Following the Scottish National Party’s success in the May 2021 Scottish Parliament Election, Scottish independence has re-emerged as a decisive political issue, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying a second Scottish independence referendum is a case of ‘when—not if.’ Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that holding a second referendum would be ‘irresponsible and reckless’ at a time when the national priority should be recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. At Redfield & Wilton, we asked the British public for their opinions on Scottish independence, if they would support a second referendum being held, and if one were to be held, who they think would win.
Our research finds a third (33%) of Britons oppose Scottish independence, 31% neither support nor oppose independence, and 29% support it, suggesting the ongoing divisiveness of this issue. Our last poll in April 2021 found that 35% of the British public supported independence, with 32% opposed, and 28% saying they neither supported nor opposed the prospect. Whilst opposition to Scottish independence has not increased meaningfully, support has fallen slightly, allowing opposition to narrowly become the plurality opinion of the British public.
Amongst those who identify as Scottish, a plurality of 45% support Scottish independence—with 24% supporting it strongly—followed by 38% who oppose it—with 26% opposing it strongly. Compared to the general public, a much smaller proportion of those who identify as Scottish say they neither support nor oppose it (15%), indicating that the issue is much more polarised among Scottish people. Meanwhile, of respondents who live in Scotland—who may or may not identify as Scottish—41% oppose and 40% support independence, while a further 17% neither support nor oppose it.
The British public is similarly split over whether there should be a Scottish referendum on independence held in the next year: a third (33%) would support a Scottish independence referendum, but almost a third (31%) would oppose it, and 27% would neither support nor oppose the prospect. There has been little change on this question since our polling in April 2021, when 36% responded that they would support a Scottish referendum on independence being held in the next year, compared to 33% who said they would oppose it, and 22% who would neither support nor oppose it.
Support for a referendum on Scottish independence in the next year rises amongst those who identify as Scottish, with a majority (53%) of this demographic responding that they would support a second referendum, including 29% who would strongly support the idea. In comparison, 35% of those who identify as Scottish say they would oppose it, with 29% strongly opposed, and a further 11% saying they would be neither in support nor opposition. Again, we see a slight difference in responses between those who identify as Scottish and respondents who live in Scotland: 46% of those who live in Scotland would support a Scottish independence referendum being held in the next year, of whom 28% would strongly support it, followed closely by 42% who would oppose it, including 37% strongly opposed.
Across Great Britain, age appears to be a significant indicator of support for a second referendum being held in the near future, with support being highest amongst those aged 18 to 24 (40%) and 25 to 34 (40%) and lowest among those aged 65 and over (24%). Accordingly, respondents aged 65 and over show the highest opposition, with 50% saying they would oppose such a referendum—including 31% who would strongly oppose the prospect—compared to only 10% of 18-to-24-year-olds. This mirrors the findings from our April 2021 poll.
Party vote also emerges as a marker of support or opposition. Of those who voted Conservative in 2019, a plurality of 45% would oppose the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum being held in the next year, while 28% would support it. Conversely, those who voted Labour in 2019 are more likely to support the idea, with a plurality (38%) of this demographic saying they would support a second referendum, compared to 17% who would oppose it.
When asked to predict the outcome of a second referendum on Scottish independence, if one were to happen, a plurality of 44% of the British public says they don’t know who would win the referendum, compared to 32% who think that the ‘pro-United Kingdom’ side would win and 24% who think the ‘pro-Independence’ side would win. When polled in April 2021, 36% of respondents said they didn’t know who would win, compared to 35% who thought the ‘pro-United Kingdom’ side would win and 29% who thought the ‘pro-Independence’ side would win. This increase in respondents saying they don’t know points to a heightened uncertainty surrounding the question of Scottish independence.
Of those who identify as Scottish, almost equal proportions believe the pro-UK side (35%) and the pro-independence side (34%) would win. A further 31% don’t know, yet again suggesting the unpredictable nature of the issue.
Finally, our poll also asked who should be eligible to vote if there were to be a second referendum on Scottish independence. A plurality of 45% think that 16-to-17-year-olds in Scotland should not be able to vote in a second referendum, compared to 40% who think they should be allowed to vote in such a referendum, as they are allowed to vote in Scottish and local elections and were allowed to vote at the first referendum. Support for those aged 16 and 17 being eligible to vote decreases with age, with a majority of 55% of 18-to-24-year-olds responding they should be able to vote, compared to 27% of those aged 65 and over.
Regarding those who identify as Scottish due to birth or ancestry but live elsewhere in the UK, the British public is split: 40% said they should be able to vote and 40% say they should not be able to, with a further 20% saying they don’t know. Britons are likewise divided on whether Commonwealth citizens living in Scotland should be eligible to vote, with 39% saying they should be able to vote, 37% saying they should not, and almost a quarter (24%) saying they are unsure. On Scottish-identifying individuals who live abroad, however, the answer is clearer, with a majority (53%) of Britons saying that they should not be able to vote, including 63% of those who identify as Scottish themselves. Similarly, an overall plurality (44%) thinks British citizens who have lived in Scotland for less than a year should not be able to vote.
Evidently, the question of Scottish independence is far from a settled debate. Currently, opposition to Scottish independence is narrowly the plurality opinion among Britons, but we observe a lack of majoritarian support both for independence and for a second referendum, and a clear plurality do not know who would win if a referendum were to happen. Amongst those who identify as Scottish, support for independence and a second referendum is higher, but there are important distinctions between those who identify as Scottish and those who live in Scotland. Indeed, the question of who should be allowed a vote in such a referendum seems to matter greatly when we take into consideration these differences in support.