Comment: Attitude to risk holds key

Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
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ALEX Salmond and his fellow nationalists stand on the edge of fulfilling a lifetime’s dream – making Scotland an independent country.

They now have the unambiguous legal authority needed to hold a referendum on the subject. They have the votes at Holyrood needed to pass the necessary referendum legislation. Meanwhile, they have the UK government’s agreement that a Yes vote would be “decisive”.

There remains just one obstacle – persuading Scots to vote Yes. Trouble is, it appears to be a formidable one. Results released today from the latest round of the longest-running and most in-depth study of Scots’ attitudes towards their constitutional future, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA), suggest not only that independence remains a minority cause, but also that so far little progress has been made by the Yes camp in moving public opinion towards their point of view.

Ever since the advent of devolution the annual SSA survey has repeatedly asked its respondents whether they think “Scotland should become independent, separate from the rest of the UK”, either inside or outside the European Union, or whether “Scotland should remain within the UK” either with or without its own elected Parliament. In response, just 23 per cent now say they back independence while 72 per cent indicate a wish to remain in the UK – of whom the vast majority (61 per cent of all Scots) want to keep Holyrood in place.

As the SSA survey shows, that 23 per cent figure is a record low. SSA has obtained that figure once before (in 2010) but it has never been lower. More immediately, it represents a drop of no less than 9 points on the 32 per cent level of support registered a year ago.

The Yes camp might have hoped to start a bandwagon for independence following the intensification of the referendum debate last year. Instead it seems to have been pedaling furiously to avoid being swept backwards.

Now, of course, all surveys are subject to sampling error. They do their best to capture the public mood as accurately as possible, but their figures are estimates, not precise measurements. So perhaps we should not get over-excited about the fact that support stands once again at 23 per cent rather than, say, 25 or 26?

However, what must worry the Yes camp is that this is no isolated finding. There was a clear downwards trend in support for independence in the opinion polls during 2012. Meanwhile the SSA survey reveals that the relatively low level of support for independence is part of a more consistent long-term pattern that has been in evidence ever since the SNP first came to power in 2007.

Between 1999 and 2006 support for independence oscillated between 26 and 35 per cent. There was no consistent trend, just random variation around an average of 30 per cent. However, since then support has been below 26 per cent on no less than three out of five occasions – in 2007, in 2010 and now again in the most survey. The average level of support across all five readings taken since the SNP came to power is just 26 per cent.

So it seems the latest 23 per cent figure signifies more than just a disappointing start to the Yes campaign, let alone something that can easily be dismissed as a survey blip. Rather it is yet another indication of a tendency that has been in evidence throughout the last five years, suggesting something important has changed in the public mood in Scotland.

When the SNP first came to power in 2007 they anticipated that if they could prove they could govern effectively they would then be well placed to persuade people of the merits of independence. As their remarkable victory in 2011 demonstrated, many felt the nationalists did demonstrate they could govern effectively. But in so doing they may have helped persuade people that the Union can be made to work rather than convince them that they should seek independence.

Take for example the question of who benefits economically from the Union, England or Scotland? When SSA asked about this issue before 2007, the proportion saying England got the better of the deal ranged between 30 and 42 per cent. Since 2007, the figure has never even been as high as 30 per cent. The latest reading, 28 per cent, is typical, and is barely any higher than the 22 per cent who think that it is Scotland that benefits most. The most popular view nowadays is that both benefit equally.

A similar trend is evident on the vexed issue of Scotland’s share of public spending. In the early years of devolution typically just under half said that Scotland secured less than its fair share. Since 2007 only around two-fifths have taken that view, with the latest figure standing at 42 per cent. In short, it appears that now they have a party in power at Holyrood that is seen to be more visibly and volubly standing up for Scotland’s interests, Scots have been inclined to take a rather more benign view of the Union.

Those who think Scotland gets its fair share of government spending or who reckon that Scotland does well economically out of the Union are significantly less likely to back independence than those of the opposite view. Such perceptions seem particularly important in distinguishing those who want independence from those who might be content with some form of enhanced devolution. So in standing up effectively for Scotland, the SNP have made the terrain on which they are fighting the referendum a more difficult one.

But of course the debate is not just about what the Union does or does not deliver for Scotland, but it also about the prospect of what independence would bring. Here too, however, there is little sign that the Yes side has made much progress during the last twelve months.

The survey also gives some indication of what Scots think might happen under independence. They are not entirely lacking in optimism. Well over half think that independence would result in more people having pride in their country while over two-fifths feel that it would result in Scotland having a stronger voice in the world. However, in both cases the proportion taking that optimistic view is well down on the position 12 months ago.

True, the proportion who feel independence would result in a better economy has not dropped. But at 34 per cent it is much lower than the Yes camp need to deliver victory. It is people’s expectations on this issue above all that seems to have most influence on whether or not they back independence. Only one in ten Scots who do not think independence would be economically beneficial are still willing to back the idea.

Yet in truth neither this nor Scots’ more benign view of the Union looks at the moment to be the biggest obstacle facing the Yes camp. Alex Salmond has often talked about how Scotland should be confident about its future and thus feel able to embrace the prospect of independence. Trouble is, it seems that confidence is lacking. Just 21 per cent say they would feel confident if Scotland were to become independent while no less than 59 per cent state they would feel worried – a figure that has risen by as much as 13 points since 2011. The Yes camp badly needs to persuade voters that independence is after all a risk worth taking.

• John Curtice is Research Consultant to ScotCen Social Research and Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University. Rachel Ormston is a Senior Research Director at ScotCen, which conducted the Scottish Social Attitudes survey.