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EDINBURGH — The path to a second referendum on Scottish independence doesn’t look smooth.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week renewed her push for a second vote by 2023 at her Scottish National Party’s first conference since pro-independence parties won a majority in parliamentary elections in May.
Although U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far said he won’t grant one, the SNP has indicated it is prepared to hold a referendum anyway and even go to court, setting up a constitutional standoff with Westminster.
But according to polling conducted for POLITICO by Redfield and Wilton Strategies, Scots — by a narrow margin — believe the power to hold a referendum should lie in Westminster and aren’t currently convinced by the merits of independence.
Forty-three percent of the 1,000 Scottish voters polled said they agreed that Scotland should only hold a second independence referendum if the U.K. government agrees to it, while 38 percent disagreed. Excluding those who don’t know or don’t hold an opinion either way, the poll showed that a small majority of 53 percent believe it should be up to Westminster.
Respondents backed Scotland remaining in the U.K. by 47 percent to 44 percent, a narrower margin than the 55-45 result in 2014 but some way off the big Yes leads enjoyed by Sturgeon and her supporters 12 months ago. Both sides will see opportunity in the close to one in 10 Scots who remain undecided.
On the matter of timing for any referendum, voters were largely united against the idea of holding a vote in the next year (34 percent support and 50 percent oppose) but were more divided on holding one during the next five years (41 percent support and 42 percent oppose).
However, most voters agreed with Alister Jack, the U.K. government’s secretary of state for Scotland, who told POLITICO Westminster could agree to a referendum if polls show 60 percent of Scots want one. Just 25 percent disagreed with Jack’s assessment.
While Johnson’s government will continue to feel pressure from those agitating to re-examine Scottish independence, this polling suggests there is some way to go before that pressure really starts to bite.
No thanks, Keir
One persistent headache for Johnson has been his own unpopularity north of the border.
The new polling showed that he remains an unloved figure in Scotland, with 58 percent disapproving of the British prime minister and 40 percent of the total respondents answering that they “strongly” do so. Close to half of voters opposed to independence disapprove of the prime minister, marking his popularity as one of a few issues where opinion isn’t split down constitutional lines.
Worryingly for the opposition Labour Party, their leader Keir Starmer doesn’t fare much better. Even fewer (19 percent) approve of Starmer’s performance than Johnson’s (20 percent), though the Labour leader isn’t quite as unpopular as the British prime minister with 38 percent disapproving of Starmer compared to a whopping 58 percent who disapproved of Johnson.
By contrast, Chancellor Rishi Sunak continues to poll well in Scotland. Sunak — widely thought of as a potential future prime minister — has a net +3 approval rating with the voters asked, making him the only one of the seven U.K. Cabinet ministers in this poll to receive a positive rating.
In something of a signal the pro-U.K. side may be best served letting a younger and more diverse cast of politicians make the case for the U.K., the only other Unionist politician to poll positively was Scottish Labour’s relatively new leader Anas Sarwar (+5).
Towering over both in the popularity stakes, however, is Nicola Sturgeon.
Though her net approval rating of +14 is down a little on some of the scores she achieved earlier this year, the first minister’s continuing popularity represents the biggest blockade for unionists trying to make the case for the U.K. — and the most helpful communicator for nationalists trying to break it.
The prospect of rejoining the European Union is also helpful for the pro-independence cause. Thirty-nine percent of voters — including 21 percent of No voters — claim they are more likely to support independence if it were certain an independent Scotland would join the EU, compared to 21 percent who said they were less likely.
However, an independent Scotland’s path back into the EU is fraught with difficult hurdles to clear. Under EU rules, new members have to commit to joining the euro — something that 43 percent said would make them less likely to support Scottish independence.