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  • Daisy Graham-Brown

58% should be a wake up call for unionists

A new poll from Ipsos MORI puts support for Scottish independence at an all-time high of 58% in an undeniable victory for Yes voters. Yet, whilst the SNP have been turning the tide in the fight for indyref2 for a while now, these latest figures indicate that the tide may be drawing in faster than expected – and the unionists have their heads buried firmly in the sand.

Undoubtedly, an influential factor contributing to this impressive surge for independence is the widespread public support that Nicola Sturgeon has enjoyed in recent months. The First Minister was found in Ipsos MORI’s poll to have a net satisfaction rating of 49%, with 72% of the public saying they are satisfied with the work she is doing. This draws a sharp contrast with Boris Johnson, with 76% saying they are dissatisfied with his performance and a net satisfaction score of -58%. These are the lowest ratings for Johnson ever recorded by Ipsos MORI and reflect a stark difference in public opinion regarding the Prime Minister and the First Minister.

the unionists have their heads buried firmly in the sand

For many, there simply has not been a time in our lives where our political leaders have occupied the public arena to such a personal extent and effect. The Coronavirus pandemic has held them under a new lens of public scrutiny and accountability, with political discourse being pulled from the realm of the abstract and pushed to the tangible fore – to literal matters of life and death. Ramifications and consequences of policies now affect us on an individual level and with immediate effect. Against the backdrop of this new landscape, the two leaders have continued to clash on crucial strategy decisions; Westminster have often been left trailing behind Holyrood in the wake of rafts of new measures being implemented by the First Minister, bolstering the sense that she is dealing with the crisis more attentively than Johnson. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we are seeing a polarisation of popularity for Johnson and Sturgeon and, undoubtedly, this adulation for Sturgeon is influential in a surge of support for her party’s flagship policy.

However, the rumblings of the pro-independence movement had been growing louder long before the Covid catalyst was introduced. With 62% of the Scottish public voting to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, it is no wonder that nationalist sentiment in Scotland began to increase as a nation watched itself forced into a future that it didn’t want, at the hands of a government that it didn’t vote for. This building resentment was overtly realised when the SNP, with Sturgeon at the helm, threw a yellow blanket across the country in 2019’s general election. In a stunning victory against both the Tories and the Labour Party alike, seats were swept up and battle lines were drawn in a clear and decisive refutation of both Brexit and unionism. Covid may have stoked the flames for a second independence referendum, but the consequences of Brexit were what lit the fire.

Pushing back against indyref2’s gathering momentum may therefore seem like a Sisyphean task for the unionist parties. However, if they can get out ahead of the campaign and begin to give the pro-independence side something of their own to push back against – then the unionists may stand a chance. Whether this be taking a hard line on the economic uncertainty of an independent Scotland and the difficulty of re-joining the EU, or even a promise to undertake constitutional reform of the United Kingdom that involves decentralising Westminster’s power – pro-unionists need to be devising their own campaign, rather than feebly pushing back against the independence powerhouse that, as Ipsos MORI’s latest poll would indicate, is stronger than it's ever been.

Covid may have stoked the flames for a second independence referendum, but the consequences of Brexit were what lit the fire.

The one silver lining for pro-unionist Labour voters, in the otherwise grey sky that is the current state of the Labour Party in Scotland, is Keir Starmer’s satisfaction ratings. Whilst the leaders of the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats all received negative net satisfaction ratings in Wednesday’s poll, Starmer is the only party leader besides Sturgeon to emerge with a positive net satisfaction rating of 16%. Historically, Scottish Labour have often struggled to find a clear voice regarding independence – with Corbyn’s ambiguity towards the issue proving disastrous in 2019 – but perhaps this is the time for change. With 44% of Scots saying they are satisfied with the way Starmer is doing his job (27% are dissatisfied, 29% don’t know), Scottish Labour should be trying to harness this approval for Startmer if they wish to fight successfully for unionism.

Whatever their strategy, as a bare minimum unionist parties would do well to heed the significance of Ipsos MORI’s latest numbers. To act otherwise may mirror the Remain campaign’s failings during the EU referendum, where apathy and arrogance in underestimating the potential of a powerful political movement was rectified only after it was too late. In not taking the latest poll and the indyref2 campaign seriously, the unionists will all but guarantee Scotland’s future as an independent state.

only one side seems to be doing the talking in this debate, whilst the other seems unaware that it is taking place at all

Downing Street’s persistent disregard towards the prospect of a second independence referendum therefore seems, at best, short sighted. The release of the new poll was met with a dogmatic response from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, who emphatically declared the question of an independent Scotland a “settled” matter. The reality is, of course, that on either side of the debate, many will see Wednesday’s figures as painting quite a different picture, with the poll instead depicting Scotland’s position in the union as deeply unsettled – destabilised, even.

Although the Scottish Parliament election is still a few months away, it is most certainly on the horizon and, if nothing else, Ipsos MORI’s poll would seem to indicate that Sturgeon is on track to gain a majority. Taking into account this increasing likelihood of an SNP majority in May, coupled with Boris Johnson’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the unionists’ consistently blinkered approach towards Scottish independence, it is clear that the rift between Holyrood and Westminster is widening more quickly than ever.

The debate on Scottish independence has always been composed of two sides but, at present, only one side seems to be doing the talking whilst the other seems unaware that it is taking place at all. If this trend continues, then the fight for indyref2 will keep shifting from an uncertain matter of ‘if’ towards a resounding question of ‘when’: when will it happen? And when will the unionists wake up to the fact that it is, indeed, happening?

Cover Image via Geograph

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