I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor to describe the Scottish opinion polls and I’m sorry but the best I can come up with is a car that occasionally moves forward and occasionally moves backwards while all the passengers argue furiously about how far they’ve travelled. And every now and then supporters of independence sit up and ask: are we there yet? The answer is no.

What the latest polls do appear to show is that there has been a bit of movement and that the trend is towards Yes at 50-54 per cent. Some nationalists say the figures prove support is “soaring” (they generally prefer plane metaphors to cars) but do remember that we’ve seen this kind of range for Yes before – just before the 2014 referendum for example and just after the vote for Brexit. What we haven’t seen before is several polls in a row showing the same higher levels of support for independence. I think it’s safe to call it a trend.

However, the polls are only part of the picture because at the same time as there appears to have been a tilt towards Yes, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has reiterated his opposition to a second independence referendum and his resistance is significant. Some nationalists characterise it as unionist arrogance, but maybe they should look more deeply at Labour’s position because it helps explain where we are; it also highlights the groups of voters who are still resistant to Yes.

READ MORE: Latest poll finds support for Scottish independence at 54%

What Sir Keir said when he was asked about the subject last week was that it would be wrong to break up the UK just as the country is facing up to mass unemployment. “I don’t believe breaking up the United Kingdom is the right thing to do,” he said, “particularly when we are on the verge of an economic crisis, the like of which we haven’t seen for a generation”. The Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has said something similar: the party's focus should be on rebuilding Scotland’s economy after coronavirus.

This focus on the economy matters because it gets to the heart of why there’s movement on Yes and No, but only so much movement. What we know is that when there’s growth in inequality – as there has been under coronavirus – nationalism can become more popular. People get angry and resentful; they also look for change and for some people, remarkably, the SNP is the party of change even after so many years in government. To switch the metaphor from cars to rivers for a minute, if you follow nationalism back to its source, you’ll invariably find economic unfairness and poverty so it shouldn’t be surprising that a slight rise in support for nationalism is one of the effects of Covid-19.

That's not the whole story though, because Covid and the economic damage it’s doing is also behind some of the resistance to the SNP, as Sir Keir’s comments demonstrate. It’s obvious from the polls that most of the recent rise in support for Yes comes from Labour voters, but the relative stubbornness of the No vote is also down to Labour voters who’ve come to different conclusions: old-school socialists, internationalists, and left-wingers like Richard Leonard who are instinctively and ideologically suspicious of nationalism. Their solution isn’t to focus on nationality, it’s to focus on inequality, and their instinct still accounts for how a lot of Labour voters feel.


Even so, looking at the polls, it’s obvious that some of these Labour voters are still prone to peeling off to the SNP and support for Yes: the most recent Panelbase poll shows support for independence among Labour voters has risen by two per cent to 37%. However, the anti-nationalist hardcore is still there and collectively they represent one of the three broad groups of voters that are still resistant to Yes.

The second group you can spot by looking deeper in to the figures. Some 20% of people who voted No in 2014 now say they would vote Yes, but what complicates matters is that some 10% of those who voted Yes in 2014 now say they would vote No and I suspect much of that can be put down to the Brexit effect not working quite as the SNP had expected. What the party thought and hoped was that leaving Europe would get the momentum moving decisively towards Yes, but the problem is that some Scots who voted for Brexit now appear to be converted away from Scottish independence because of the SNP’s pro-European position.

READ MORE: More than half of Scots in favour of Scottish independence in new Panelbase poll

The third group that are still resistant to Yes should come as no surprise to anyone because they’ve been resistant from the start and that’s the middle classes. The polls show some of them moving over to Yes, but not in the numbers that the campaign needs and again the economy will be having an effect here but in a different way. For some people, an economic crisis leads them to conclude that independence is the answer; for others, particularly the better-off, the worry is that independence will make things worse.

These three groups are not comprehensive – there are other categories of voters who Yes is struggling to convince (women, for example, are still much more likely than men to support No). But the fact that the middle classes and old-school Labour voters are proving so hard to convince poses a big problem for the SNP in framing their campaign from here on in: go too radical with your independence message and you risk scaring off the middle classes even more; play it too safe and you won’t attract more of the left-wingers who are staying loyal to Labour.

There’s also a big problem for those who are concerned about the trend towards Yes in the polls which is that the economic trouble is about to get worse with the end of furlough and the beginning of Brexit and there’s every chance that will mean the trend towards Yes accelerating. It’s not a coincidence that support for nationalism and the SNP really started to grow after the end of the economic stability of the 90s and in the years of austerity under the Coalition Government. The question now is whether the return of economic stability in the future – whenever that may be – is the only thing that can turn things around for No.

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