Will Scotland go independent?
With the SNP conference coming up at the end of the month, speculation is mounting as to how Nicola Sturgeon will try to frame Scottish independence post-Brexit. Since the independence referendum in September 2014, talk of a second independence referendum has been constant; Britain's vote to leave the European Union has, some say, provided Sturgeon with the 'significant and material' change in circumstances she said would spark a second referendum.
But as Nicola Sturgeon contemplates the prospect of a second referendum, one thing will be at the forefront of her mind: this one better count. To lose one independence referendum might be called bad luck, but to lose two might settle the issue for decades.
So, how likely would a second independence referendum result in the nation's secession from the Union? How have things changed since 2014?
Here are a few things to think about:
1. The polls generally don't seem to suggest Scots want independence. Take a look at our Scottish independence poll of polls below. Since the referendum, there have only been two clear stretches of 'Yes' leads: from mid-December 2014 to mid-February 2015, where Yes held a small lead of half a point on average; and from the end of June last year until the end of August, where Yes received a 'Brexit bump' in the polls to lead No by two to three points. That said, though, there does seem a tightening in the polls in the last month - including, of course, the widely-shared Ipsos MORI poll which put both the 'Yes' and 'No' camps on 50% each. At the time of writing, the Polling Digest rolling average puts 'Yes' at 47% and 'No' at 53%.
2. The mountain the Yes campaign needs to climb is smaller than the one in 2014. Our poll of polls at the start of 2014, some nine months before the referendum, put 'No' 16.5 points ahead of 'Yes'. Over the next nine months, the Yes campaign gained considerable ground and in the end finished at 44.7%, just shy of three points up from where they were nine months before. Likewise, the 'No' campaign, starting 2014 at 58.25%, shedded about 3 percentage points to end up with 55.3% of the vote in September. Rough arithmetic accounts for the final result: the initial gap of around 16 was closed to 10 points by a 3 point increase in Yes' vote and a 3 point drop in No's vote. If we follow this argument from precedent, Unionists should be wary: the No campaign cannot afford to lose 6 points, because that's exactly the lead it currently has.
3. Brexit has split England and Scotland. It is likely that those in favour of Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom will focus heavily on the political and cultural differences between the Scottish and, particularly, the English. As indicated by Nicola Sturgeon by a piece she wrote in The Herald last September, the SNP intends to run the next Yes campaign not on the 'balance sheet' issues of oil prices and the like, but on a wider argument about democratic self-government. A keystone to this more fundamental argument, one suspects, will be the wide differences between the Scottish and English populations as demonstrated by the differences in how each nation voted in June last year. In England, 53.4% of those who voted were in favour of leaving the European Union, compared with 46.6% who voted to remain. In Scotland, however, only 38% voted to leave, while 62% voted to remain.
4. But have the concrete issues really changed that much since 2014? While the wider cultural argument may have changed, there remain many issues which the Yes campaign weren't able to solve in the 2014 campaign. Which currency, for example, would Scotland use? If the No campaign is able to increase the perceived risks of crashing out of the UK without the pound, this will without doubt help the Unionist case. Then there is the issue of Scotland's fiscal problems: at 9.5%, Scotland's fiscal deficit was over twice the size of the UK's (at 4%). If this were to continue, and if Scotland became independent, it would have one of the largest structural deficits as a percentage of GDP in the western world. If the Yes campaign want to tackle this issue head-on, it seems there are three options it could lay out: firstly, it could seek to close the structural deficit by either raising taxes or decreasing expenditure; secondly, it could resolve the oil price issue by either promising to restructure the Scottish economy away from the North Sea reserves or, very differently, banking on an uptick in oil prices; and thirdly, quite unlikely, it could argue in favour of a new Scottish sovereign currency which would allow Scotland to manipulate its own monetary policy to overcome immediate fiscal difficulties, though this route can have serious and lasting consequences. None of these options are likely to be popular, and we will no doubt see some polls coming out in the next weeks asking voters what they would make of these policy proposals; but if oil prices do in fact bump back up during the campaign, the Yes campaign could quite effectively neuter this weak spot. Although much cheaper than it was in September 2014, oil has experienced an increase in its price since the start of 2016.
Downing Street has suggested that Nicola Sturgeon renew her party's mandate in the 2021 Holyrood elections before holding a new referendum, though she may try to push for an earlier polling day. But while we are as yet unclear as to the date of the vote, one thing is pretty clear: this race will be close. We will be following the IndyRef2 polls closely, as you'd expect, so follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also, if you like our work, please consider chucking a few coins our way - the PayPal donate button is below.