New research: State of the Union

2021-07-08T14:26:51+00:00 March 23rd, 2021|Onward, Research|

This morning Onward publishes its latest landmark research report, State of the Union, which uses detailed polling data to reveal that support for Scottish independence is higher than it ever was prior to the 2014 referendum, yet is also volatile and far from inevitable.

Read the research

The study is the most comprehensive survey of attitudes towards the Union since 2014, conducted by Hanbury Strategy. It finds that between the end of February and the first weekend in March, the Yes lead (in response to whether they would vote in favour of Scottish independence) fell by 6 percentage points from 56%/44% to 53%/47%. This was driven in large part by a 9 point drop among women and a 25 point drop among 18-24 year olds. This was the week that Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament inquiry into the Salmond trial.

The Yes lead retains a 30+ point lead among 18-45 year olds, a 16 point lead among working class voters, and net support in five of Scotland’s eight regions. At 50%, support for independence is around 15 points higher than it was before the 2014 referendum campaign began. The poll compares this to support for separation elsewhere in the United Kingdom: 34% of Welsh voters agree that Wales should be independent and 31% of Northern Irish voters agree that Northern Ireland should be part of a United Ireland.

Crucially, Scottish voters do not want a referendum on Scotland’s future this year or the next. 49% of all Scottish voters think that “coronavirus should be completely eliminated in Scotland” before a referendum is held, and more voters think a referendum should be held after 2027 or never (38%) than support a referendum this year or next (35%).

The report explores the factors most likely to affect support for independence and the benefits people would miss if Scotland did vote to leave. This suggests that the political choices of the UK and Scottish Governments’ could have a considerable effect on support for independence in the coming weeks:

  • 35% of Scottish voters, and 58% of Yes voters, say that if the SNP wins a majority and the UK Government refuses a referendum outright they would be more likely to vote Yes, compared to 19% and 8% respectively who say they would be less likely. The implication is that support for independence may harden considerably if the UK Government decides to “just say no”. 
  • But if the SNP wins a majority and holds a referendum without the agreement of the UK Government, roughly the same number (33%) and 53% of No voters, say they would be less likely to vote Yes, versus 24% and 11% who say it would increase their likelihood to vote Yes. This suggests that the SNP may be overreaching by putting a second referendum on the ballot paper and committing to an immediate and unilateral referendum. 
  • Yes voters say that if Nicola Sturgeon resigned they would be less likely to vote for independence. 28% of Yes voters say they would be less likely to vote Yes in this scenario, versus 23% who say it would make them more likely. It appears that support for independence is at least partially stored in the political personality of the First Minister. 
  • When asked what benefits or features of the Union they would miss if Scotland did vote for independence, 57% of Scottish voters said they would miss “funding for public services like the NHS”, 40% said they would miss “the ability to travel and work freely around the United Kingdom” and 38% said they would miss a “shared British identity”, including 47%, 27% and 19% of Yes voters respectively. 

In addition, a large share of Scottish voters believe that the focus on constitutional issues is distracting from the other priorities of the Scottish people:

  • When ranked, Scottish voters say their top four priorities are Health and Social Care; Jobs and Employment; Managing the Covid Crisis; and Education. Reforming the UK Constitution is ranked 12th out of 20 issues. 
  • Three fifths (61%) of Scottish voters agree that “the focus on constitutional issues in recent years has distracted politicians from working more on public services like health, education and the police”, compared to just 19% who disagree. 
  • 58% of Scottish voters agree that “Scotland’s schools, which used to be world-leading, have fallen behind relative to comparable countries”, compared to 23% who disagree. And 52% agree that “policies pursued by the Scottish Government have caused Scotland’s schools to fall behind relative to other countries”, compared to 27% who disagree. 
  • This does not however stop Scottish voters from saying that most issues would be better handled if Scotland were independent compared to remaining in the UK. The only issues that Scots think would be better handled by remaining in the UK are foreign affairs and defence, reforming the UK constitution and sourcing vaccine supplies. 
  • Scottish voters are more likely to say the UK Government has handled rolling out the vaccine well (38%) than the Scottish Government (34%), and believe the UK Government has done well overall on providing economic support, clear information to the public, and managing the health and care system, suggesting the Union may be benefitting from a vaccine bounce.  

The rise in support for independence is heavily correlated to questions of identity. Only 48% of Scots feel equally Scottish and British, compared to 56% of Welsh voters and 78% of English voters. In Northern Ireland, only 21% see themselves as similarly British and Irish, but this is largely because most people see themselves as strongly British but not Irish (41%). The growing opposition between national identities is the most powerful predictor of vote intention in a future referendum: 73% of Yes voters identify as very Scottish, but only 15% identify as very British. 

Will Tanner, Director of Onward and co-author of the report, said: 

“The breakup of the United Kingdom is not a foregone conclusion. Headline support for Scottish independence may be worryingly high, but it is clear that Scots do not want a referendum until coronavirus has been eliminated and the economy recovered. In addition, the Alex Salmond trial appears to be sowing doubt in voters’ minds at exactly the moment the vaccine programme is proving the benefits of partnership within the Union. 

“There is all to play for if Unionists attend to the root causes of rising separatism. That means avoiding needless spats on constitutional issues – which only serve to rally Scots around the Saltire and further inflame separatism elsewhere – and focusing on voters’ true priorities. The UK Government should show – rather than tell – the benefits of the Union, and build a British identity that is complementary to, and accommodating of, the values and culture of all four nations. If it can, the Union is not yet lost.”

Full data tables will be available at on Thursday 25 March.

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