Analysis: Reluctant devolutionists must exercise an element of caution

'Middle way' has been proposed as preferrable to status quo or independence. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
'Middle way' has been proposed as preferrable to status quo or independence. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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REFORM Scotland must have been delighted when they first saw the results of this Ipsos MORI poll they had commissioned. Pitted against both independence and the status quo, the idea for which they have been campaigning for some time – that the Scottish Parliament should have sufficient tax powers that it is more or less wholly responsible for raising its own revenues - emerges as by far and away the single most popular constitutional preference north of the border.

Indeed, unlike independence, the idea even appears to have gained momentum. Most previous polls that have asked people to choose between independence, the status quo and some ‘middle way’ have found the three options to be more or less equally popular. Now following the recent debate about whether or not a second question on more devolution should appear on the referendum ballot paper, we discover that a ‘middle way’ has apparently become markedly more popular.

But at this point we should exercise some caution. As we know from previous polls, even the level of support registered for a relatively well developed proposition such as independence can depend on how the question is worded, and this is certainly likely to be true of any reference to the less familiar idea of enhanced devolution. So the high level of support for more devolution registered in this poll could reflect the particular description used - which we might note includes a reference to the idea as involving ‘increased powers’ - rather than evidence of any dramatic change in the public mood.

Moreover, even if the result of this poll is accepted at face value, it still serves to underline why Scotland’s constitutional status is so difficult to settle. Some form of ‘middle way’ might be the single most popular option north of the border but it is still the first preference of well under half of Scotland’s adult population. On the constitutional issue Scotland is in truth a nation of minorities.

Equally, we should not presume from this poll that Reform Scotland’s own particular preferred ‘middle way’ is necessarily the version of enhanced devolution that those who back that idea would most prefer. Under their proposal, known as ‘devo plus’, Holyrood would gain many new tax powers and responsibilities, but most welfare benefits would still remain the preserve of Westminster. However, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has found that devolving welfare benefits, including pensions, is apparently no less popular than devolving taxation.

Nevertheless, this poll will help reignite the debate about why the No side, whose campaign is due to be launched next week, has so far both refused to contemplate having a second referendum question on the ballot paper and failed to make a clear, bankable promise of more devolution should Scotland vote ‘No’. Even amongst Tory supporters, over half feel unionists should be campaigning for a more powerful Scottish Parliament while nearly three quarters of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters take that view. Simply killing off independence is unlikely to resolve Scotland’s constitutional future.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University