Scottish independence polls: how opinion has changed since the 2014 referendum - and impact of Brexit and Covid

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and, more crucially, the latest polling suggest that Scotland favours independence

The desire for independence continues to grow in Scotland, with polls consistently showing that a majority of Scots are in favour of a future as an independent country.

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Three Prime Ministers have walked through the doors of Number Ten Downing Street, while three Scottish Conservative leaders have stood opposite Nicola Sturgeon’s lectern at Holyrood.

Six years on, does Scotland now favour independence? (Getty Images)Six years on, does Scotland now favour independence? (Getty Images)
Six years on, does Scotland now favour independence? (Getty Images)

Scots were told that the vote in 2014 would be a “once in a generation” vote, but the density of once-in-a-generation events in that six year spell means that Independence campaigners feel that they are justified in pushing for a second vote.

And with support for an independent Scotland growing – 15 polls in a row have suggested that independence is backed by a majority of voters - who can blame them?

How did Brexit affect polling?

Two years after Scotland’s decision day, Britain voted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%.

Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain by 62% to 38%, and the narrative being pushed by supporters of Scottish independence is that the country is being removed from the European Union against it’s own will.

A major reason pushed by the No campaign to vote against Scottish Independence was that it would guarantee Scotland’s place in the European Union. With that out the window would the winds change in favour of Scottish Independence?

Not quite.

Three snap polls immediately after the Brexit vote – two conducted by Survation, and one conducted by Panelbase – appeared to show a swing in favour of Scottish independence.

Surveyor (date) Yes No
Survation/Scottish Daily Mail (June 24-28,2016) 47 41
Panelbase/Sunday Times (June 25-26, 2016) 47 44
Survation/Daily Record (June 25) 48 41

Following the election of Theresa May, however, polling swung back in favour of the Unionist camp, with just one of the next 54 polls conducted by British Polling Council members suggesting a majority of voters favoured independence.

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The average margin in favour of No during this time was 8.2%.

How has Boris Johnson impacted polling?

Unable to clinch a deal with the European Union, Theresa May stepped down as Prime Minister on May 24, 2019, with Boris Johnson taking over the keys to Number 10 two months later. A month later Ruth Davidson resigned as Scottish Conservatives leader.

A divisive figure north of the border due to his role as one of the chief architects of Brexit, and disparaging comments made about Scots and Scotland during his time as a journalist, it was thought that Mr Johnson’s rise to power could cause undecided Scots to feel a greater disconnect with the rest of the UK.

Between Boris Johnson’s victory in the conservative leadership and his victory in the 2019 general election, the No vote’s lead in polling began to narrow. Over the course of 8 polls, the average margin in favour of No reduced to 3.2%.

Following his landslide victory at the 2019 general election, the polls swung in favour of the Yes camp, with two polls, one by Panelbase and one by Yougov showing a slender lead for independence. A third poll by Survation showed both sides with a support of 45%, while ten percent of interviewees remained undecided.

How has coronavirus impacted polling?

On March 23, 2020, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom moved into a coronavirus-induced lockdown, ten days after the first death of a Scot who had contracted the disease.

Since then 16 polls have been conducted asking members of the public how they would vote in the event of a Scottish independence referendum – all but one of them have come out in favour of the No camp, with the Yes camp’s average margin of lead 6.3%.

So why the dramatic swing in Yes’ favour?

Simply put it has never been so easy for the Scottish public to compare the performance of Westminster and Holyrood, with both government’s tackling the same issue at the same time.

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Rightly or wrongly the view of many is that a Boris Johnson led Conservative Party have mishandled the pandemic, with trust in the Westminster Government at an all-time low following the Dominic Cummings scandal. Nicola Sturgeon on the other hand, has not enjoyed universal support, but has been praised for her handling of the crisis.

A study for BBC Scotland found that 72% of those questioned thought that the Scottish Government had done well and just 15% thought it has handled the situation badly, while 12% say it has done neither well or badly and the remainder do not know.

A similar Ipsos Mori poll conducted in May found that 78% of respondents said the Scottish Government was doing well and 11% badly.

By contrast only a quarter (25%) of the 1,037 Scottish adults questioned said they thought the UK Government had handled the pandemic well, while more than half (55%) thought it had done badly.

Just 19% thought that Boris Johnson had handled the crisis well compared to 74% who thought positively of the First Minister’s handling.

When could Scotland get a second independence referendum?

While support for Scottish independence is higher than ever, it remains unclear if and when Scots will be handed a second vote on the issue.

Speaking at the SNP conference on November 30 Nicola Sturgeon underlined her party’s desire for independence, saying that it was crucial to the country’s “rebuild” after the coronavirus pandemic.

She said independence is important “if we want to make sure the country we rebuild is the one we want it to be, with kindness, compassion, fairness, equality and enterprise at its heart, and not one built in the image of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers”.

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The First Minister said she accepts “many” Scots would “prefer a stronger Scottish Parliament to independence” but said the “hard truth” is this is not on offer from Westminster, as she accused the Tories of trying to take powers away from Holyrood.

Boris Johnson has been unwavering in his dismissal of any imminent potential independence referendum.

Despite being warned by Sturgeon that "Scotland can't be held against its own will", the newly elected Prime Minister has said that he will not allow a second independence referendum under any circumstances while he is Number 10 Downing Street's resident, officially rejecting calls for a referendum in January 2020.

Mr Johnson drew criticism form supporters of Scottish independence in November when he said that "devolution has been a disaster north of the border" in a talk with Conservative MPs.

Some supporters of the Prime Minister have suggested that Mr Johnson’s persistent rejection of a further independence referendum is unsustainable.

Sturgeon has refused to rule out taking the Prime Minister to court if a new independence referendum is rejected, insisting that "all options" were still on the table.

The SNP leader has ruled out a Catalonia-inspired unauthorised vote, insisting that such votes don't lead to independence.

In all likelihood that leader will instead target a major victory at the Scottish elections in 2021 and serve up yet another mandate for Scottish independence to Westminster.

The latest polls

Surveyor (date) Yes No
Ipsos MORI/STV (November 20-26) 53 41
Panelbase/Scot Goes Pop (November 5-11) 51 40
YouGov (November 6-10) 43 42
Survation (October 28-November 3) 47 40
Survation/Progress Scotland (October 11) 49 43
Ipsos MORI/STV (October 2-9) 55 39
Savanta ComRes (October 9) 47 42
Survation (September 2-7) 46 40
Panelbase/Business for Scotland (August 12-18) 51 42
Savanta ComRes (August 6-13) 49 42