2022 in Review: Constitutional Polling

Wrapping up the annual review for 2022, it’s time to look at the all-consuming constitutional question. This is only the third year I’ve done this particular analysis, as the first two years of Ballot Box Scotland’s existence it was a bit too dull on this front to have much to say. We’ve since been much more interesting, with the first time I wrote one of these coming at a time of a lead for Independence, whilst last year saw a resurgence for the Union. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say already that what’s made this year fascinating is it ending up going back the other way.

Just like the review of parliamentary polling, there are two aspects to the analysis here. The first is looking at how polling on the constitutional question shifted over the course of the year. That uses the standard (but arbitrary) five-poll average. Since the quantity of polls varies from year to year, for comparability we also have a run through all the polls in Q4. We had a total of 10 polls on Independence over the past three months, amounting to three from Panelbase, two from each of Savanta and YouGov, plus one apiece from Ipsos, Find Out Now, and Redfield & Wilton.

As is always the case with polling on this question, this is going to look at figures both with and without Don’t Knows included. That comes with the caution that Don’t Knows are particularly important on this sort of binary question, and faced with a real referendum may not split neatly between options.

Independence Polling Average Through 2022 (Including Don't Know)

Although 2021 ended with a lead for the Union, this (very simple and completely arbitrary) polling average actually saw 2022 start with a very slender Yes lead. That was down mostly to what was genuinely a bit of an outlier from Ipsos, and once that exits the average it snaps back to a lead for No once again. Things were then relatively stable for a few months, only really tightening further by the time of the Mini Budget. 

We then see things flip into a genuine lead for Independence following the Supreme Court judgement, which ruled the Scottish Parliament lacks to power to legislate for any kind of Independence referendum without the UK Parliament’s consent. Although some of Twitter’s noisier partisans were quick to rubbish another big Ipsos lead as another outlier, almost everyone else polling around the same time found Independence ahead. Although the final poll of the year put the Union in the lead, it’s too early to tell whether that’s already a sign of the trend fully reversing or a single pollster blip.

It’s also therefore too early to say whether this could end up being comparable to the roughly year long period through early 2020 to early 2021 that saw Independence with its first ever sustained lead. A notable difference with this little bump compared to that period is that Scots are seeming a bit more settled, with Don’t Knows running at around 5-6% compared to 10-11% back then. This has mostly been to the benefit of the Union, which means that…

Independence Polling Average Through 2022 (Excluding Don't Know)

… When you look at things excluding Don’t Knows, although the raw Yes figures earlier were comparable to the previous peak, it’s about 1% lower by this measure. However long this bump might last, at the moment it’s not quite replicating the previous best performance for the Pro-Independence camp. That said, this is still one of the biggest and most notable increases in support for Independence since the referendum.

Prior to the lead reversing at the end of the year, the closely fought nature of the constitutional question was evidenced by the fact No only once exceeded the dreaded 52% in this average. Otherwise, it sat mostly within the realms of the margin of error – an uncomfortable place for our politics to exist within, it has to be said.

Independence Polling Average Q4 2022

Changes here are versus Q4 2021 and, for the pure No:Yes figures, the 2014 referendum. Remember we’re dealing with 10 polls for this quarterly average, as opposed to the five above.

Since this includes polls conducted prior to the judgement, it gives a somewhat closer set of figures than the final point in the charts above. That’s nonetheless still a lead for Independence, which is up a couple of points since Q4 2021. Growth for Yes relative to last year comes almost equally from a reduction in No support and people saying they Don’t Know. Once we take the latter out, we find we’re still very much within margin of error territory, though Independence has a slightly stronger lead than the Union did previously.

I’ve made this point a few times, but it bears repeating: whatever happens to polling on the constitutional question over the coming months, it’s very unlikely to meaningfully, substantially and permanently change so long as the focus of debate remains on process. As we’ve seen, flashpoints around process can lead to swings, but there’s no guarantee that those will be maintained, and it still leaves things in an unsustainably close place. In the long term, precious few people are going to change their mind on the substance of the constitution based simply on procedural arguments.

There is only one way to truly resolve the constitutional question – through establishing a clear, significant, and sustained majority for one of the two options. You could argue there are two routes to doing so, one being by convincingly winning the argument, and the other by reducing the salience of the question. To a certain degree that’s perhaps why the procedural issues are preoccupying both Governments and both wider constitutional camps.

If there was to be an actual referendum, that would necessitate a serious discussion on the merits of Independence versus Union, in a way we’ve only very infrequently had over the past eight years. That’s very much why the Pro-Independence side would like to have such a vote sooner rather than later, though it has to be said there’s no reason not to discuss the substance in the absence of one. By contrast, the Pro-Union camp appear to be playing for time, hoping that the issue will effectively go away. It… remains to be seen whether that strategy will bear fruit.

Council Area Projection

Please see this page for how projections work and important caveats.

On this purely for indication, purely for fun projection versus 2014, Yes would have a lead in 17 council areas (up from 4 at the referendum, and 12 last year), compared to 15 for No (correspondingly down from 28 in 2014, and 20 at the end of 2021). The pattern here is broadly the Central Belt (bar the most affluent bits) leaning towards Independence, with Angus, the Highlands and Western Isles as outlying areas also swinging that way, whilst the south of the country and the mostly rural sweep in between the Highlands and Central Belt remain mostly supportive of the Union.

Other Attitudes

Timing of a Referendum

One of the regular bits I report in the full analysis piece for each poll are the questions on timing. As each pollster asks this in a slightly different way, I can’t really average it out the same way, but we can instead take a quick look at some of the most recent findings on this front. First, we’ve got Ipsos from the 28th of November – 5th of December:

And YouGov from the 6th – 9th of December:

I’m also certain the Savanta from the other day will have this sort of stuff in it, but the tables are yet to be released to find out, alas. Regardless, I expect they’d tell a similar story to these two: majority opposition to a referendum next year, but support for one over the following few years. That might suggest that the Pro-Union side’s strategy of playing for time isn’t necessarily aligned with the wishes of voters. However, it’s also quite possible that “not right now, but in five years” remains the default position and before you know it, it’s five years on and people are still saying “okay, but not right now!”

Support for a "De Facto Referendum"

Another question asked in that recent YouGov was whether voters would support the Scottish Government declaring Independence on the basis of a 50%+ vote for the SNP and other Pro-Independence parties at a UK general election.

The answer is pretty strongly “no, they wouldn’t”. A total of 52% of voters oppose this suggestion, compared to 39% support, and in fact more people strongly oppose the idea than support it at all. It’s probably not a coincidence this aligns roughly with the proportions of people who oppose versus support a referendum next year. Given how serious Scotland’s constitutional status is as a topic, it shouldn’t come as a shock people would need a lot more convincing than they’ve had so far that this would be the route to changing it.

I’ve got my own musings on this particular suggestion – though I’m pretty sure the much more expert Professor John Curtice has also said this recently – which boil down to wondering whether even the Pro-Independence side would truly take a 50%+ vote at a UK GE as a mandate for Independence. It seems to me more likely, and perhaps more sensible, to take it as a mandate for a referendum.

Of course, the Pro-Independence parties would argue such a mandate already exists at Holyrood, an argument I’m afraid I’d have to upset some readers by saying I agree with. Look, Scotland is a parliamentary democracy, and there’s a parliamentary majority for one, it’s as simple as that. Saying there’s a mandate for something is not the same as saying it should happen or you have to like it however – think of all the times governments have done things you disagree with, but you’d nonetheless concede they won the election partly on a pledge to do so. 

Regardless of the norms of parliamentary democracy, the UK Government have made it clear they are disinclined to allow a referendum, and the legal situation is now crystal clear that the UK Parliament has to sign off on any such vote. I’d be completely unsurprised if in reality, the “de facto referendum” ended up as a referendum on having a referendum, rather than on Independence itself. Whatever else the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon may believe, they’ve been clear their preference is for what they deem the “gold standard” of a proper referendum.

Power to Call a Referendum

Of course, if the Scottish Government had the power to call a referendum, we wouldn’t be in this situation. The legal reality is as it is, of course, but that doesn’t mean it should be that way. Again in the same YouGov poll, respondents were asked whether the Scottish Government should have the power to call a referendum without the UK Government’s agreement.

Some very familiar figures once again here, effectively a reversal compared to views on using a UK GE as a “de facto referendum”. A majority of voters do indeed believe the power to hold a referendum should lie with Holyrood. Yet again, this is something that shouldn’t really leave anyone stunned. The Scottish Parliament has grown to be seen as the focal point for Scottish political life, and it’s natural that being the case voters would tend to agree that it’s the body which should get to call an Independence referendum.

This is all perhaps emblematic of how the constitutional question isn’t just one impasse, of the hotly contested Yes versus No, but multiple overlapping logjams. Scots have not settled that core Independence versus Union question. We don’t want a referendum next year; advantage Pro-Union camp. However we do want one roughly within this parliamentary term; advantage Pro-Independence side. We don’t think a UK General Election is the right avenue to gauge Independence support; and on that we align with the No campaign. Yet we think it should be for the Scottish Government to call a vote; and that matches up with those who’d lead the Yes campaign.

In short, the Scottish electorate remains just so very messy. Whilst I have no idea what’s going to happen next year, I am pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s going to be suitably complicated!

Nearly done...

At this point I’d generally be signing off for the rest of the year. However, I’ve got a little extra constitutional treat I’ll be dropping in between Christmas and the New Year, so don’t completely log out of your Twitter just yet. I’ll therefore leave you with wishes for a very Merry Christmas for those who celebrate, and hope you’re intrigued enough to pop back for a peek in a few days!

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