Scotland’s foremost expert on political polling has said the outcome of a second independence referendum is a “lottery” with support for Yes and No split 50-50.
Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said it was impossible to know how the public would react if the issue was put to a vote as there was a “new debate” to be held in the wake of Brexit.
Speaking ahead of Nicola Sturgeon’s briefing to MSPs at Holyrood on her “route map” to holding a fresh independence referendum, Sir John said that the two sides were neck-and-neck and that the picture would only become clear when the arguments for and against were “marshalled” and put to the test in a campaign.
However, he said that it was “inconceivable” the First Minister would not try to hold a referendum as she was a “prisoner” of the independence-supporting electorate which put her in power in 2021, just as Boris Johnson was beholden to the leave vote which secured his 2019 General Election victory.
Independence supports voted Nicola Sturgeon into power
Speaking to the BBC Sir John said: “We do not know what the outcome of any referendum would be. If it were to be held in the near future, and you take the average of the most recent polls, it’s ‘No’ slightly ahead.
“But really, ever since 2019 and that parliamentary impasse over Brexit in the House of Commons, support for independence in Scotland has been close to the 50 per cent mark and we did have a spell in the second half of 2020 when the polls had ‘Yes’ ahead.
“But when the polls say it’s close to 50-50, given there would have to be a campaign, and given that a lot of the issues we would face in another referendum have been changed fundamentally by the fact of Brexit – which means there’s a whole new debate to be held – we just don’t know how the public will react when the arguments are marshalled.”
He added: “We don’t know how well the two sides will succeed in marshalling their arguments and given that public opinion is close to 50-50, frankly it’s a lottery at the moment over which side would emerge victorious after a referendum.”
Sir John, the lead commentator for the ‘What Scotland thinks’ website, said that Nicola Sturgeon had been voted into power by an electorate which wants to see a second independence referendum, and was duty-bound to respond.
However, he believes that the First Minister has some room for maneuver as pools suggest her voters do not “necessarily feel” there has to be a vote by the end of next year – her preferred timetable – just that one has to take place by the end of the Scottish Parliamentary term in 2026.
The academic said: “It is inconceivable that Nicola Sturgeon is not going to attempt to try to hold an independence referendum, given the character of the electorate that voted for her in 2021 as it would have been for Boris Johnson not to have implemented Brexit having got a majority in 2019 essentially off the back of those who voted Leave.
“Both Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson are in a sense prisoners of the electorates that got them into power, and what we are going to see played out in the coming weeks and months are those two contradictory mandates and contradictory coalitions engaging in a game of cat and mouse about whether and how a possible referendum might be held. “