THERE seems to be some confusion about the significance of the findings of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey which was published today. The survey found that a record 52% of respondents support Scottish independence, with just 38% preferring devolution and a mere 8% supporting the abolition of the Scottish Parliament.

The fieldwork for the survey was carried out in October last year. This has led some, not least the supremely self-regarding Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, to sniff dismissively that the findings only show that support for independence was narrowly ahead a year ago, and meant absolutely nothing now.

Others have protested that since the survey asks respondents to select between a range of constitutional options including devolution with or without tax-raising powers it is not directly comparable to other recent polls so doesn't really give us information about the current level of support for independence when faced with the binary question : Should Scotland be an independent country? which is the most likely phraseology in a future independence referendum.

READ MORE: Unionists ignore Scottish independence support poll at their peril

However, the purpose of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is not to provide a snapshot of public opinion at a given moment in time, it is to track the longer-term evolution of public opinion. This is the first time since the survey started to ask about the constitutional issue in 1999 that support for independence has been the choice of the majority, that is what makes this result so significant. In 1999 just 27% of respondents gave independence as their preference, whereas 59% opted for devolution. Throughout the first ten years that Scottish respondents were asked about their views on the constitutional isssue, support for independence hovered in the 20s and 30s percentile and was easily beaten by support for devolution.

Perhaps a more interesting question than asking why support for independence has risen is asking about the reasons for the sharp decline in support for devolution as the constitutional preference of the people of Scotland, from 59% in 1999, dropping 21% to just 38% in the 2021 survey.

Devolution became the settled will of the people of Scotland after the long and bitter experience of the Thatcher era when an unpopular right-wing Conservative government in Westminster imposed damaging policies on an unwilling Scotland which hadn't voted for them. Devolution was seen as the means of protecting Scotland from the malign effects of Conservative governments that Scotland had rejected at the ballot box.

After Brexit, and with a blatantly English nationalist Conservative government that openly denies the UK is a voluntary union of nations, but rather “one great British nation” and which runs roughshod over the devolution settlement.

We have learned the hard way that devolution is hopelessly inadequate and it cannot protect Scotland from a Conservative government that has no qualms about ignoring the democratic will of the people of Scotland.

In this vitally important respect, devolution has failed. Devolution cannot protect Scotland from the malign effects of a Brexit it did not vote for, and it cannot protect Scotland from an English nationalist Conservative government which is determined to unilaterally re-write the very understanding of the nature of the United Kingdom. The findings of the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggest that the people of Scotland have learned this lesson and are now far more inclined to back independence as the only means which can guarantee that Scotland actually gets what it votes for.

This year's Scottish Social Attitudes Survey demonstrates that Scotland is increasingly uneasy as a part of the United Kingdom and more and more has its eye on the exit door. The so-called “muscular unionism” espoused by the Truss Government will certainly play well with that small minority of Scottish opinion that backs the abolition of Holyrood, an unrepresentative segment which is influential within the Conservative party. For the rest of Scotland this will only confirm their fears that devolution offers an inadequate protection from unwanted Conservative policies and will hasten the movement recorded in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey towards support for independence.

Scotland may not yet be a country where support for independence is the settled will of the people, but the direction of travel is clear, particularly when we look at the demographic breakdown of independence support, which is overwhelming in the younger generations. No wonder the Tories and their Better Together Allies are desperate to prevent a referendum from taking place. However, their dilemma is that the longer they succeed in postponing it, the more likely it becomes that they will lose when it inevitably takes place.