THE referendum debate has been raging now for a year and half – ever since the two main campaigning organisations, Yes Scotland and Better Together, were launched in May and June 2012, respectively. There has already been many a television debate – there was another on BBC Scotland only last night – while almost every political issue that arises in Scotland soon seems to turn into a discussion of what are the implications for the referendum.
However, it is voters, not the politicians, who will decide Scotland’s future. How well is the referendum debate serving them? Is it focusing on the issues that matter most to voters when deciding whether to vote Yes or No? And are they clear and confident in their minds about what their choice might mean? In truth, evidence from the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey, conducted by ScotCen Social Research between June and October last year, suggests that, in practice, the referendum is at risk of letting voters down.
An issue where debate and discussion most obviously helps voters decide which way to vote is one where those on one side of that issue are inclined to vote Yes while those on the other side are determined to vote No. One issue where that is clearly the case is whether or not independence would strengthen or weaken Scotland’s economy. As many as 71 per cent of those who think that Scotland’s economy would be “better” under independence say they “will” or are “most likely” to vote Yes. In contrast, 86 per cent of those who reckon that the country’s economy would be “worse” are inclined to vote No.
Given that the 30 per cent of those who think the economy would be “better” are almost equal to the 34 per cent who reckon it would be “worse”, this is evidently not only a debate where voters’ views make a difference to how they are inclined to vote, but is also one that neither side has as yet managed to win.
Indeed, voters acknowledge the importance of the economic consequences of independence in their mind when they are asked what their view would be if they thought they would be £500 a year better off under independence. As the table above illustrates, no less than 52 per cent say that they would support the idea in those circumstances, while just 30 per cent would be opposed. Equally, only 15 per cent would support independence, and 72 per cent would be opposed if they thought that they would be £500 a year worse off.
At the moment, though, only 9 per cent think they would personally be financially better off under independence, rather less than the 29 per cent who believe they would be worse off. However, most (52 per cent) reckon independence would not make any difference either way, suggesting that neither campaign has as yet been particularly successful at winning a debate that seems highly capable of changing voters’ minds.
However, much of the campaign has so far focused on issues other than the economy. There has, for example, been much toing and froing about whether Scotland’s place in the Europe Union is better secured by a Yes vote or a No one. There has been much debate, too, about whether an independent Scotland would be able to use the pound as its currency. And there have been plenty of claims that an independent Scotland would be a more equal society that would be intolerant of attacks on welfare such as the so-called bedroom tax, and indeed could afford better public services such as free childcare.
However, so far at least these are not issues that seem to sort voters into Yes and No camps. Rather, they are ones on which both sets of voters have much the same views.
For example, while 67 per cent of Yes voters say that an independent Scotland should be a member of the EU, so also do 70 per cent of No voters. Moreover, in both cases support for that membership is far from enthusiastic. Not only do 57 per cent of Yes voters think that Britain should either leave the EU or at least reduce its powers, but so also do 63 per cent of No supporters.
As we might anticipate in the event of independence, the vast majority of voters (79 per cent) would like to keep the pound rather than the euro (7 per cent) or its own separate currency (11 per cent). Yet in line with the warnings from the UK government that this might not be possible, only 57 per cent think that an independent Scotland would actually use the pound. But this perception does not seem to be putting many voters off from voting Yes.
While 39 per cent of No voters who would like an independent Scotland to use the pound are doubtful that it will be able to do so in practice, so also are 33 per cent of Yes supporters. Perhaps some Yes voters feel that “threats” from the UK government show why Scotland should want to go its own way.
Meanwhile, voters remain to be convinced that independence would make much difference to how equal or unequal Scotland would be. Around half (49 per cent) reckon it would not make any difference. At the same time, even the minority of Scots (just 16 per cent) who think the gap between rich and poor would be smaller hardly evinces a high degree of enthusiasm for independence – only 57 per cent say they will or are likely to vote Yes. Equally, Yes and No voters have largely similar views on various aspects of welfare spending. While 68 per cent of Yes voters would like more spending on people with disabilities who cannot work, so also would 58 per cent of No voters. Equally, although as many as 56 per cent of No voters think that benefits for the unemployed are too high and discourage people from finding a job, so also do 46 per cent of Yes voters.
Meanwhile, unemployment benefit is a subject on which attitudes of Scots in general now appear to be less generous to the unemployed than at any time since the advent of devolution.
Similarly, while 47 per cent of Yes voters would like to see more public spending, so also would 40 per cent of No supporters. All in all, the debates about whether or not an independent Scotland would be a fairer, more generous Scotland do not seem to be having much impact on voters.
An obvious symptom of a debate that often seems to be missing its target is that voters are not any clearer now about what independence might mean than they were a year ago. As the table below illustrates, as many as 64 per cent say they are “unsure” what would happen if Scotland became independent – actually up six points on 2012. Evidently, both sides have so far failed to clarify for voters just what independence might entail.
Doubtless for many of those heavily engaged in the referendum campaigns, the intricacies of possible EU negotiations, the prospects for a sterling monetary union, and whether or not independence is needed for Scotland to have more childcare are fascinating. But, in truth, such debates are at risk of leaving Scotland’s voters in the dark.
For voters’ sake, the campaign needs to get down to brass tacks – because, above all, it is questions of brass that are likely to determine whether Scotland does eventually vote Yes or No.
• John Curtice is research consultant to ScotCen Social Research and Professsor of Politics, Strathclyde University. This work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Future of the UK and Scotland initiative.