Scottish independence: How Nicola Sturgeon's less macho approach has seen women flock to Yes camp – Kirsty Strickland

The year is 2014 and it’s the eve of the independence referendum. My friend Jenny has just posted on her social media page: “#VoteNo tomorrow, to protect our jobs, pensions and our children’s future. Don’t throw everything away! Be proud and VOTE NO!”

A member of the public walks past a TV screen at The Sound Counsel in Edinburgh as Nicola Sturgeon takes part in a virtual sitting of the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
A member of the public walks past a TV screen at The Sound Counsel in Edinburgh as Nicola Sturgeon takes part in a virtual sitting of the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

The next day, she was one of the 55 per cent of voters in Scotland that cast their vote in favour of staying part of the United Kingdom. By 2016, one decade-defining referendum had been eclipsed by another. And now? Jenny supports Scottish independence.

For many No voters, the result of the EU referendum was a moment of collision. Despite having been told that a No vote was the only way to safeguard Scotland’s EU membership, there was now a choice to be made … albeit a hypothetical one for the time-being.

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Which union is most beneficial to Scotland: the European Union, or the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland? It seemed that, despite the promises, Scotland couldn’t have both.

This week, a new Ipsos Mori poll showed that Jenny isn’t an outlier. She was in the majority in 2014 and is again now. Depending on your constitutional preference, that bombshell figure of 58 per cent support for Yes will either feel like all your dreams are coming true or that the nightmare just got real.

Unionists and nationalists united about one thing

While no previous poll has ever shown support for independence so high, Scotland remains deeply divided over its future. There is something though, that unites both unionists and nationalists: unyielding respect for Professor John Curtice. The polling expert has become something of a national treasure in recent years; the kind of man you’d trust your with your bank card. The objectivity of his analysis is impeccable.

Any poll on the subject would surely confirm the popularity and respect of Professor John Curtice (Picture: John Devlin)

Professor Curtice says we will need to see more evidence before assuming that this one poll means there has been a further significant shift in favour of independence, although he does make it clear that Yes are ahead. I suspect though, that his plea for caution will neither dampen the spirits of jubilant Yes campaigners nor soothe the fears of those who champion the union.

One of the most persuasive arguments of Better Together was the apparent strength and stability of the UK. Yet how different the UK looked then when the idea that Boris Johnson would one day become prime minister was a punchline and not a prediction.

It didn’t take a generation to pass before the UK that Scotland endorsed in 2014 changed beyond recognition. Even its greatest supporters would grudgingly accept that the Union is in a state of accelerated disintegration. Boris Johnson and his gaggle of mediocre Cabinet ministers have presided over that decline. It doesn’t help that their Scotland strategy amounts to little more than dropping turnips in the toilet while complaining it won’t flush.

That doesn’t mean that the rising and sustained support for independence we currently see was inevitable. If all it took was an unpopular Conservative government that Scotland didn’t vote for, we’d already be independent.

This is not a drill

The Ispos Mori poll contains clues which may go some way to explaining the Yes boom. It suggests that while Boris Johnson is pushing No voters away, Nicola Sturgeon is pulling them in.

Only 33 per cent of 2014 No voters are satisfied with the prime minister’s performance. That contrasts with 55 per cent for Nicola Sturgeon among the same voters and 72 per cent overall. If those numbers aren’t setting off alarm bells in Downing St and the dust-covered headquarters of Better Together, they should be: this is not a drill.

The most prominent pro-independence politician in Scotland is widely viewed as credible and trustworthy. Her Westminster counterpart is not only disliked but a source of widespread ridicule.

Though we should be wary of overstating the power of individual personalities, they do help illustrate a broader point about how and why voters are changing their minds.

Nicola Sturgeon isn’t the reason that my friend Jenny make the jump from No to Yes. Yet she does say that the First Minister’s style of persuasion – which is more conciliatory than that of her predecessor – made it easier to change her mind.

Gender gap disappears

It’s not that women automatically make better leaders, nor that they all fit neatly into the narrow stereotype of ‘’feminine’’ leadership which says that women are somehow nicer, gentler and less ruthless than their male political counterparts. There is something to be said though, for the approach adopted by the First Minister of – as she puts it – “show, not tell”.

I wonder how many of the new Yes voters are women who found the occasionally macho 2014 Yes campaign to be off-putting and unconvincing? How many of those women sometimes felt hectored rather than persuaded? How did they feel when they were told they were stupid and unpatriotic because they had genuine fears about what independence could bring?

Anecdotally, I know many who describe their referendum experience in that way. And they went on to vote No. The disparity of support for independence between men and women was something Prof Curtice touched upon in his analysis of the Ipsos Mori poll: “The gender gap, which in 2014 resulted in women being markedly less likely to support independence than men has seemingly disappeared,” he said.

“Today's poll, in which 60 per cent of women back Yes compared with 57 per cent of men, is in line with other recent polls, nearly all of which have revealed little or no gap.”

A momentum is building here that was never apparent in the weeks and months prior to September, 2014. Not only has there now been a steady run of recent polls indicating majority support for Yes but the gap is now stretching. Now all the SNP require to do is find that elusive mechanism to trigger a second referendum. That though, is a separate challenge all of its own.

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