Treat with great caution claims that majority support for independence has “crystallised”. Certainly, we are seeing a sequence of polls indicating majority support. But we’ve seen this before. From June 2020 to January 2021, Yes led in 20 successive polls. Thus far, the latest sequence of polls showing a Yes lead numbers only 4. So let’s not get too excited.
In fact, when we consider what happened to the apparently “crystallised” lead a couple of years ago we might well remain completely unexcited. It evaporated. It evaporated quickly and completely. Between April and November 2021 there was a series of 24 polls with No ahead in all but 2.
This is where we have to step away from the statistics in order to find an explanation. In the case of the previous apparent solidifying of a Yes lead the explanation ─ or the biggest single factor ─ is kinda staring us in the face. As is the explanation for the subsequent draining away of the sustained lead. This was the period when Nicola Sturgeon’s presentational and (to a lesser extent?) managerial skills in the early part of the Covid emergency stood her in such good stead. Especially when contrasted with the slapstick ineptitude of Boris Johnson and his administration. It was this rather than actual support for independence which was being reflected in the polls. As if to confirm this, when the pandemic started to drop down the news agenda, support for Yes in the polls fell back.
Polling for Yes increased due to what we might term ‘external factors’. That is to say, factors not related, or only remotely or tangentially related, to the constitutional issue. In this case, Nicola Sturgeon’s high visibility in the media and not unfavourable coverage. It did not increase because of anything the SNP was doing in terms of advancing Scotland’s cause. Indeed, by this time Sturgeon had issued her infamous cease and desist order to the entire Yes movement. Officially, all campaigning was stopped.
Putting a gloss on things, we might say this was a period when the SNP was at least honest about having forsaken the independence campaign.
Polling for Yes subsequently decreased due to Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to capitalise on the incidental boost. She failed to exploit the advantage fate had provided. Hardly for the first time, an opportunity was squandered.
The latest signs of a sustained Yes lead in the polls ─ if that’s what they are ─ can also be attributed to external factors. This time, it’s public reaction to the judgement of the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) on the referred draft Referendum Bill. Nicola Sturgeon’s wee army of loyalists and apologists will almost certainly insist that this is not an external factor at all. They will claim that the public reaction to the judgement was all part of their leader’s brilliant ‘plan’. All I can say to that is if her ‘plan’ relies on such ephemera then there’s no reason for me to explain why I use single quotes when referring to her ‘plan’.
If Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the constitutional issue to date is any guide then this ‘crystallisation’ of a Yes lead in the polls will not last. Her record suggests she will fail to exploit the advantage as she has before. Unless she breaks with her past ─ which seems unlikely ─ another opportunity will be squandered.
So, let’s not pin too much hope on what will almost certainly turn out to be a blip in the polls. Or, perhaps, a bleep. Let’s not be taken in by the fanfare with which these polling results are presented. Let’s try to be realistic.
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