Chapping at the door: Interpreting the Ashcroft poll

Yesterday’s release of a poll showing majority support for Scottish independence has already inspired much debate and interpretation - Common Weal's head of policy and research Dr Craig Dalzell takes a deeper look at what the latest findings tell us

NOTHING quite grabs a political headline like a public polling going one’s way (or, at least, one that goes against one’s opponent’s way). We all get caught up in the excitement of the headline figure. There’s a claim about how significant it is from one side and then a counter-claim about how insignificant it is from the other. And then we wait a while, another poll comes along and the merry dance continues on.

Not too many people will dive headlong into the datatables of the poll to see what else it was asking or how those headline figures break down into the various sub-groups within the poll. Fewer still will track these polls in time to find the emerging trends.

Fortunately, I find myself in that narrow latter category and have been tracking such polls in detail since the 2014 independence referendum. Common Weal has published two papers on the Demographics of Independence in 2017 and in 2018 (with another follow-up likely in the near future).

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So whilst many are looking at the latest poll produced by Lord Ashcroft and making hay out of the headlines (as exciting as they are for the independence movement), I found myself somewhat less surprised by them (not that I was any less excited, of course). This poll has pushed independence support above the 50 per cent mark but it has done so not as part of a sudden Boris Johnson-shaped surge but as part of a rising tide of shifting opinion stretching back over the past twelve months or so.

For the longest time since the 2014 referendum there has been a slow erosion of Yes support. Likely nowhere near as quickly as expected or as supporters of the Union would have liked, but still, it was there. However, in the past year this erosion has sharply reversed, with the gap between Yes and No voting intention running from about 12 per cent in favour of No in September 2017 to 2 per cent in favour of Yes as per this latest Ashcroft poll.

Brexit is, of course, the primary driver of this shift in direction and it is expressing itself in interesting ways within Scotland. The Remain/ Leave divide that has polarised all of UK and Scottish politics is not absent here either. Intention to Leave the EU is a particularly good predictor of intention to support Scottish independence with around 65 per cent of Leave voters also intending to vote No to independence either because they see the destiny of Scotland being best kept within the UK or simply because they fervently wish to leave the EU and either see the UK as a vehicle for that or see the pro-EU, pro-independence SNP as a threat to their goal of Leaving.

It’s worth noting however that even within the Leave group, opposition to independence has been slowly declining. Perhaps as the prospect of the UK Government’s particular brand of chaotically caroming towards No Deal is proving too much for some.

Remain voters are more split. Until fairly recently, independence support was roughly 50/50 within the Remain camp for a long time but has recently opened up in a direction favourable to Yes since the publication of the Withdrawal Agreement and the general infantile meltdown of UK politics. It should be no surprise that Remain minded people are re-considering the routes towards that goal.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the polling in the last few months is how it has broken down within the political parties. It should come as no surprise that SNP voters are most in favour of independence, but would it surprise to learn that support had – for the longest time – been declining? At its low point, fewer than three quarters of SNP voters actively supported independence (with my conjecture being that those who didn’t were largely also Leave voters). This has since recovered, and once again polls at levels comparable to utterly uncontentious questions like “Do you think puppies are cute?”

Conservative support for the Union similarly passes the ‘cute puppies’ bar with only 5 per cent of Tory voters supporting independence (not that those 1-in-20 voters should ever be confused with not existing at all). The surprise lies in the voting intentions of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. In both cases, support for independence has risen – gradually in the case of Labour and since the Withdrawal Agreement publication in the case of the Lib Dems – from levels comparable with the Tories to more than a third of their voter base.

This obviously poses an issue for these two parties. Both have staked their claim to trying to be as Unionist as possible even to the point of loudly demanding a re-run of a democratic debate on Brexit whilst simultaneously demanding the blocking of the same democratic debate on the topic of independence. Neither party has the kind of voting margin that would allow it to discard Yes-minded voters to other parties so they will be faced with either trying to suppress that sentiment or, dare I say it, adopt it and start to take a less strident stance in their opposition.

There’s more that I could go into on this – certainly enough to update and re-print our Demographics of Independence paper again – but there’s another question posed by this week’s Ashcroft poll and the trends underlying it that I haven’t yet seen elsewhere. What happens if we capitalise on this push with another referendum?

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There are still barriers there to overcome – Boris Johnson is as stridently against granted a Section 30 order as his predecessor was – but there’s a deeper problem within the Scottish Government.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she thinks that the time for another referendum will be about a year from now. That’s not a lot of time to prepare. We should have been preparing for winning that referendum for a year or more now. We should have been approaching key members of what will become the negotiation team for Scotland (remember that even if we accept that the UK’s Brexit negotiation team has been terrible, Scotland simply doesn’t have one at all). We should have been compiling a Register of Assets so that we know what Scotland would be negotiating with and for. We should have been approaching states within and outwith the EU to court them and get assurances that when we vote for independence, they will recognise our case in the UN.

This will prove particularly important if there is any acrimony between Scotland and the remaining UK. It may be that Germany, Ireland and the other EU27 states slighted by the UK over the past few years will be welcome allies as we become a new country. I have seen little to no evidence of the Scottish Government doing any of these things over the past few years and I’m rather concerned that they are not going to do them before it’s too late.

We already know what happens to a country when democracy overtakes the government and hands them a result that they are ill-prepared or even unwilling to enact. Scotland only needs to look a little way south for an example of this playing out before our eyes. The time for independence may well be now – we’d better be ready for it when it comes.

Picture courtesy of Christine McIntosh

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