Nicola Sturgeon believes in destiny. In an interview with the Financial Times published yesterday, the First Minister claimed that another referendum on Scottish independence is inevitable because of the demographics of independence. “I’ve got democracy on my side”, she argued, “if they think it’s about playing a waiting game, I’ve probably got time on my side as well.”
Putting aside the arrogance of an elected politician believing their desired political outcome is down to fate, rather than the quality of their own decisions and the democratic process, how realistic is this claim? Do Scotland’s demographics put it on a one-way train to separation, or might the world’s most successful union of nations endure for a while yet?
The truth is more complicated, and more contingent, than the SNP is willing to admit.
Let’s start with the most basic of facts: there is not currently, and never has been, a stable majority in favour of independence in Scotland. Seven years ago, Nicola Sturgeon lost by a ten-point margin. Today, after Brexit, eleven years into a Conservative Government, with a Prime Minister who is distinctly unpopular in Scotland – around 52 per cent of Scots would still vote to stay. And the SNP has no majority in Holyrood. So if democracy is currently on any side, it is not on Nicola Sturgeon’s.
But that does not mean, of course, that opinion will not change.
The First Minister is clearly right that younger Scots are pro-independence.
According to Onward’s research earlier this year, 82 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 81 per cent of 25-34 year olds currently support independence, up from 48 per cent and 59 per cent respectively in 2014. That gives the Yes side a 63 point lead among under-35s. If that fervour holds as voters age, and the First Minister waits long enough, it is not implausible that time (by which she really means the death of typically No-supporting older voters) would do the job for her.
In theory. In practice, other factors may come into play.
These include the strength of the UK’s recovery from Covid-19 and the rehabilitation of Labour in Scotland. But the most important is the SNP’s own record.
The SNP has been in power since 2007, with majority control since 2011, during which time Sturgeon has held two roles: Deputy First Minister and First Minister. During this time, performance has declined across a host of devolved services.
For example, the year before the SNP came to power, 2006, Scotland recorded higher scores in reading and maths than England in the international PISA rankings, and was only marginally behind in science.
By 2018, after 11 years of SNP control, England’s PISA scores were higher on all three measures, and Scotland’s 11 point lead in Maths in 2006 had been levelled down to a 5 point deficit.
Another black mark is the number of Scottish drug deaths, which this year broke records for a seventh year running, with twice the number of people dying from drug-related poisoning in 2020 than in 2010.
Now, Scotland’s drug-death rate is around 3.5 times that of the UK as a whole. Scotland continues to have higher age-adjusted mortality for cancer, and all-cause mortality is now 18 per cent higher in Scotland among men than in England, up from 10 per cent in 2001, despite health being a primarily devolved matter since 1999.
Voters have noticed.
Three times as many Scottish voters (61 per cent) agree than disagree (19 per cent) that “the focus on constitutional issues over recent years has distracted politicians from working more on public services like health, education and the police.” Nearly three fifths (58 per cent) of voters agree that “Scotland’s schools, which used to be world leading, have fallen behind compared to other countries”.
If Scots do go to the polls again, they will be voting not just for independence but for the SNP to run their country alone.
Unless the First Minister can reassure voters she can use her existing powers well, her fateful claim to more control may not be as strong as she thinks.