By the time that you get to nineteen opinion polls in a row, over the course of more than a year from several different polling companies, all of which have shown a lead for a vote for independence in a referendum, it becomes legitimate to posit that a desire for independence is now the settled will of the people of Scotland.
It’s certainly true that at 51% for yes, the most recent poll does not show as commanding a lead for independence as some previous polls, which have put support for independence as high as 58%, but this categorically does not mean that support for independence has gone into decline. Opinion polls work, insofar as they do work, because questions are asked of a sample of people who are believed to be representative of the wider population. However different polling companies have different strategies for arriving at a representative sample and may have somewhat different notions of what constitutes a representative sample. A consequence of this is that you cannot meaningfully compare the results of a poll from one company with polling results from a different company, because you’re not comparing like with like.
This most recent poll was carried out by the Survation company. Polls from Survation have been described as being less “Yes-friendly” than polls from other companies in that the methodology used by Survation in order to determine how representative its samples are appears not to favour any factors which could potentially boost a yes vote, but which doesn’t seem to rule out with the same vigour factors which potentially boost a no vote. It is very significant then that support for yes is still in the lead even in polls from companies which are not “Yes-friendly”. This increases confidence that the past slew of polls showing a majority for yes do indeed reflect a real shift in Scottish public opinion and despite the howls of protest on social media from British nationalists who complain that they and their pals in the ludge weren’t asked, it’s now safe to say that a majority of people in Scotland would vote yes to independence in a future referendum. Scotland is now a pro-independence nation in a way that it was not in 2014 or indeed at any point in its recent history. That is a shift of historic proportions and one which will be hugely significant for the future of this country.
This seismic shift in Scottish attitudes has not gone entirely unnoticed south of the border, although it’s safe to say that the dominant view in England is a denial that the union between Scotland and England is now entering its terminal phase. This week former Conservative chancellor George Osborne penned an opinion column in the Standard newspaper, advising Boris Johnson to deny Scottish democracy in order to fend off independence. It was a piece which was shocking in its naked contempt for the democratic rights of the people of Scotland, and which dripped the arrogant – colonialist – mindset of the Conservative establishment where Scotland is concerned. It is telling that George Osborne regards Scotland as a territory to be possessed and not as a society to be engaged with. At no point in his article did he display the slightest concern that Scottish opinion as expressed through the ballot box is something that needs to be taken into account.
Osborne discusses Scottish independence purely in terms of how it would affect the pretensions of England to great power status, saying, ” [Scotland’s] departure would represent the end of the UK. The rest of the world would instantly see that we were no longer a front-rank power, or even in the 2nd row.” For this reason he tells Johnson to refuse any call for another independence referendum, In his eyes, it is perfectly acceptable to sacrifice Scottish democracy on the altar of English exceptionalism. Essentially, George Osborne has admitted that England has no sense of itself and needs Scotland more than Scotland needs it.
Osborne’s advice to Johnson is that the latter must refuse to allow another independence referendum. Osborne appears confident that any referendum without a section 30 order would be illegal – although as more informed observers know, that’s a matter without a definitive legal ruling. He does not mention the unquestionably legal possibility of a plebiscite election and arrogantly suggests that any independence referendum without a section 30 order could be crushed in the same way that Madrid suppressed the Catalan referendum, with police brutality and prison sentences. Where this falls down however is in Osborne’s English exceptionalist idea that the international community would react in the same way as it did to the events in Catalonia. Sadly for him there is no guarantee of that.
The fundamental difference is that the Spanish Constitution explicitly rules out any independence referendum in any part of the territory of the Spanish state. However the British state has already conceded that Scotland has a right to self-determination and moreover via the Edinburgh Agreement has established a legal and constitutional pathway for this to be realised. Given that, if Scotland were to replicate the political conditions which led to the first referendum, only for a referendum to be refused by Westminster solely on the basis that the British government feared that it was going to lose in a democratic ballot, the international community may very well take a different view than it did to the Catalan vote and be sympathetic to a Scottish government which sought to take an alternative route to allowing the people of Scotland a democratic expression of their will. This is all the more likely since the UK is no longer a member of the EU. Brussels no longer has a vested interest in bolstering the pretensions of the British state or in rewarding Johnson’s anti-democratic instincts.
The recent poll from Scot Goes Pop also tells us that people in Scotland are not content to roll over and accept a Johnson veto on their democratic will. A full 63% support some sort of plan B should Johnson refuse a section 30 order and remain intransigent.
For my own part, I prefer going for a plebiscite election after the refusal of a section 30 order because it would be harder for the anti-independence parties to boycott it and because it is unquestionably entirely lawful and constitutional. This certainly does not mean waiting five years until the 2026 elections as there are ways and means of precipitating an earlier vote. It would certainly be possible to have a plebiscite election later this year.
The Scottish government would be perfectly justified in bringing about such an early election if the British government was undemocratic in blocking the Scottish Government from implementing the most important policy on which it had been elected. This is a plebiscite election which would have an extremely good chance of receiving support from the international community,and would certainly have majority support amongst the Scottish population- even amongst many who are not currently in favour of independence. The anti-independence parties would no longer be able to argue that Scotland is a partner in a union as the British Prime Minister will have demonstrated that Scottish democracy has been vetoed by a Prime Minister and a party that Scotland didn’t vote for and whose anti-referendum message had just been rejected at the ballot box. The mere act of a Johnson denial of a referendum after the electorate has just clearly voted for having one will itself create an upswelling of anger and revulsion which will only boost support for independence even further.
The same cannot be said of any attempt to make this May’s election an effective plebiscite on independence, which is why I prefer to wait a few months longer when our position will be immeasurably stronger and that of our opponents far weaker. The issue here is not getting a vote on independence – that is most assuredly going to happen, the issue is winning it and ensuring that the result is recognised by the international community.
However I suspect it is more likely that the Scottish government will first test the lawfulness of a consultative referendum under the auspices of Holyrood and without a section 30 order in the courts. The outrage to Scottish public opinion and the destruction of the traditional understanding of Scottish unionism that Johnson’s refusal of a section 30 order will create will most likely negate any effect of a Conservative boycott and render it meaningless. By that time support for independence will most certainly be the settled will of the people of Scotland and even the most recalcitrant British nationalist on social media will have no choice but to accept it.