James Kelly: How the polls show a perfect storm for Unionism


IN recent weeks there has been polling suggesting that the Scottish Government has become a more trusted source of information on the pandemic than any broadcaster or newspaper, and that people throughout both Scotland and Britain think the Scottish Government has handled the crisis better than the UK Government. This raised the intriguing possibility that voters who previously harboured doubts about Scottish self-rule may be starting to join up the dots and realise that Scotland would be governed more effectively if Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t merely the First Minister of a devolved administration, but the Prime Minister of an independent country. I decided to put that to the test with two questions in the new ScotGoesPop/Panelbase poll on independence.

First of all, respondents were asked whether the handling of the coronavirus crisis by Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish Government made them more confident or less confident that Scotland will be well-governed if it becomes independent. The results were nothing short of staggering – 59% said they were more confident, and only 22% said they were less confident – getting on for a 3-1 margin. Among No voters from the 2014 independence referendum, 39% were more confident and 36% were less confident, while even 25% of respondents who say they would vote No in a new indyref were more confident – perhaps giving the lie to the notion that there is an entrenched Unionist bloc of voters who are immune to persuasion and unwilling to see any validity in the other side’s arguments. Remarkably, an outright majority of people who voted Labour in the General Election, a plurality of LibDem voters, and even a respectable 19% of Conservative voters, have more faith now that an indy Scotland will be competently run.

But of course this apparent breakthrough would be of much less importance if Unionist voters still have a reasonable amount of belief in the competence of the UK Government. So for my next poll question, I asked respondents whether the handling of the pandemic by Boris Johnson and the UK Government had left them more convinced or less convinced that Scotland is safer if it remains part of the UK. The supposed safety and risk-avoidance of sticking with the “broad shoulders” of London rule was, after all, one of the major selling points of the Better Together campaign back in 2014.

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The results of the second question were a reverse mirror image of the first, with just 20% saying they were more convinced and 59% saying they were less convinced – once again, close to a 3-1 margin. Damningly, 41% of No voters from 2014 were less convinced and only 29% were more convinced. People who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, presumably at least in part because they were optimistic about the effects of the London government having more control over their lives, also reported being less sure now that Scotland is safer within the UK.

The only consolation for Boris Johnson is that a clear majority of Tory voters loyally said that the performance of the UK Government in recent weeks had left them even more certain of Scotland’s safety – although I have no information on whether they did so with a straight face.

The combination of a perception that London has bungled its response to the pandemic, and a sense that Edinburgh has been reacting very efficiently, looks like a perfect storm for Unionism. Although there has only been a 2% increase in the headline support for independence, there are solid reasons for believing that the boost is genuine, and that underlying shifts in attitudes leave considerable scope for further progress.

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