As the SNP conference begins, what do polls tell us about the referendum race?


  By G.A.Ponsonby
The SNP conference starts today.  Thousands will descend on Perth as delegates gather in readiness for the ultimate campaign.  The theme of the conference will be encapsulated in one word – FORWARD.

There will be 1,200 SNP delegates and members in attendance – the same size as last year’s, despite that conference being inflated by the NATO debate – and a record 50 diplomatic representatives from countries around the world.

The 50 Diplomats attending will include representatives from the US, China, Italy, Japan, Spain, Norway, Russia, France, Germany, Cyprus, Canada, Austria, Turkey, Australia, Malawi, Nigeria, Finland, Cuba, Netherlands, Slovenia, Belgium, Poland and Qatar.

There will be 190 Media representatives and 55 Exhibitions with a further 41 Fringe Meetings. 

There will be one thing on everyone’s mind of course – the referendum – can the Yes campaign catch its rival?

Naughtie, Naughtie

The day also marks the arrival from London of a certain James Naughtie to the airwaves of BBC Radio Scotland. 

Naughtie may mark his arrival from the metropolis by quizzing a high profile SNP politician.  If past jousts are anything to go by, the BBC man may try to conflate support for the SNP with support for Yes.

BBC Scotland’s Brian Taylor indulged in a similar bit of mischief yesterday when interviewing the First Minister.  Mr Taylor cited Holyrood polls which put the SNP ahead for Holyrood.

The Survey Said

But leaving mischief aside, what purpose do polls serve and are the referendum surveys credible this far out.

An interesting document accompanied the standard party political press release issued by the SNP to coincide with the start of their conference.  It contained a virtual plethora of stats, polls and surveys stretching all the way back to the 1970s.

The figures were remarkable and may give those in the No campaign pause for thought.

Currently there is general agreement that the No campaign have a healthy lead over their Yes counterparts.  This lead, notwithstanding a Panelbase poll that gave put Yes one point in front, varies from a believable 10% to an incredulous 30%.

Go back to the nineties and you find independence regularly in front.

But just how relevant are these polls?


Actual referendums on independence are thin on the ground.  The closest to the Scottish situation is of course the Quebec referendum of 1995.  That referendum produced a narrow win for the No campaign – No: 50.58% / Yes: 49.42%.

However it is the results from surveys leading up to the Quebec poll that raises questions as to the credibility of the current crop of Scottish polls.  In Quebec the No campaign were enjoying consistently healthy leads in the months leading up to the ballot.

Six weeks before the September 14th vote, support for independence – or sovereignty – was only 35.7%.  Two weeks later, the Yes campaign began to eat into the lead and had reduced it to ten points.

With three weeks to go, some pollsters began recording leads for Yes, and with 21 days to go until the actual ballot almost every pollster gave the Yes campaign a narrow lead.  It scared the Canadian Government which mounted a sustained and quite nasty campaign in the final weeks, eventually winning by 1.16%.

Scottish Assembly

A similar pattern was observed in the 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum where the Yes campaign was regularly polling healthy leads, garnering between 60 and 70 per cent support.  Even two weeks before the ballot, a MORI poll gave the Yes campaign 64% with No on 36%.

The final result was a narrow win for Yes, 51.6% against 48.4% for No.


Only two weeks ago a referendum held in Ireland highlighted the dangers of relying on polls when the Irish government’s option for abolition the Senate was defeated by 51.7% to 48.3%.

Only 6 days before the actual ballot, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found abolition was “backed by 62% with only 38% in favour of retaining.”

In a stark warning to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Diarmaid Fleming of BBC News in Dublin reported that: “[Irish PM] Mr Kenny’s refusal to take part in a television debate appears to have been a huge miscalculation.”

When you hear SNP politicians at conference say that the referendum contest is there to be won, then you’d better believe them.