Humza Yousaf is to be the first minister of Scotland after narrowly winning the election for leader of the Scottish National Party. In his victory speech, he said he was “determined to deliver” independence for Scotland. But Yousaf only narrowly won the contest, which is a significant hindrance to this aim.
Only SNP members were allowed to participate in the vote to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader. A recent poll showed that had the election been open to the wider voting public rather than SNP members, one of Yousaf’s two rivals, Kate Forbes, would have been the more likely winner. As it stood, a second round was needed in the contest because Yousaf did not win more than 50% in the first round. When the second preference votes for Ash Regan were redistributed to her rivals as the system required, he won by the very small margin of 52% to 48%.
Independence was the prize Sturgeon had been seeking all her political life but a majority vote for independence in a referendum eluded her. And the evidence shows that it was her divisiveness that prevented her from securing the independence vote. This can be shown using data from the Scottish Election Study conducted at the time of the Holyrood parliamentary elections in 2021.
Polarisation as a barrier to independence
The Scottish Election Study survey was conducted just prior to polling day and it asked a question about Sturgeon’s “likeability”. This was measured using a ten-point scale where a respondent scoring zero “strongly disliked” her and another scoring ten “strongly liked” her. It turned out that 18% of respondents gave her a score of 10 and 26% scored her zero. So while Sturgeon had a lot of admirers, she also had a lot of detractors.
The study also included a question about the strength of respondent feelings about independence. In this case a scale from -10 to +10 was used where the maximum negative score meant that respondents would very definitely vote “yes” in a new referendum and the maximum positive score meant they would definitely vote “no”. In the event 29% scored -10 and 37% +10. This revealed that the strong opponents of independence outnumbered the strong supporters by a significant margin.
If we compare attitudes to independence with Sturgeon’s likeability, not surprisingly there was a very strong correlation between the two (r=-0.61). Strong supporters of independence really liked her, whereas strong opponents really disliked her. This may explain why opponents of independence have outnumbered supporters for most of the time since the 2014 referendum.
This can be seen in the chart which shows trends in support for independence averaged by months calculated from the hundreds of polls conducted since the referendum. In each case the question put was: “Should Scotland be an independent state?” When the “Yes” vote was greater than the “No” vote the graph moved above the horizontal red line and when the opposite happened it moved below that line. Some 75% of the observations are below the red line.
Support minus opposition to Scottish independence
We’re yet to see such detailed polling in the post-Sturgeon era, but the narrowness of Yousaf’s victory suggests much of the same is to come unless something significant changes. Given that the party members were divided in their choice this strongly implies that the Scottish electorate will be equally if not more divided.
One of the key reasons why many Scots are opposed to independence is that “independence fatigue” has set in. A YouGov poll conducted just after Sturgeon announced that she was stepping down showed that 53% of Scots agreed with the statement that her successor “should not prioritise independence for the time being”.
Much like the rest of Britain, the Scots are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues such as the state of the economy, education and healthcare. This is even true for SNP voters, something revealed by a Scottish Business News survey which showed their top priorities were the cost of living crisis (65%), the health service (58%), and the economy (31%). Only 30% of them chose independence as the main priority..
Yousaf framed himself as the continuity candidate in the leadership election, and the lesson in all of this is that the more he neglects bread-and-butter issues to focus on independence (as Sturgeon was accused of doing), the less likely he is to achieve it. The Scottish Election Study showed that only 6% of respondents thought that the economy had improved over the previous year compared with 68% who thought it had declined. Views about the state of the health service and education in Scotland were similar.
It is noteworthy that the only sustained period when support exceeded opposition to independence was at the start of the pandemic. This was when Boris Johnson’s government was flailing about trying to deal with the crisis. At the time Sturgeon was praised for her handling of the issue.
However, as Sir John Curtice pointed out, this was not enough for her to win consistent support for independence. As the COVID vaccines came on stream and the Westminster government got its act together, Scotland reverted to the “No” voters outnumbering the “Yes” voters.
If Yousaf proves to be another polarising politician and does not deliver on the main issues of importance to the Scots, he won’t be able to deliver on his promise to achieve independence in his generation. In fact, given that some people think he is no match for Sturgeon as a political communicator, he is likely to move the dial on the independence issue, but in the opposite direction.