How likely is the coming of Scottish independence following the Holyrood elections in May 2021?

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The Holyrood election is fast approaching, with less than a week to go until Scots take to the ballot box. The sixth Scottish Parliament elections have been long-awaited, fought with lockdown and distancing between candidates and voters. But this election is more decisive than just seeing whether Nicola Sturgeon can hold onto the reins of power, however; this election may be decisive for the Scottish independence movement too. Eat News spoke to Sir John Curtice, British political scientist, Senior research fellow, and pollster, to learn more about the election and the future for Scotland in the UK.

Scottish Independence has been an ongoing topic of conversation for the best part of a decade now. Even after Thursday 18th September 2014, when Scotland voted ‘No’ (55%:44%), disagreement on whether Scotland should be independent or not, has continued to divide the nation.

Back in November 2020, at the Scottish National Party’s annual conference, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, brought it back to the central discussion when she made it clear that she had “never been so certain” that Scotland would become an independent nation.

Ever since, it has been clear that the upcoming election is about so much more than SNP popularity, it is about favourability to devolved powers and Scotland’s belief that it can break free from the union to take the world on its own. 

Sir John Curtice told us, Scotland’s independence debate today is very different to 2014, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.

“All that stuff about free personal care and free university, free tuition fees…that’s yesterday’s story. The biggest devolution issue above all is the pandemic.” 

So just how much has the past year shaped the independence debate? How likely is the coming of a Scottish independence election? And most importantly, how do we think the Scottish people would vote?

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Curtice amounts that, on average the polls suggest that there is a majority for independence, with the most recent polls saying 54 for yes 46 for no. While Curtice suggests that the last three or four polls having seen that number shaved down slightly, there have been 20 polls in a row, which have suggested that there would be a majority, in favour independence.

“We’ve never previously had a consistent series of polls, but over what is now an eight-month period we have, with all of them putting ‘yes’ ahead. So, for the first time in Scottish polling history and Scottish political life, it looks as though there may be more people in favour of independence than there are in favour of the Union.” 

Curtice explained that this favourability for independence has very notably grown concurrently with Sturgeon’s popularity.

“Sturgeon’s popularity has risen pretty dramatically during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, she was in most satisfaction polls receiving a split 50:50 amongst supporters and opposers like. But now, she’s been back up to two thirds, with over 70% of the Scottish population commending her leadership in Scotland throughout the pandemic”

“Sturgeon is enjoying the levels of popularity that she enjoyed when she first became First Minister in the autumn of 2014 when she was riding on the crest of the wave of a yes and the wave wanting emotional euphoria and wanting to affirm support for yes.”

Nonetheless, Curtice points out that while Sturgeon has experienced a growing fanbase, Boris Johnson’s actions have been heavily and publicly criticised. Indeed, this largely laudatory reaction to Sturgeon from the Scottish public has been growing at the expense of a dimming faith in Downing street leadership. 

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Curtice argued that Johnson’s actions during the COVID-19 crisis have further worsened an already poor perception of Tory party leadership in Scotland. Going on to suggest that this split in leader popularity in such critical times could give the Union it’s most important public policy issue, that the devolved institutions have ever seen.

So, what about Brexit? How has the Scottish perception of Brexit affected the appetite for independence? 

“Scotland voted majority to remain, and they haven’t changed their mind. However, what has changed since is how Brexit has completely reshaped the character of support for independence.”

Previously, the Brexit referendum of 2016 and the independence referendum of 2014, shared no relationship. 

Those who were sceptical about the EU were no more or no less likely to vote for independence, than those who were pro- EU. But that’s all changed now. The choice that now faces Scotland again is not the same as it was in 2014. Back then it was whether should be in or outside the UK but inside the European Union come what may. Now, it is do you wish to be in the European Union and outside the UK or do you want to be in the UK and outside the European Union. The choice has been dichotomized and the way the polls are presenting, we could expect a different result today, than the one we saw five years ago.

The world has witnessed significant change over the past decade that has and will continue to shape the way many of us look to the future. 2020 in particular, renowned as a year of reflection of realisation. Could this include the separation of two of the United Kingdom’s kingdoms? The polls suggest it may well be.

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“How likely is it that this independence referendum will come about? Of course, we cannot know. But is there a public perception that maybe attitudes have shifted? Yes. Therefore, as a result, do people think that maybe it might happen? Sure.”

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Antonia Liley is an Eat News correspondent in the UK and a parliamentary assistant in the House of Lords.


Eat News is a Taiwanese digital media, analyzes current events and issues through column articles, videos, visual aid, and exclusive interviews.

5 thoughts on

How likely is the coming of Scottish independence following the Holyrood elections in May 2021?

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