The end of the Union?

by Emily Gray

Following a hard-fought contest, Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom at the 2014 referendum on independence – 55% voted No to Scotland becoming an independent country, while 45% voted Yes. Fast forward six years though, and public opinion looks very different.

Our landmark Scottish Political Monitor poll in October showed the highest level of support for independence ever recorded. Public opinion has shifted decisively in favour of Yes: 58% of the Scottish public told us they would vote Yes if a referendum were held tomorrow, while 42% would vote No (undecideds and don’t knows are excluded). In November this had fallen slightly: 56% say they would vote Yes, while 44% would vote No. 

Rising support for independence

If a referendum were held tomorrow about Scotland’s constitutional future, how would you vote in response to the following question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Ipsos MORI Scottish Political Monitor

c.1,000 Scottish adults aged 16+ per wave. Based on all likely to vote, excluding undecideds/don’t knows

Scottish flags during a pro-independence protest

Many in Scotland believe that Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its will

What’s changed Scots’ minds?

Three factors have been key – Brexit, COVID-19 and leadership. First, Scotland voted against Brexit – 62% of Scots voted to remain in the European Union at the 2016 referendum, while only 38% voted to leave. Many in Scotland believe that Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its will, and this has led some Remainers to change their minds on independence.

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us devolution in action. Decisions taken in Scotland have affected people’s everyday lives more than ever before. And most Scots have liked what they have seen. The First Minister’s cautious handling of the pandemic – prioritising public health first and foremost – has resonated with the Scottish public, in contrast with what many Scots see as the chaotic situation south of the border.

Lastly, leadership and communication matter. Nicola Sturgeon’s favourability ratings among the public have remained sky high over the course of the pandemic so far. In November, 74% of the public felt the First Minister was handling the pandemic well – in spite of well publicised failings such as the number of COVID-19 deaths in care homes. In contrast, Boris Johnson’s ratings in Scotland have been woeful, just 19% of the Scottish public say he is handling the pandemic well, while 62% feel he is handling it badly. Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland has undoubtedly contributed to the shift towards independence.

Did you

Among those
likely to vote,


would vote 'Yes' in a Scottish independence referendum

What will 2021 bring?

The Holyrood elections on 6th May will be a milestone. If, as currently looks likely, the Scottish National Party gains a majority of seats at Holyrood, they will argue that this gives a mandate for a second referendum. Barring a wildcat referendum such as that seen in Catalonia, however, this cannot happen without consent from Westminster and will require a transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament in order to hold a second referendum.

Downing Street’s reaction to the latest polling was that the question of independence had been settled back in 2014 in a ‘once in a generation’ vote. Only time will tell how long the UK Government can hold that line if pro-independence parties win a majority at Holyrood and public opinion in Scotland remains decisively in favour of independence.

Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland has undoubtedly contributed to the shift towards independence

Emily Gray

Emily Gray

Managing Director, Scotland