John Curtice: EU is not high on agenda

IT IS not surprising that we might expect Scotland’s views to be different.

Now almost as many people were willing to vote to stay in the EU as wanted to get out. Picture: AP

After all, those Tory backbench voices that have been berating the Prime Minister in the last week for not delivering immediate legislation for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union do sound very English. And Ukip has so far shown little sign of being able to repeat north of the Border their spectacular success in the English shires earlier this month, thereby causing many a Tory MP to hit the panic button.

Indeed, much recent political debate north of the Border has seemingly been based on the premise that the Scottish public would regard it as a calamity if an independent Scotland were not to enjoy trouble free continued membership of the European club. Certainly one of the few things on which both the Yes and No side seem to agree is that it is vitally important that Scotland should stay in the EU.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

At the same time, there has been some polling evidence that appears to confirm the impression conveyed by the very different tenor of the debate on different sides of the border. In February Ipsos MORI reported that no less than 53 per cent of Scots would vote in a referendum to stay in the European Union, while just 34 pee cent said they would mark their ballot to leave.

This was contrasted with what had happened when the previous November Ipsos MORI had asked the exact same question across Britain as a whole – only 44 per cent said they would vote to stay in while 48 per cent wanted to get out.

Indeed, according to that poll, in England on its own just 42 per cent were in favour of staying in while 50 per cent wanted to head for the exit door. Here it seemed was incontrovertible evidence that the public mood on Europe was very, very different north and south of the Border.

Yet it was also a surprising finding. In the early years of devolution the British and Scottish Social Attitudes survey both asked exactly the same question about Britain’s relationship with Europe. It was a rather more complicated question than simply whether Britain should leave or not; it gave people options ranging from leaving the European Union to the formation of a single European government. But two of the options, leaving and remaining members but reducing the EU’s powers, gave people plenty of opportunity to express a Eurosceptic view.

That survey work ascertained that Euroscepticism was indeed somewhat less common in Scotland. In four parallel readings taken between 2000 and 2005, on average 46 per cent of people in Scotland gave a Eurosceptic response, whereas across Britain as a whole 53 per cent did so.

But that seven point difference is much less than the fourteen point gap that Ipsos MORI were suggesting now exists, and still left Scotland looking like a pretty Eurosceptic place.

Of course, different survey questions elicit different responses and maybe on the straightforward question of staying in or getting out Scots are markedly more inclined to live with Brussels, whatever its faults. Perhaps too, the difference of opinion on Europe on either side of the Border has widened in recent years, thanks to the very different tone of the political debate.

However, perhaps too, we should be cautious about comparing the results of a poll conducted in Scotland in February with that of another undertaken across Britain as a whole the previous November. It might not sound like much of a time difference, but it so happens it was an important one.

For in between – on 23 January – David Cameron finally gave his much trailed speech in which he promised that there would be a referendum on Europe should the Tories win an overall majority in 2015.

The speech may not have spiked Ukip’s guns or satisfied his more Eurosceptic backbenchers, but it did have an impact on public opinion. As the chart, based on regular Britain wide polling by YouGov, shows, in the weeks and months before the speech there was consistently a 15 to 20 point majority in favour of getting out. Eurosceptics were quite correct in saying the country was disenchanted with the EU.

However, once Mr Cameron had offered the prospect of being able to negotiate a looser arrangement with Europe the idea of remaining in the EU came to seem rather more palatable.

Now almost as many people were willing to vote to stay in the EU as wanted to get out. True, this less Eurosceptic mood has since abated somewhat but the majority in favour of leaving still only stands at ten points or so, rather than at 15 to 20 – and, above all, Britain’s attitudes towards Europe were clearly not the same in February as they had been in November.

So if we cannot rely on Ipsos MORI’s comparison, how else might we ascertain whether Scotland is now markedly more Europhile than England? Individual Britain-wide polls such as those that have been conducted by YouGov typically contain too few Scots to provide us with a reliable estimate of opinion north of the Border in particular.

YouGov’s polls typically include just 150 Scots. However, if we have plenty of British polls that have all asked the same question we can bring them together to create our own decent sized sample of people living north of the Border, albeit that the interviewing has been conducted over an extended period of time.

Since January YouGov has conducted ten polls that have asked people’s views about staying in or leaving the EU and for which information on the preferences of the Scots in them is available – giving a grand total of some 1500 or so people from north of the Border. As the other chart shows, on average over this five month period 42 per cent said they would vote to stay in the EU while 37 per cent wanted to leave – a small majority, but no more than a small majority for staying in.

In contrast, the average reading across all these same polls for Britain as a whole was 36 per cent wishing to stay and 42 per cent to leave – a narrow lead for leaving that reflects a mixture of those polls conducted shortly after Cameron’s speech when opinion was evenly balanced and those more recent ones where there has been a majority once again for leaving.

So Scotland is more Europhile than Britain as a whole – but nothing like as markedly so as you might assume, and seemingly no more so now than it was a decade ago. Support for leaving is simply some five percentage points lower than across the whole of Britain. As our poll figures happen to illustrate, that does mean that in a closely fought EU referendum a small majority in Scotland for staying in could be overturned by a small majority in England for getting out – though equally it also means that the vote in Scotland could just tip the balance in the other direction.

But more importantly there is still in reality a substantial vein of Euroscepticism north of the Border. Neither Alistair Darling’s threat that independence could see Scotland thrown out of the EU, nor Alex Salmond’s promise that saying Yes to independence is the best way of saying Yes to Europe, is necessarily as popular a tune as they might imagine.

• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University