Scottish independence debate failing voters

Scots are being frozen out the biggest decision the country will face in 300 years because they are not interested in the issues dominating the referendum campaign, according to new research.

Referendum debate focusing on peripheral issues. Picture: Neil Hanna
Referendum debate focusing on peripheral issues. Picture: Neil Hanna

Voters want to know what the economic impactof leaving the UK would be, the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found. However, the debate among the rival Yes and No camps over issues such as EU membership, the pound and welfare has “little or no impact” on how they will vote.

A majority of Scots (52 per cent) would vote for independence if they were convinced they would be £500 better off a year, according to the ScotCen Social Research – despite the Yes campaign consistently trailing in polls. But only 15 per cent would back independence if they thought they would be £500 worse off.

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Professor John Curtice, research consultant at ScotCen Social Research, said: “The referendum campaign is at risk of short-changing the people of Scotland. So far, it appears to have done little to help them be clear and confident about the decision they have to make. Many of the issues that preoccupy those campaigning for and against independence are apparently of peripheral interest to voters.

Referendum debate focusing on peripheral issues. Picture: Neil Hanna

“Voters want to hear about the economic and financial consequences of the choice they make, and it is on the outcome of that debate that the result of the referendum is likely to turn.”

The apparent failure of the campaigns to focus on what matters most to voters has left many uncertain about what independence would mean, according to the survey of 1,497 Scots between June and October last year.

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) are “unsure” what would happen if Scotland became independent, a six-point increase on 2012. Only 30 per cent, down four points, say they are “sure”.

There is little comfort for the Yes campaign, with support standing at 29 per cent for Scotland becoming “independent, separate from the rest of the UK”. Although this is up six points on the record low of 23 per cent recorded in 2012, it is still three points below the level in 2011. When asked how they “will” or “think they are most likely” to vote in response to the question that will appear on the referendum ballot paper – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – 30 per cent of respondents said Yes, while 54 per cent said No.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the survey was carried out before the Scottish Government’s white paper was published, but showed “significant movement” in favour of independence.

She added: “It also confirms that when we win the economic argument, we will win the referendum. The facts say that Scotland will be better off with independence. The most recent official figures show that over the last five years, Scotland’s finances have been healthier to the tune of £2,375 per person.

“By contrast, George Osborne is planning another £25 billion of cuts and there are Westminster politicians queuing up to take £4bn a year from Scotland’s budget through the scrapping of the Barnett formula.”

Neither side has, as yet, succeeded in convincing a majority of the merits of their economic case, according to the research.

Most Scots feel independence would not make any difference (52 per cent) to prosperity levels and 10 per cent do not know.

Thirty per cent think that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence, while a similar number – 34 per cent – believe it would be worse.

Blair McDougall, campaign director with the pro-union Better Together campaign, said the survey confirmed that support for breaking up the UK remained “below historic levels”.

He added: “Nationalists are still failing to make any real progress. It is encouraging that the survey shows that people who have still to make up their minds are leaning towards remaining in the UK and are rejecting separation.”

But Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland, said the momentum was now with the pro-independence side. “The more people learn about the benefits of independence, the more likely they are to vote Yes - the survey confirms that,” he said.

“We also know that the economic argument is key in this debate and if we win the economic argument, we will achieve a Yes majority in September. But those who oppose independence also have a duty to spell out the costs and consequences of a No vote, something none of the political parties that comprise the No campaign have so far answered.”

Labour constitution spokesman Drew Smith pointed to a recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies which indicated Scots would be £1,000 worse off under independence.

“Common sense tells us that if Scotland remains in the United Kingdom and part of a bigger economy, we will have more money to invest in our priorities, like schools and hospitals,” he said.

The absence on the ballot paper of a third option – a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK – has also made the decision more difficult for voters, the research finds. Those who have yet to decide for sure which way they will vote – 38 per cent of all Scots – are particularly sympathetic to this idea.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said it showed support for the party’s federalist approach to the constitution. “This poll shows substantial support for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. while sharing across the UK,” he said.

Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said the case for a Yes vote must “get way beyond” whether Scots would be £500 richer or poorer.