Recent polls have suggested that a clear majority now supports Scottish independence. This conforms with polls taken during the referendum suggesting that support would rise if the Conservatives were returned. If Labour continues to suffer internal difficulties and is thought unlikely to win future elections then we might anticipate support for independence growing further.
This may encourage those who think that there has never been a better time for an independence referendum to put pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to include a commitment to a second referendum in the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto.
The prospect of a clear majority for Scottish independence certainly looks greater now than at any previous time. The Tories seem set to be in office well into the future. Labour is in disarray and the payroll activists – MPs and Parliamentary assistants – have been diminished. Labour’s new leader faces internal party management challenges not witnessed since the early 1980s and a media onslaught that may surpass anything previously experienced by a major figure in British politics. Labour may not be in a fit state to put up much opposition and a high profile Tory campaign will do little to help the union.
The SNP and Greens currently have twice as many Scottish Parliamentarians as their opponents and the indications are that this ratio will improve next May. Both pro-independence parties have seen surges in membership and morale has rarely been higher.
The SNP Government will have to make some difficult and unpopular decisions at some point in the next few years. A referendum deferred might push it into a period when the SNP is no longer so popular and this could drag down support for independence.
But while support for independence has never appeared higher and an early referendum may be appealing in some quarters, this does not mean that such a referendum would secure majority support for independence. There are reasons why independentistas might be wary of an early referendum. Even better times probably lie ahead for supporters of independence.
At best, polls currently show a narrow majority for independence. Majority support for independence in the short term is far fro guaranteed. Supporters of independence will need a much more comfortable lead in the polls to be anywhere near confident of victory.
The next referendum campaign will be different from the last. It may prove difficult to match the grassroots activity in a campaign so soon after the last. Even if matched, it will have lost its novelty value. Both sides will learn lessons and improve on past experiences but Better Together has most scope for improvement. A much more professional opposition campaign than that offered by Better Together can be expected. The impact of Gordon Brown’s interventions may have been exaggerated in some commentary but the former Prime Minister’s decision to fight a distinct Labour anti-independence campaign, separate from Better Together, made sense and a separate Labour campaign would seem near certain under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Kezia Dugdale may not look credible as a First Minister but she brings a healthy freshness to opposition. She is likely to be more effective campaigning against independence than campaigning for the office of First Minister. She is one of the few Labour politicians to have emerged with an enhanced reputation after last year’s referendum. In the short term, it may prove more difficult for supporters of independence to brand Better Together a Tory campaign.
Despite the extraordinary levels of public engagement and generally positive experience of the referendum, it is doubtful whether there is public appetite for an early referendum. There would be a real danger that an early second referendum would irritate even those sympathetic to independence.
The state of the economy will matter but more that that will be the state of public opinion. A difficult economic and fiscal backdrop may work in favour or against of supporters of independence depending on attribution of blame/credit and attitudes to risk. Economic prosperity might be credited to the UK Government …or the Scottish Government. It might give confidence to those uncertain about what they see as the risks involved in independence …or incline voters to stick with what they have. A difficult economic and fiscal backdrop might lead to increased support for an alternative or discourage risk. As the previous referendum showed, risks are perceived on both sides of the debate. What will count will be perceptions of which future offers most risk or opportunity.
At this juncture, it seems that the best prospect for a clear majority for independence is likely after another Conservative overall majority at Westminster. Welfare reforms will have bitten deep and the prospect of an alternative to the Tories at Westminster may seem very distant while the Scottish Tories show no sign of revival after their worst performance in a UK general election in May this year.
Support for independence is likely to increase and consolidate just as support for devolution did in the 1980s. A firm commitment to a second referendum is most likely in the SNP’s manifesto in 2021 when there is a consistent and clear lead for independence in the polls.
Timing is all important. The First Minister and her party have to decide when to hold another referendum and what should be included in next year’s SNP manifesto. The temptation will be to try to keep options open next year and only commit to a second referendum in the event of ‘material change’ or some such phraseology. Clarification of such a formulation will be sought and demands to know what this means may come to dominate next year’s election to the SNP’s disadvantage.
If ‘material change’ only means when there is evidence of strong and consistent support for independence then that points to holding a referendum some time after the end of the next Holyrood Parliament. A statement that was open to interpretation might be useful for internal party management purposes but leadership requires something bolder and clearer – whether ruling out a referendum in the next Parliament or a categorical commitment.
James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK(Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @ProfJMitchell.