Scottish independence referendum: Is David Cameron right to fear an independence bandwagon?

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John Curtice explains why Prime Minister wants the referendum sooner than the First Minister

THERE is one obvious reason why unionists would prefer the independence referendum to happen sooner rather than later. At the moment, most polls suggest they would win.

David Cameron, left, would rather hold the referendum sooner than Alex Salmond does. Picture: Greg Macvean

David Cameron, left, would rather hold the referendum sooner than Alex Salmond does. Picture: Greg Macvean

Four polls released during the final quarter of last year put support for independence at between 32 per cent and 38 per cent. Between 47 per cent and 57 per cent said they would vote against this.

However, there are signs that support for independence may have increased somewhat in recent months.

A YouGov poll for this newspaper found that support was six points higher than just before polling day last May. The 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes survey reported no less than a nine-point increase on the previous year.

So, from the unionists’ point of view, maybe it would be better to get the ballot under way before there is any risk of an independence bandwagon emerging – and certainly before any nationalist frenzy that might be created by the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in 2014 is aroused.

In truth, such unionist fears – or nationalist hopes – are probably exaggerated. Though somewhat higher than in the immediate past, current levels of support of independence are still not beyond the range within which it has oscillated ever since the advent of devolution.

Meanwhile, whipping up Scottish feeling and pride is unlikely to delivery Mr Salmond victory. Even among those who not only say they are Scottish, but explicitly deny they are British – around three in ten of all Scots – only just over half (53 per cent) back independence.

Mr Salmond will need not just to appeal to voters’ distinctive sense of identity, but also to their pocket books. As the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has revealed, 65 per cent would be willing to back independence if they thought that they would be £500 a year better off as a result.

Equally, there is one obvious reason why Mr Salmond is toying with putting “devolution max” on the ballot paper alongside independence.

While there may be less than majority support for leaving the UK, The idea that Scotland could take responsibility for more or less all of her domestic affairs, leaving just defence and welfare spending in Westminster’s hands, does appear to have majority support.

According to the Social Attitudes survey, three-fifths to two-thirds would like Holyrood to take on responsibility for taxes and welfare benefits.

In contrast, only about a third think the Scottish Parliament should deal with defence and foreign affairs too.

In line with this, a recent Ipsos-MORI poll reported that as many as 68 per cent would vote in favour of “devo-max” should they be given the opportunity. In short, the instinctive reaction of most Scots appears to be that what happens within their own country is for their own parliament to decide, and only when it comes to matters forth of Scotland do they accept that Westminster has a proper role.

It would seem the surest way of preserving the Union would not be to insist on a single question on independence, as David Cameron is apparently minded to do, but rather for unionists to develop and campaign for a scheme for more devolution within the Union.

Trouble is devo-max was originally Mr Salmond’s idea and requires Westminster to hand over far more powers than many an MP is prepared to do.

So perhaps in the end we should not be surprised that Mr Cameron is not minded simply to follow public opinion.

• John Curtice is a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.