What is perhaps the most striking finding of all in last week’s poll is the mood of optimism that – despite the coronavirus pandemic – now appears to be widespread among voters.


First published in August 2020.


Until now, all of the evidence that there has been a further swing in favour of independence in recent months has come from just one pollster – Panelbase. In the absence of any other polling, it was not unreasonable to ask whether, perhaps, they might just possibly have got it wrong, though the reaction of the UK government to the polling, with many a minister heading north, suggested that it at least was concerned that the figures might well be right.

Last week, though, saw the publication of a new poll from a different pollster – YouGov for The Times. It more or less confirms everything that Panelbase have been telling us.

Support for independence in last week’s poll (after leaving aside Don’t Knows) is put at 53% – in line with the average for the last four Panelbase readings and an all-time record high for any YouGov poll. It compares with a figure of 51% the last time the company asked the regular referendum question (at the end of January) – and an average of 47% in three polls that it conducted during 2019.

Further evidence of the way in which the pursuit of Brexit has helped to bring about this increase is neatly demonstrated in analysis that YouGov have undertaken of last week’s polling data. While nearly a quarter (23%) of those who voted Yes in 2014 and Leave in 2016 now say they would vote No, just over a quarter (27%) of those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016 have switched to Yes. Such a relatively small difference might be thought to give unionists little reason to worry – until it is realised that those who voted No and Remain are twice as numerous as those who backed Yes and Leave.

But at the same time, the poll also confirms the impression created by Panelbase’s polls that the latest increase in support for independence is as much in evidence among Leave voters as it among those who supported Remain. True, those who voted Remain (60%) are much more likely to say they would vote Yes in another referendum than are those who backed Leave (35%). But the latter figure represents a seven-point increase on that registered on average among Leavers in YouGov’s previous four polls, matching the six-point increase evident among those who voted Remain.

We have previously argued that given this recent rise in support among Leave voters, then rather than occasioned by Brexit, some voters’ minds may have been changed by the fact that, irrespective of their views about Brexit, they think much more highly of how Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have handled the coronavirus pandemic than they do of how Boris Johnson and the UK government have done so. However, the polling released last week does not update the evidence on this.

Voters think much more highly of how Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have handled the pandemic than they do of how Boris Johnson and the UK government have done so. / Flickr – Scottish Government

It does, though, reveal that Nicola Sturgeon’s overall popularity has risen sharply during the last six months. No less than 72% now think that she is doing well as First Minister, while just 22% take the opposite view – a level of popularity that she has not enjoyed since the 2015 Westminster general election. Even among those who voted Leave (57%) and those who backed No in 2014 (59%), well over half believe she is doing well.

In contrast, nearly three-quarters (74%) of all voters believe that Mr Johnson is doing badly, up from two-thirds (66%) in December. Crucially, he trails Ms Sturgeon both among those who voted Leave (56% of whom believe he is doing badly) and among those who voted No (61%).

Given the latest increase in support for independence, it is perhaps not surprising that support for holding another referendum on the issue has increased too. After all, attitudes towards doing so largely reflect people’s views as to whether or not they support independence. As many as 47% now say that there should be another referendum in the next five years, while just 37% take the opposite view – in contrast, YouGov’s polls last year on average put opponents of another ballot ahead by 47% to 43%. Meanwhile, there is now a narrow majority in favour of the view that there should be a referendum if the SNP win an overall majority in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. This, of course, is the very proposition to which the UK government is strongly opposed, but it appears that the oft-repeated claim that polls show that most people in Scotland do not want another constitutional ballot is beginning to be open to challenge.

Still, what is perhaps the most striking finding of all in last week’s poll is the mood of optimism that – despite the pandemic – now appears to be widespread among voters. A year ago, just 32% felt that Scotland was heading in the ‘right direction’, while 41% believed it was heading in the ‘wrong direction’. Now 52% say the country is heading in the right direction, twice as many as take the opposite view (26%). The question that perhaps above all faces politicians of all persuasions between now and next May is whether the direction in which they would like to take the country is indeed the one in which most voters apparently hope it is now headed.🔷


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[This piece was originally published in WhatScotlandThinks.org and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 August 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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