resolutely pragmatic about independence support than either side acknowledges.  From my own conversations with No voters, I’m always struck at the open mindedness so many have towards the possibility of voting for independence the next time around under what they perceive as the right circumstances.  Joe Pike’s analysis of the Better Together campaign in “Project Fear” maintained that the Scottish Government’s initial polling on independence support in 2011-2013 consistently showed that around 60% of Scots would vote for independence under the right economic conditions.  In comparison, if the desire for independence was at Welsh levels of political and social eccentricity, the idea of even holding a referendum would likely have been off the table.

While we might not reach the magical 60% figure often talked about, I do think these polling indications suggest that most Scots are open to independence under sound economic circumstances.  For many Scots, the political and social dramas intensely debated on social media (such as the crisis of post-Brexit devolution) may not be on their radar, but a sound prospectus for independence will be undeniable if presented right, no matter what the response may be from anti-independence media.  The next referendum, and an increased support for independence, is hopefully going to be based on the Scottish Government putting forward a sound agenda and a strong economic case for independence.  The possibility of a No Deal Brexit, probably means there will never be a better time to go for a second referendum.  But as Robin McAlpine argues, the independence movement cannot allow outside events to shape its own trajectory, but must put forward its own proposals and allow itself to carry forward a confident, exciting agenda for an independent Scotland.  If it does this, I believe we will see the polls continue to go in an Indy-positive direction.

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