YESTERDAY, A POLL PURPORTED to show a sharp decline in support for Scottish independence, with a headline 57 percent favouring “remaining” in the UK. “Sturgeon’s independence dream crumbles!” crowed the Daily Express.
I am usually the last person to deploy terms like “unionist bias”, if only because ideological prejudices tend to be more complex than a simple yes/no binary. But this is a special case. Firstly, the poll is published by Scotland in Union (SiU), a project of Scottish Labour’s hard unionist right-wing. Secondly, their methodology is both unusual and, to borrow a phrase, tainted by apparent bias, insofar as it breaks with the usual habit of “yes/no” in favour of a “remain/leave” dichotomy.
Thus, a previous SiU poll in September 2019 showed 59 percent favouring “remaining” in the UK. Last September it put “remain” at 56 percent, while yes/no polls were showing strong majorities for independence. Yesterday’s headline figure therefore represents at best a 1-point shift. But don’t take my word for it. “Actually, the intriguing thing about this poll is the increase in support for ‘remain’ is only one point,” notes Professor John Curtice, the UK’s leading polling expert. “That of course [SiU] did not point out in their press release. It basically doesn’t show any change.”
However, Curtice does add a more worrying caveat. “Ironically the poll is the least convincing evidence of the past four or five weeks that support for independence has gone down.” Indeed, SiU have arguably scored an own goal. Their poll shows piddling change, while, by contrast, after 22 consecutive Yes leads, all other polls are showing meaningful regressions. The last seven polls have shown support for independence either even with or lower than support for the union.
The explanations for this are complex, but basically fall into two categories. Naturally, there is the split in the SNP over the handling of allegations against Alex Salmond and the subsequent court battles, parliamentary enquiries and factional struggles. This has tarnished the SNP’s reputation for clean government and party unity. In a more abstract sense, it has sullied any notion of “Holyrood democracy” as intrinsically morally superior to Westminster.
A second factor is the social composition of the Yes vote. The 2014 vote was largely anti-establishment in character, with unusually strong support in “Labour heartlands”, among low-skilled workers and within the most deprived constituencies. Research by a colleague of mine (caveat: so far unpublished) has shown an extraordinary spike in support for Yes after 2016, specifically among elite, highly educated managers. Post-Brexit, they effectively go from (by far) the least likely to the most likely backers of independence.
This tells you something about the recent case for independence. Since 2016, it has been entirely negative in character. Support for Yes has grown out of a bubble of fear scenarios surrounding Brexit, and the SNP leadership thus became a respectable voice within the UK-wide establishment. However, they have singularly failed to explain what independence means or what it is for: from the top, there has been no “positive” case, only an inverted “project fear”.
Fear of an apocalyptic Brexit meant that panicked professionals leant their support to Yes. Their pulsing amygdala started to detect greater threat within the UK than outside it. But as Brexit becomes normalised, they may start slinking back to their natural home in the Unionist fold.
It was inevitable that parts of this support would drop away: indeed, it is arguably surprising that it held up so long. Bubbles burst. Rather than panic, we have to think collectively about a positive reimagining of the case for Yes, beyond Brexit fear scenarios, and after a second extraordinary rupture in capitalist globalisation.