Scottish independence is not inevitable so don't fall for the SNP hype – Murdo Fraser MSP

A small majority in favour of Scottish independence found in recent polls vanishes when people are asked in the context of questions about currency, a hard border with England and public service cuts, writes Murdo Fraser MSP

Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, 4:45 pm
Optimisim has been rising among supporters of Scottish independence in recent weeks, but support for leaving the Union may not be as great as it seems, says Murdo Fraser MSP (Picture: John Devlin)
Optimisim has been rising among supporters of Scottish independence in recent weeks, but support for leaving the Union may not be as great as it seems, says Murdo Fraser MSP (Picture: John Devlin)

We have just passed the sixth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum, that “once in a lifetime” vote to decide our country’s future. Not surprisingly, the date has prompted a rash of commentary about where the Scottish constitutional debate now stands, much of it ill-informed.

Some commentators, often those distant from Scotland, have pointed to a number of recent opinion polls showing a small majority for a Yes vote on the question that was posed in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country.” According to some, this shows unstoppable momentum towards Scottish independence, driven by Brexit and a supposed distrust amongst Scottish voters of Boris Johnson’s UK Government.

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A significant counter to these arguments was presented in a new poll published on Friday by Survation, commissioned by the campaign group Scotland in Union. What this poll showed was that voters were less likely to support leaving the UK if there was a risk of losing the pound as our currency, the creation of a hard border with England, and cuts to public services. Voters would also be less likely to back separation if Scotland were to be outside both the UK and the EU for a number of years.

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Some 63 per cent of those polled, including more than a third of SNP voters, said that a second independence referendum was not a priority at this time, and only 11 per cent said constitutional affairs and independence were amongst the most important issues currently facing the country. Crucially, when then asked how they would vote in a referendum as to whether Scotland should remain in the UK or leave, 56 per cent said they would vote to remain as against 44 per cent who would vote to leave, when undecided voters were excluded.

In the wake of some of the recent polling on the 2014 question, there have been overblown claims made about how independence is now the “settled will” of the Scottish people. In reality, what this latest polling from Survation shows is that that is far from the case. Scots are certainly divided, perhaps equally, on the constitutional question, but the framing of how the question is put is highly significant in terms of the response that is provided. A question asked in the abstract about whether Scotland should be an independent country will generate a higher positive response than the one asked in the context of the potential challenges that such a country would face.

Pro-independence campaigners also point to polling that suggests that support for separation is higher amongst the younger generation. The former Moray MP Angus Robertson (who lost his seat in 2015 to the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross) made this point in crass and offensive terms in a newspaper article at the weekend, claiming that 55,000 “predominantly Yes supporting 16-year-olds” join the electorate every year replacing a similar number of predominantly No supporting older voters “passing away ever year”.

Leaving aside the grotesque insensitivity of these comments, particularly at a time when so many older people are dying because of Covid-related illnesses, Mr Robertson’s claim is based on an entirely false premise. It presupposes that an individual’s political views do not change throughout their lifetime. But we know this to be total nonsense, and that people tend to become more conservative, and risk-averse, as they get older.

So a 19-year-old voter, with debts in excess of assets, might well be up for taking a punt on a new unproven economic model. The same individual 30 years later with a career, mortgage, savings, a pension, and family responsibilities, will undoubtedly take a different view, and be much more sceptical of a project that cannot answer basic questions on what currency would be used, the level of interest rates, or the long-term security of the financial sector.

To give another recent example: if the voting intentions of today’s 18- to 25-year-olds were to remain fixed throughout their lifetimes, then it was only a matter of time before Jeremy Corbyn would become Prime Minister, given his popularity with that age group. Even the Labour Party knew that was nonsense.

It is a useful tool for politicians to build a sense of inevitability around a project in order to create momentum amongst the public. I am old enough to remember back in the 1990s when opinion polls consistently told us, over a very long period, that the public felt that Britain adopting the euro as its currency, and ditching the pound, was only a matter of time. We know what happened to that supposedly “inevitable” outcome.

That is not to say that, in any of this, unionists should be complacent about the current situation. We do know that the economic case for independence, looking at all the uncertainties and the notional fiscal deficit of an independent Scotland, is much weaker than it was back in 2014. It is hard to find a single prominent business voice in Scotland today who will speak out for independence, in contrast to six years ago when there were a range of individuals prepared to back the Yes campaign at that time.

Those who would promote the break-up of the UK recognise this, and the argument for separation is framed more on emotional grounds than economic ones; claiming that we in Scotland have such a significantly different political culture from the rest of the UK that we have to break away from our friends in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The annual Social Attitudes Survey tells a different story, suggesting that, across a whole variety of topics, public opinion in Scotland is very much in line with the UK average.

I have been encouraged to see, in recent weeks, colleagues in the UK Government focussing more on the constitutional debate. It is important that there is sensitivity to legitimate Scottish concerns on issues such as the UK Internal Market Bill. But it also means exposing some of the hyperbolic nationalist scaremongering about “Westminster power grabs”, which is as unfounded as it is hysterical.

The United Kingdom as a political project of four peoples sharing in the main a similar outlook on life, championing values of liberal democracy, tolerance and open debate, is a model which is envied around the world. This is what we should be promoting and celebrating, as a counter to the attempts of nationalists to differentiate and divide.

As the latest polling shows, independence is not inevitable, but in these uncertain times those on the unionist side of the argument need to work hard to make our case.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife

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