Is support for Scottish independence “surging” on the back of Theresa May’s indication that the UK is headed for a ‘hard’ Brexit outside of the Single Market?
That’s the contention of yesterday’s front page of The Herald, one of Scotland’s leading broadsheets. ‘Game on’ tweeted former First Minister Alex Salmond, clearly encouraged by what he saw. SNP MP Joanna Cherry even enthusiastically brandished a printout of the front page during yesterday’s Article 50 Bill Committee proceedings in the Commons.
So what is the basis of this new-found excitement about the prospects of Scottish independence? A new poll has presumably found overwhelming support for independence? Well, not quite.
The Herald’s rather dramatic headline is based on a poll they commissioned from BMG, showing support for independence on 49%, with support for the Union on 51%, excluding undecideds. The ‘surge’ referred to in support for independence was from 45.5% last month – a 3.5% bump, which is broadly in line with margins of error. However ‘Support for independence increases modestly, in line with margin of error, on hard Brexit vow’ is (a) a bit long for a newspaper headline and (b) not terribly interesting.
Newspapers commission opinion polls for a fairly simple reason: to generate stories. As a general rule, it is therefore wise to treat their reporting of these polls with a healthy degree of caution. There is more than a slight tendency – often by headline writers more than the journalists themselves – to sensationalise findings rather more than the raw numbers warrant.
In this instance, the rise in support for independence is relatively small. It remains behind support for remaining part of the UK, albeit narrowly. The poll also contains further findings which should give Mr Salmond pause for thought, namely that a clear majority – 56% to 44% – oppose the idea of holding another referendum while the Brexit process is ongoing.
Salmond has always been a little more gung-ho about the prospects for ‘indyref2’ than his successor Nicola Sturgeon. The incumbent First Minister has already ruled out seeking a second referendum this year and, while she regularly talks of a further plebiscite looking “almost certain”, “more likely”, or similar, there is never normally much specificity about when exactly this may be.
Chatter persists that 2018 could be the year for Scotland’s next date with destiny. Is that likely?
The SNP’s 2016 manifesto is regularly cited on the referendum question, with the most-often quoted passage being that a second referendum would be sought “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.” But the more significant condition that was set in the manifesto was that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum “if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people”.
Current evidence suggests that criteria is not yet being met. Each of the last dozen polls published on the question, stretching back to July last year, have had support for remaining in the Union continuing to outweigh support for independence.
But might the SNP feel that ‘one more heave’ in a second referendum campaign might get them over the line? They would start from a significantly higher base of support than they did last time around and many in the pro-independence camp will undoubtedly feel that they may never get a better chance than in the midst of the constitutional upheaval created by Brexit.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson asked the PM if she would honour her commitment not to trigger Article 50 until there is an “agreed UK-wide approach”. Theresa May reminded Robertson that the Supreme Court had been clear that the Scottish Parliament has no ‘veto’ over the Brexit process.
The clear strategy of the SNP is to portray the UK Government as dismissive of Scotland’s interests in the Brexit process, and these latest exchanges will be portrayed in that context. The hope is that wavering Scottish voters will become convinced that the Union is no ‘partnership of equals’ and the only solution is independence.
To date, Brexit is not having the type of impact on support for independence that had been hoped for by the Scottish nationalists. The choice that Nicola Sturgeon may ultimately have to make is whether to wait and hope that changes, or to roll the dice sooner rather than later.
The surge isn’t here yet; but if the First Minister chooses the latter course, it could be ‘Game on’ nonetheless.
Featured image by Alasdair Mckenzie – https://www.flickr.com/photos/alasdairjmckenzie/