A conference and a poll: where stands independence?

by | 2 Dec 2021

A spike in support of independence is entirely in line with the pattern of previous polls rather than representing anything new - but there is a visible change in attitudes to currency in the movement

There are two events that have occurred in the last week which have led to some renewed speculation on where matters stand in relation to Scottish independence. Has anything really changed and does it tell us much about the path ahead?

The answer to this is a predictable ‘yes and no’, but with greater weight placed on the no. Let’s start with the opinion poll. This poll saw a sudden and unexpected surge in support for Yes, to 55/45. Is this breaking a pattern of recent polls?

It is more accurate to argue that this poll is absolutely in line with all previous polls in one crucial way – it is not tracking what happens in Scotland but in London. Common Weal recently published an extended analysis of the patterns of all polls taken since the last referendum and in a very important way this poll fits the model exactly.

What the poll analysis strongly suggests is that support for independence rises and falls according to perceptions of how well the UK Government is doing rather than on what is happening in Scotland. All the spikes in support for independence (brief or extended) clearly match periods in which the UK Government is viewed as being ‘in crisis’.

The key moments are around Brexit, various points in the rise of Boris Johnson to power, the early handling of the pandemic and now the period after the second jobs (and various other) scandals at Westminster.

The low points all track towards moments where the focus is on Scottish politics like the Holyrood elections or the period shortly after Brexit when a second referendum was being talked up. This all suggests that support for independence rises and falls according to where the political focus is and in particular when the focus is on failure and disarray at Westminster.

This poll therefore fits that pattern exactly and (for example) also tracks closely with the rise in support for Labour at the UK level. Unfortunately, these spikes have never endured for long and relying on poor performance at Westminster is a risky strategy.

So no, the available evidence suggests that this poll simply reinforces the analysis that support for independence mainly rises when confidence in Westminster is at its lowest. In that regard there is nothing ‘different’ about this poll.

What the poll analysis strongly suggests is that support for independence rises and falls according to perceptions of how well the UK Government is doing rather than on what is happening in Scotland

That leaves the SNP conference. The primary takeaway from that is surely about levels of engagement – it should be sobering for the SNP leadership that more people tuned in to watch Craig Murray being released from prison than to watch the leader’s speech this year. The peak attendance seems to have been a touch over 500 people.

This is understandable given how tightly controlled this conference is and the extent to which people were expected to (and did) deliver basically the same speeches as the last three or four conferences.

So has there been any change? The timetable and details set out for independence remain exactly the same as before so it can look like nothing has changed. But there has been a substantial change in one aspect – the SNP membership effectively voted to move on from the Growth Commission.

Commentary will no doubt be divided over this – does ‘move on’ in this context mean ‘refresh’ or ‘discard’? It might be argued that this is just a slight acceleration and that the fundamental principles of the Growth Commission remain in place.

Narrowly, this might technically be true, but that is in large part because of the degree of control over the conference agenda. There have been motions over the last 24 months which have more explicitly rejected key provisions of the Growth Commission but these have all been prevented from appearing on the agenda.

The motion which was passed at this conference itself was substantially gutted prior to appearing on the agenda (though the constitutional basis on which SNP HQ is permitted to make big and substantive edits to conference motions from branches is unclear). That some of what was taken out was put back in by amendment (overwhelmingly so) suggests that the will of the membership is clearly ‘at least this far’ – and probably further.

It would be substantially out of line with the rest of the independence movement if that was not the case – every indicator and all the mood music is that a big majority of activists want a proper commitment to a rapid move to a Scottish currency with only the SNP leadership and a small band of party loyalists still holding the line against this.

Across these two events (the conference and the opinion poll) the evidence suggests that the means of getting a vote for Scottish independence has remained stalled exactly where it was but the will of those who will campaign for it has settled into opposition to the current official plans for what kind of independence will be achieved.

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