John Curtice: Hearts and minds will take some winning

With 53 per cent 'worried' about going it alone, the SNP has its work cut out to convince a doubtful public to vote for independence

SCOTLAND has now embarked on a new political path. Last month's election result dramatically cleared away the tangled constitutional thicket that stood between the SNP and its wish to give the people of Scotland the opportunity to vote for or against independence. Now protagonists on both sides of the argument are having to work out how they might win the hearts and minds of the people of Scotland in what will be the most important ballot the country has ever held.

But the dnouement is not going to happen any time soon. Although the previous minority SNP administration had wanted to hold the referendum last year, apparently the time will not now be ripe until 2014 at the earliest. This timetable stands in stark contrast to the speed with which Labour held its devolution referendum after its landslide victory in the 1997 UK general election.

The leisurely pace is, in truth, an implicit acknowledgement of failure. In 2007 the SNP had a clear strategy for winning Scots over to the idea of independence. The party would provide Scotland with three years of popular, effective government. That would enhance the SNP's authority in the eyes of the public who would follow its lead on independence.

However, that strategy did not work. Although the party did provide a government that was widely regarded as reasonably effective, this brought no apparent yield in terms of increased support for independence. This is illustrated in our first chart, which shows the levels of support for independence, devolution and no parliament at all, as recorded by ScotCen's Scottish Social Attitudes survey since the advent of devolution. It indicates that, if anything, support for independence has appeared to be somewhat lower during the last four years (just 23 per cent in 2010, for example) than it had been beforehand.

The 2011 election campaign did not alter that picture. In its final poll for this newspaper, YouGov reported that 28 per cent would vote in favour of opening negotiations on independence, exactly the same proportion as did so immediately before last year's UK general election. A recent post election poll by TNS-BMRB produced a somewhat higher figure - 37 per cent - but this too was very much in line with what that same poll has recorded on various occasions during the last four years.

There is at least one good reason why the nationalists' original strategy did not work. Ironically, since the SNP have been in power people in Scotland have been happier with the deal their country has been getting out of the Union. For example, back in 2005 only 21 per cent thought that Scotland benefited most economically out of the Union, while as many as 36 per cent reckoned England did. (The remainder thought both countries benefitted equally.) Now 26 per cent reckon Scotland profits most, while only 23 per cent feel England does. A similar change has occurred in people's perceptions of Scotland's share of public spending.The SNP government has, of course, been more willing to air its disagreements in public than was the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat administration. This seems to have helped persuade Scots that their interests are being defended effectively within the Union, and perhaps for some at least have made the case for independence seem less pressing.

So the SNP are going to have to do more than provide another spell of effective, popular government if the independence referendum is to be won. They are also going to have to generate the level of enthusiasm for independence that existed for devolution by the late 1990s. At the time of the 1997 referendum, as many as 77 per cent thought that the creation of the devolved parliament would give Scots more pride in their country, 71 per cent believed the country would have a better education system, while 64 per cent even thought the nation's economy would grow stronger. People were seemingly persuaded that devolution would bring little less than a land flowing with milk and honey.

They do not as yet feel the same way about independence. Quizzed just a dozen years after the devolution referendum no more than 58 per cent thought that independence would foster greater pride, while only around 30 per cent reckoned that independence would result in better schools or a stronger economy.The level of concern about the possible consequences of independence should not be exaggerated. For the most part people are indifferent or uncertain rather than convinced that independence would be a disaster. As many as 60 per cent either feel independence would make no difference to the standard of education in Scotland or are uncertain about what impact it would have. Fewer than one in ten are convinced that Scotland's schools would be worse. A 'No' campaign that relied primarily on the claims that independence would result in disaster might well find it has much less resonance than many unionist protagonists sometimes seem to think.

Nevertheless, there is some unease. One focus of concern is what would happen to the nation's economy. This is the one area where the proportion who feel that independence would make things better is matched by an equivalent sized group who think it would make matters worse. The SNP has still to win the economic case for independence, and it is unlikely that it will be able to secure a Yes vote unless it can do so.

But what the SNP needs to overcome above all are not fears about the practical consequences of independence but rather a more diffuse, emotional sense of unease about the prospect. More than half (53 per cent) say they would be "worried" if Scotland became independent, while fewer than a quarter (22 per cent) would feel 'confident'. One of Mr Salmond's big assets is his ability to paint an optimistic picture of his nation's future, but he is going to have to deploy that skill to maximum effect. At the same time, Mr Salmond faces an important decision about exactly what choice he should place before the Scottish public when the referendum is eventually held. Should he simply ask them to vote for or against negotiations for independence? Or should be also put a second option on the ballot paper - "devolution max" - that is the idea that Scotland should become responsible for most of Scotland's domestic affairs, but still remain within the ambit of the United Kingdom?

Our second chart shows why he might be sorely tempted to do so. For while Scots still appear to be reluctant to embrace independence, they do appear to think that Holyrood is the place where most important domestic decisions should be made. Slightly less than a third believe the Scottish Parliament should be making the key decisions for Scotland about defence and foreign affairs. But around three-fifths think decisions about taxes and welfare benefits, both of which are still largely reserved to Westminster, should be made by Holyrood. Indeed, support for devolving responsibility for these two areas seems to be almost on a par with that for subjects such as education and health that are devolved already.

The Scotland Bill currently going through the UK parliament will give Holyrood somewhat greater responsibility for taxation, but it will still leave most tax decisions in Westminster's hands. Meanwhile, the Bill does not affect responsibility for welfare benefits at all. Even if Mr Salmond manages to extract a few more concessions out of the UK government before the Bill is eventually passed, the new constitutional position will still be far short of "devolution max". So there would still be good reason to pose a second question - should Mr Salmond and the SNP be happy to see their country opt for what they at least would regard as second best.

• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and research consultant to the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen). Some of the research reported here was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but responsibility for the views expressed here lie with the author alone. Prof Curtice will be speaking at The Scotsman's conference next Monday on 'The New Parliament - What Does it Mean for Scotland?'