The Glasgow Guardian has spoken to University of Glasgow Doctoral Researcher Mark McGeoghegan about what the recent Supreme Court ruling and Gender Recognition Reform Bill mean for support for independence, as well as what previous swings toward Yes can tell us about the present polling lead.
Recent polling on attitudes towards Scottish Independence have shown Yes to be in a very healthy position. Consistently, from October to December, polls have shown Yes in the lead by seven, four, and five points, with one poll conducted between 28 October and 5 December of last year showing Yes in a remarkable lead of 11 points. Many have attributed this rise in support to the recent Supreme Court judgement which unanimously ruled that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish Independence.
Mark McGeoghegan is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Glasgow who focuses on secessionist movements and the strategies they employ in order to achieve secession. We put to him the question of if this recent change in polling can be attributed to the Supreme Court judgement:
“There’s not a huge amount of polling on a continual basis, you’ll instead have polls clustered together. But they had an October polling average that had No ahead a couple of points and then after the supreme court decision polling since then shows quite a clear swing towards Yes.
“The one thing I would say is that this could be quite ephemeral. We’ve had this kind of thing happen before: immediately before the 2016 EU Referendum in April/May time No had a lead of around six points. There were then three polls conducted in June immediately after the referendum vote and the average of those polls has Yes ahead by about five points – which is quite a big swing. But then in July and August the polling average returned to a No lead of about six points. So, we’ve had quite significant swings from No to Yes in the immediate aftermath of a single very high profile event that captures a lot of coverage, but then the polling has returned to something approximating where it was before.”
We put it to Mark that we had also seen something similar during covid. In October 2020 Yes hit an unprecedented 13 point lead over No as Scotland’s covid policy began to diverge from that of Westminster.
“During covid what happened was from the late 2019 polling No was about three or four points ahead and a year later (about 6 months into the pandemic) we had an average Yes lead of around eight points. And then over the course of 2021, with the vaccine rollout and through the campaign for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021 that reverted back to where we had been before the Pandemic with a No lead of two or three points. And that’s where we’ve remained, on average, until the Supreme Court decision.”
When asked if he personally thinks that this is indicative of a more long-term change he was adamant that it’s “too early to tell”.
“[When considering polling changes] I think there’s two things to think about there. One is: is this a shift in response to a specific event? In which case, I think, it’s more likely to be a short-term change which will revert back to a mean. So, if it’s just a response to the UK Supreme Court decision then that’s more likely to see a return to the levels of support for Yes and No that we saw beforehand.
“However, there is also the possibility that this is reflective of a deeper change in opinion resulting from the aftermath of the Truss/Kwarteng budget and the increasing sense of economic crisis that the UK is in – perhaps a growth in feeling that (like in 2020 at the depths of the pandemic) that actually the UK is going to hell in a handcart and things couldn’t be much worse if we became independent and that sort of sentiment blunting some of the reasons why people would be reluctant to vote in favour of independence.
“What we need to see now is, in the first few months of 2023, as that starts to fade from people’s minds, will the Yes lead in the polling average simultaneously evaporate? And if it doesn’t, what’s the impact of (fingers-crossed) inflation starting to come down next year, the economic situation potentially improving. And if that happens, will it cause a shift back to No? But currently it’s far too early to tell what will happen next.”
As well as the Supreme Court judgement, the recent passing of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill through the Scottish Parliament, which caused a cabinet rebellion within the SNP, has led to some suggestions that it may have harmed support for independence.
When asking Mark whether he thinks it will have much of an effect he responded: “starting from first principles, I don’t think it would. What people need to remember is that the Gender Recognition Reform bill and the ‘national debate’ over trans rights and women’s rights has not been front and centre in people’s minds…When pollsters ask people what the top issues facing the country are, it doesn’t register at all.
“But, again, it’s too early to tell what the result of the GRR bill passing through parliament and getting lots of coverage will be – and we may never know. Maybe pushing some more socially conservative voters away from saying they would vote for Labour or the SNP and towards saying they would vote for the Scottish Conservatives (the most obvious public opponents of the bill)…but I don’t think there’s any particularly good reason to think that the GRR bill passing through parliament would have any impact on support for independence itself.”
In recent weeks however, despite Yes’ lead in the polls, research by Our Scottish Future has suggested that the Scottish public, while they may support independence, have a strong attachment to ‘British institutions’ such as the UK Passport and UK-wide old age pension.
Mark doesn’t see this as a direct issue for the independence movement, saying that: “For a long time there’s been an acknowledgement that in order to win people over to independence they’ve had to make it seem as small a change as possible…that was the strategy of the Yes Scotland campaign in 2014.
“The underpinnings of the independence movement aren’t of this desire to bring to an end British institutions in Scotland but is more to do with dissatisfaction with Westminster, with the governance of the UK, the overall economic situation, and really the positioning of independence as an opportunity for people to – not to make too obvious a parallel to Brexit – but to take back control over their lives, the country, and the economy and so on.
“And I think that’s probably still the case, the issue however for the pro-Union camp isn’t pointing to all these specific policy areas and saying ‘if Scotland becomes independent you won’t have this and that’, in fact, we saw that that didn’t work particularly well in 2014 because if it had we wouldn’t have seen the growth in support during that campaign that we did. And it certainly didn’t work in 2016. The take-away there is more that the battle for and against Scottish independence is a battle for hearts and not really a battle for minds. From the pro-Union point of view what they need to do is articulate a vision of Scotland that achieves the same things but that is couched within the current political arrangements. If they can do that, they’ll win.
“But if you allow, during a period of incredible crisis and high-inflation and economic catastrophe for millions of people, the pro-Independence camp to capture the ‘change’ narrative and to be the only side articulating a vision of a changed country then you’ll probably lose.
Mark McGeoghegan is associate director at Ipsos UK and has been featured in The National and The Herald.