Good news for unionists! Sort of. A poll has revealed 63 per cent of Scots believe 
an independence referendum should not be a Scottish Government priority right now.

Not only that, 72% said next year’s elections should be focused on the economy and public services. And, when asked the question “should Scotland remain in the UK or leave the UK?”, 56% said they would vote to remain. As I say: good news for unionists. Sort of.

The most hopeful bit centres on what I was saying in this column the other day: a yes/no question is biased towards yes and it’s likely the Electoral Commission, and UK Government, will conclude that the question in any future referendum will have to be different from the one we were asked in 2014. Once adjusted along those lines, the Survation poll suggests the result could be different: the “remain in the UK” option wins.

However, unionists should be cautious about celebrating too much. First, if any future referendum sticks with yes/no, there has undoubtedly been a shift towards yes. But the other problem is that the questions in the Survation poll hide deeper problems for the unionist side, chiefly a dilemma that every UK-supporting voter is going to face in the coming months. Depending on what voters decide to do, it’s a dilemma that will probably be good for the SNP.

The dilemma is highlighted by the question in the poll about what the priorities should be in next year’s elections: 58% said the virus and public health, 50% said the NHS and social care, 41% said the economy, and only 11% said the constitution. On the face of it, this looks good for unionists: only one in 10 thinks independence should be an issue next year.

But, if the Survation poll accurately reflects how people are thinking, it sets up a considerable problem for a lot of voters. Around half will be inclined to support remaining in the UK. But many voters may also be inclined to support the SNP on what they say is the most important issue: coronavirus and health. The polls suggest a high approval rating for the SNP’s handling of the crisis (whether they deserve it will have to wait for another column).

The question for next year is what voters will do when faced with such decisions and that will partly depend on how the parties play it. If the SNP goes hard on independence, it will fire up the hard core, but it may turn off voters who are inclined to give the SNP credit for the way it has handled coronavirus but do not want their support to be interpreted as a vote for another referendum. On the other hand, if the SNP plays down the independence line too much, it will 
be harder for the party to claim a mandate for a referendum (although they would do it anyway).

There is a similar and related dilemma for the Tories and Labour. Faced with voters who say public health is more important than independence, the opposition could run with that but risk voters supporting the SNP based on its management of coronavirus. Alternatively, the opposition could play up independence anyway, but if they do that and the SNP win, it would be much harder for the Conservatives to then argue that the SNP doesn’t have a mandate for another referendum. Sir Keir Starmer’s inconsistent comments on the subject over the past few days would suggest Labour hasn’t yet decided how to tackle the situation.

The dilemma for UK-inclined voters is what they should do in such a scenario and the example of the last UK election is a worrying portent. Essentially, many unionist voters in that election were faced with a similar dilemma: they could vote against the SNP in an attempt to thwart another independence referendum but risk a Conservative government pushing through a hard Brexit, or they could vote for the SNP in an attempt to thwart Brexit and risk their vote being seen as supporting another Scottish referendum.

What many decided to do in the end was vote SNP because of Brexit. A lot of them were still opposed to independence, and they agonised over whether voting SNP was the right thing to do. But, in the end, they concluded Brexit and a Tory government was the greater evil.

I remember one voter telling me that his vote was in no way a pro-SNP vote, simply a way of ensuring a Brexiteer did not win in his seat.

The problem is what happened after that. In 2019, many Scots lent their vote to the SNP over Brexit in Scotland in the same way many Labour voters lent their vote to the Tories over Brexit in England, and the SNP sought to attract the swithering Scottish voters by playing up the “Stop Brexit” message. The problem is that, after the election, the SNP behaved as if every vote for it was support for another independence referendum. It was blatant and outrageous, but that’s what it did.

The obvious danger for voters is the SNP will do the same again next year (hint: it will), although the fact that the Scottish elections are based on proportional representation rather than first-past-the-post will help the unionist parties. Many unionists voted SNP last year because they were in constituencies where this was the only way, under first-past-the-post, to maximise the chances of thwarting the Tories and Brexit. But, under the PR system at next year’s election, they may feel more able to vote for the party they actually support.

Voters will also hopefully be aware of what’s at stake next year, whatever the parties say. Voters may tell the opinion pollsters that coronavirus and public health are their number-one priorities (and they’re certainly talking about those subjects much more than they’re talking about the constitution). But they will also surely be aware that next year’s election will be the deciding factor in whether there is another referendum on independence.

What that means is that voters will have to ask themselves two questions. First, what are the issues I care about? And second: how will my vote be used by the party that wins? And it’s the second question, I’m afraid, that’s going to matter more. Last year’s election was our chance to vote against Brexit. Next year’s election will be the chance to vote against independence.