The Supreme Court’s judgement that the Scottish Parliament lacks the authority to legislate for an independence referendum has widely been regarded as a significant setback for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Given the UK government’s continued opposition to a second referendum, the judgement certainly means the First Minister’s plan to hold one next October will have to be abandoned. Instead, she will attempt to win over half the vote at the next UK general election in Scotland and regard that as a proxy for a ballot on the independence question.
However, the judgement also poses a challenge to unionists. Now it is clear that Westminster does have a veto on any independence ballot, they have to be willing and able to defend their position on the issue and use to best effect the advantage the veto potentially gives them. Yet it is far from clear that unionists have an effective strategy for doing so.
Much of the unionist camp seems inclined simply to say “no” to a referendum. They point to polling that shows a majority of Scottish voters do not want a vote next year. However, they ignore polling that suggests voters are evenly divided on the principle of holding a ballot at some point in future.
In their most recent poll, Savanta ComRes found that 46 per cent back another independence referendum at some point, almost matching the 47 per cent who take the opposite view. YouGov has reported that 47 per cent believe a referendum should be held in the next five years, while 40 per cent take the opposite view. Similarly, Panelbase found 48 per cent in favour of a ballot on that time scale and 44 per cent opposed.
Most voters’ attitude towards having another ballot simply reflects their view on the substantive question. In Savanta ComRes’s poll 93 per cent of those who state they would vote “Yes” in another referendum back having another ballot, while 94 per cent of those who would vote “No” are opposed. Voters as a whole are evenly balanced on the question because they are evenly divided between independence and the Union.
Simply saying no to a referendum appeals to those who already support the Union. It will win few plaudits among those who do not. Those who support independence are not likely to be persuaded to change their minds just because unionists remind them of the SNP’s campaign rhetoric that the 2014 ballot was a “once in a generation” event.
Unionists also criticise the SNP plan that, in the absence of a referendum, the outcome of the next UK general election in Scotland should be regarded as a measure of where voters stand on the constitutional question. They argue that elections are about many different issues and cannot necessarily be taken as an indicator of where the public stand on any single one.
However, voters in Scotland have already decided to use elections as quasi-referendums. Polling and academic surveys of last year’s Holyrood election suggest that 89 per cent of those who currently back independence voted for the SNP or the Scottish Greens, who also support independence, while just 10 per cent of those who are opposed to independence did so. Indeed, the link in Scotland between people’s attitudes towards independence and their voting is stronger than the relationship at the last UK election between how people voted and their attitudes towards Brexit.
According to a NatCen post-election survey 83 per cent of those who at the time of the 2019 election backed Leave voted for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party, while 15 per cent of those who supported Remain did so. The Conservatives’ victory in 2019 has been interpreted by all the main UK-wide parties as demonstrating that voters wanted “to get Brexit done”. That makes it difficult for them now to suggest that the outcome of the next UK election in Scotland could not be interpreted as evidence of where voters stand on the constitutional question.
We are told that Labour’s solution will be to propose yet a further increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament. That was undoubtedly a popular position before the 2014 referendum. However, that ship may well now have sailed. Three recent polls that asked people to choose between independence, the status quo and more devolution all found that more devolution was the least popular option, with, on average, just 17 per cent support.
One key reason why any plan for more devolution will now be more difficult to sell is that it cannot provide a pathway for Scotland to re-join the European Union, a proposition that around two in three people support. In contrast to 2014, voters’ attitudes towards Europe now play an important role in shaping their attitudes towards independence. According to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 65 per cent of Remainers now back independence (compared with just 22 per cent of Leavers).
Neither avoiding the constitutional question nor attempting to bypass it looks likely to be an effective strategy for unionists. Rather they need to address the fundamental reason why the Union is in trouble – that nearly half of Scots wish to leave. Just as Sturgeon needs to increase support for independence, so unionists need to try to depress it. But to do that unionists need to accept that, much as they would prefer not to, they need to engage in the constitutional debate and persuade Scottish voters that their best future lies in a post-Brexit UK. After all, then there would be no reason to try to avoid the voters’ verdict.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde, and Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe.
[See also: Britain Predicts]