The National:

THE publication of the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS) data has been helpful in both clarifying the findings of recent opinion polls and in aiding our understanding of how attitudes to independence appear to be moving over time.

Firstly, it is abundantly clear that support for independence has grown significantly in the last year or two.

One of the advantages of the SSAS is that it provides a time-series back to the establishment of devolution in 1999; this illustrates not only that the most recent survey marks the first time that support has exceeded 50%, but highlights the rapid growth in support since before the first independence referendum when it stood at just 33%.

Of course, the most significant political event since then was the 2016 referendum on EU membership. The UK voted in favour of leaving the EU despite the wishes of the majority of voters in Scotland, who backed remaining by a rate of nearly 2 to 1.

Despite a very short-lived bump in support for independence in the immediate aftermath of that referendum, evidence from polls and the SSAS showed that the country was still largely split at around 55:45 in favour of the Union.

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As Brexit loomed into view, and more particularly as a “hard” or “No-Deal” Brexit became a possibility, so support for independence began to tick up, so that by late 2019 average polling showed a 50:50 split.

It is clear this shift was being driven by voters’ fears of Brexit. Indeed, as yesterday’s report puts it: “Support for leaving the UK occurred entirely among those who either voted Remain in 2016, or who … express positive view about the EU.”

This reaction to the ongoing Brexit situation highlighted a central tension for the UK. It sought to deliver a Brexit palatable to many of its supporters who had voted Leave, while understanding that this was likely to further alienate many in Scotland who had voted No in 2014 but were changing their minds on Scottish independence on the back of the government’s Brexit stance.

While Brexit provided the initial impetus for the growth in support for independence, the most recent batch of opinion polls conducted in the summer and autumn of 2020 illustrate other issues which continue to drive support up to the new average of around 55% for Yes.

Most obviously, perceptions of how the governments in Edinburgh and London, and their respective leaders, have handled the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic appear to have moved more voters from No to Yes since the virus struck in the spring.

We have seen a large amount of polling evidence which points to significant differences in voter perceptions, from the largely positive reaction to the response of the Scottish Government and First Minister to the equally negative reaction to how the UK Government and the Prime Minister have handled the situation.

The pandemic has given voters a daily reminder that the Scottish Government has the power to make decisions about the most important issues of the day, decisions that can diverge from those of the UK Government, and that appears to have resonated with many voters both in their views of pandemic handling and, for some, their views on independence.

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All that leaves us in a current situation where support for independence is polling higher than ever before, driven by a series of events which is making significant numbers of voters reassess their views on the subject. The most recent poll on the issue, which showed support at 58%, highlights majority support among both men and women, people in all social class groups and every age group under 65.

This is clearly causing significant disquiet within the UK Government. The new leader of the Scottish Conservatives has even acknowledged that those who support the Union face an uphill task in light of current polls.

Of course, we are not in a referendum campaign at the moment, and are unlikely to be in the foreseeable future.

We are not currently debating issues like currency or EU membership options for an independent Scotland, and we currently have no idea as to when, or if, a second referendum will be held.

So, trying to predict the outcome of a referendum would be foolish at this point despite the steady flow of voters to Yes in recent times.

Mark Diffley is a pollster who founded Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research in 2017.