The arc of history bends towards independence for Scotland

Ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” This is much-quoted by business people - because it says in a line what they spend much of their time trying to do.  

They aim to get ahead of underlying trends, and focus on the opportunities that those throw up. And anybody living and working in Scotland - and the UK today - would do well to take a leaf out of Gretzky’s book and start to plan for Scottish independence. 

Sociological study looks for trends, not snapshots

The latest Social Attitudes Survey, released this week showed a majority of Scots want independence. But the significance of this gold-standard sociological study is more than a simple snapshot poll on voting intentions. It is carefully calibrated to monitor trends.

The same question is asked of a randomly selected sample each year and the results can be plotted on a graph. This survey is based on research carried out almost a year ago. But it reveals the fact that for more and more Scots, the current constitutional settlement is no longer acceptable.

Over the last decade, the number of Scots supporting independence has gone from around 28% to above 50%. The Social Attitudes survey began in 1997 and can map the trends since then. 

Ipsos Mori data goes back still further and confirms the trend. In 1979, on the eve of the first devolution referendum, support for independence stood at just 14%. It gradually rose to around a third by the millennium and stayed there until a decade ago, when another upward trend started to appear. 

Some key points from the survey:

  • Over the last decade, support for independence in Scotland rose from 28% to 52%
  • A third of Labour supporters in England think Scotland should be independent
  • Almost four in ten Labour supporters in Scotland support independence
  • 65% of Remainers in Scotland now back Scottish independence, up from 44% in 2016
  • 37% of people in Northern Ireland think it should be either part of Ireland or independent, up from 17% in 2015

(It's also worth noting that 8% of people in Scotland want to abolish the Scottish Parliament, thus demonstrating that not all that do not yet support independence are on the same page.  The majority of those who would abolish Holyrood are supporters of the Conservative Government in Westminster and that demonstrates that devolution is not in safe hands if Scotland were to vote No to independence again.)

Support for independence was boosted by Brexit

The way the UK government enacted its hard Brexit appears to be boosting support for independence. Two-thirds of people who voted to Remain in Scotland now back Scottish independence, a big rise from around the time of the Brexit vote in 2016.  That is a large group as 62% of Scottish people voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. It’s not surprising that they are scunnered with what has happened since. 

Every council area in Scotland voted to Remain in the EU. Then, the Scottish Government offered a compromise to the UK Government, by which Scotland would stay in the single market under a protocol similar to Northern Ireland's. That was rejected out of hand and the UK government chose to force a hard Brexit on an unwilling Scotland. Since then it has:

Democracy matters - the survey’s conclusion

The survey, whose authors include polling expert John Curtice, concludes that in a democracy, what people think matters: 

“To secure the compliance of citizens with decisions with which they disagree, democracies need the consent of the governed, and that consent is more likely to be forthcoming if there is widespread public support for the rules under which political power is attained and exercised.” 

Conclusion - keep pushing, the door will open soon

In the 2021 election to the Scottish Parliament, Scotland elected parties that support a new referendum on independence. The vote share they secured - 48% - was the biggest ever and far bigger than the mandate secured by the UK government to push through a hard Brexit. 

Currently, the UK government is refusing to recognise the Scottish people’s right to self-determination. But as the curve of support for independence grows, so will the pressure. The Social Attitudes survey is another point of reference on the upward curve that leads to independence. 

They may not be making this public, but you can bet that many people who work in sectors like finance, technology and health sciences will be already making plans for their future in an independent Scotland. 

Further reading:

Read the full Social Attitudes survey report

Five reasons an independent Scotland can be confident of joining the EU

Remaining in the UK is a threat to Scottish universities

Ten ways the UK government is undermining devolution

By Jackie Kemp