In Scotland, Brexit may mean independence. So, why are we here, how likely is ‘indyref 2’, and what is the state of public opinion on the issue?
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, resulting in Britain leaving the EU despite 62% of Scots voting to stay in, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that Brexit meant that indyref2 is now “on the table” as a means to “protect our place in Europe”.1http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36620375 Her stance was consistent with the SNP manifesto of 2016 which stated that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum in the event of “material change in the circumstance that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.2https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8Tu6kHw0HUMdXZyb0RHNHdRSzQ/view
Polling conducted in the immediate aftermath of Brexit suggested that she may be pushing at an open door, as support for independence rose above 50%.3http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/26/scottish-independence-has-nearly-60-per-cent-support-poll-finds/
However, since that initial post-Brexit bump, public opinion has returned to roughly where we were in September 2014, with backers of the union in the majority. Moreover, the vote to leave the EU has not had the impact on support for independence that the First Minister would have hoped or expected. Indeed, while 15% reported that the vote to leave had changed their opinion on the Scottish constitutional question,4https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3781/Brexit-does-not-trigger-significant-increase-in-support-for-independence.aspx it didn’t move voters uniformly towards Leave – in fact nearly as many became more inclined to stay in the UK as switched to favour independence.
This should not be entirely surprising, since we know that the issue of EU membership was not one of the key determinants of voting in the 2014 independence referendum,5https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3743/The-Tinman-referendum-the-EU-debate-in-Scotland-is-lacking-heart.aspx and because focus groups conducted before the EU referendum illustrated that Scots’ support for Remain did not equate to positive attitudes towards or knowledge of the EU as an institution.
Equally worrying for the First Minister, enthusiasm for holding indyref2 also appears to be falling, with 41% now supporting a second referendum in the next two years, down from 48% before the Brexit vote.
But while public opinion does not appear to have shifted significantly since the Brexit vote, the rhetoric of the First Minister is undiminished, telling the recent SNP conference that “the time is coming to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands” 6http://www.snp.org/nicola_sturgeon_address_to_snp16
What is clear is that this will be a key judgement for the SNP to make. While those who support independence may feel emboldened by an enhanced democratic case for their argument in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, the broader economic case – vital in persuading voters to back them – does not appear to be any easier to make in the context of falling oil prices and economic uncertainty.7http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-37167975
Despite this, there is much to support an early second referendum. Starting a campaign at around 45% support is hardly a disaster. Campaigns can change opinions, as Brexit shows, and the prize is tantalisingly close; certainly much closer than it was at the beginning of the first referendum campaign when support for Yes languished at around 30 per cent,8https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3058/Support-for-independence-continues-to-fall-as-Labour-narrows-gap-with-SNP.aspx only to finish at 45 per cent. The hurdle to get over this time is significantly lower.
Supporters of independence also have the wider political context in their favour. With SNP dominance at Holyrood and Labour in continued turmoil, as well as the SNP now having around 120,000 members, any new Yes movement has a distinct advantage in organisational and campaigning terms.
So, what are the chances of a second independence referendum in the foreseeable future? The First Minister faces a tough task in managing internal expectations to be bold and go for it, against a backdrop of public opinion which has not moved sufficiently to be confident of winning at this stage. Without that movement in attitudes she may conclude that it is a risk not worth taking for a while yet, although as events of the last year show, anything can happen.
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