Last week’s election result raises fundamental questions about the future of the Union, with the Conservatives victorious south of the border and the SNP triumphant in Scotland. In the short term, stalemate looks the most likely outcome – while Nicola Sturgeon is set to publish plans this week on transferring powers so that Scotland can stage a second independence referendum in 2020, UK ministers have so far ruled out a further vote. A degree of political realignment on Scottish independence may take place, with some senior Scottish Labour party figures calling for the party to support a second independence referendum, amid the inevitable soul-searching following its election defeat. But how confident are the Scottish public about the Union’s future?
The answer to that question depends on the timeframe. In the short term, two things are clear based on recent polling. First, while the polls have moved a little over the past few months, to a point where the result would be too close to call if a second independence referendum was held immediately, public opinion has not shifted to a point where there’s a majority in favour of independence. This means that a second independence referendum in 2020 would be high-risk for the SNP – and the party leadership know this well, however much sabre-rattling is directed at Boris Johnson’s government.
Second, the balance of public opinion is against a second independence referendum being held in 2020. Half of Scots (50%) are opposed to indyref2 being held next year, according to Ipsos MORI’s polling in November, although a not insubstantial 42% say they support it. That comes as no surprise given the sheer political and economic uncertainty surrounding what will happen in 2020, which the Scottish public is well aware of. Brexit is the top issue of concern for people in Scotland, and was also the top issue that people told us would help them make up their minds about which party to vote for in last week’s election (ahead of the NHS, in second place, and Scottish independence, in third). The opposition to indyref2 being held in 2020 may also signal voter fatigue, given how many elections and referenda have been held in recent years.
Fast forward five years though, and Scots recognise that things could look very different. In Ipsos MORI’s recent polling, almost half of people in Scotland told us that they don’t think the UK will exist in its current form in five years’ time, with 39% saying that it will and 48% that it won’t. Irrespective of whether people in Scotland are ‘fed up with constant division and uncertainty’, as Scottish Secretary Alister Jack suggested this week, more of them are expecting further constitutional change in the next few years than aren’t. And this holds true even for a significant minority of those who were opposed to independence back in 2014 - three in ten (29%) of those who voted No then now say that they don’t think the UK will exist in five years’ time.
Scots are more likely to think the Union’s future is at risk in the medium term than their neighbours south of the border are. The British public are split on whether the UK will still exist in five years’ time – when Ipsos MORI last polled GB-wide on this issue in October 2019, 42% said the UK will continue to exist over that timeframe, while 44% told us that it wouldn’t. When we look a decade ahead though, public opinion in Scotland and Britain overall are in step. Just three in ten of us (28% in Scotland and 29% in Britain overall) expect the UK still to exist in its current form in ten years’ time. For Boris Johnson, who has pledged an ‘unwavering commitment’ to the Union, this is a sobering forecast that should give pause for thought.
The wisdom of crowds in Scotland may well turn out to be right. The Holyrood elections in 2021 look set to be a key turning point in determining whether the Union has a future, or is on course for break-up. If the SNP and pro-independence Scottish Greens win a majority in the Scottish Parliament at the 2021 elections, it will make it much more difficult for Boris Johnson’s government to refuse a second referendum on independence.
Party cues will remain important. Scots’ views on the UK’s future vary according to the party they support, with SNP supporters the most likely to expect the UK to break up - 79% say it won’t exist in its current form in five years’ time. In contrast, Conservative supporters tend to be more confident the UK will continue to exist, with just 14% saying it won’t exist in five years’ time. It’s striking that Conservative supporters in Scotland are more emphatic that the UK’s future is assured than the party’s supporters across Britain are - 73% of Conservative supporters in Scotland say they expect the UK to exist in five years’ time, compared with 56% of Conservative supporters across Britain. Meanwhile Scottish Labour supporters are more divided on the medium-term future of the Union – 48% say the UK won’t exist in five years’ time, while 40% say it will.
These results remind us that the future of the Union is a long game, rather than an issue that’s likely to reach any clear resolution in 2020. Only time will tell whether, in hindsight, last week’s general election result will come to be seen as an event that hastened the break-up of the Union or not.
This piece was originally written for the Herald and is available to read on their website.