In a graphic example of how voters appear to favour political change in Scotland, but cleave to a continuing union across Britain, the YouGov poll shows that backing for separate Scottish oversight in diplomacy, defence and immigration have all dropped over the past five years. At the same time, however, the poll shows that Scottish residents have warmed to the idea of the country running its own tax affairs under a system of “fiscal autonomy” that is now more popular than having public services funded by a Westminster grant.
The poll will give succour to both camps as the country begins the likely two-and-a-half year campaign in the run-up to the independence referendum. Pro-Union backers last night said it showed how people were instinctively supportive of the current UK-wide arrangements which, they argued, were now threatened by independence.
But the findings are likely to give the SNP campaign hope too, with First Minister Alex Salmond having made it clear he intends to keep many of the UK-wide institutions after a “yes” vote.
Under the SNP’s vision for independence, the United Kingdom would be broken up into two successor states, but the SNP insists that many of the same bodies which bind the UK together, including the Queen and sterling, will remain.
Academics last night said the findings offered the perfect example of why Mr Salmond has dropped all talk of gaining “freedom” from the UK, conscious that voters simply do not want to end many of the ties to the rest of the country.
However, with voters also unconvinced by the economics of independence, the new poll also shows that the SNP still has a huge task in hand to convince people of its case, with only 32 per cent saying they would back independence, as against 53 per cent who would vote no. YouGov found that the “third option” of a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK was easily the favoured position among voters.
The poll, conducted ahead of a hearing at the Scottish affairs committee at Westminster today, reveals a gradual change in attitudes on whether Scotland should rely solely on its own tax revenues to fund schools, hospitals and other public services, without any backing from the rest of the UK.
Support for such a system has risen from 41 per cent in 2008 to 44 per cent today. Similarly, support for the status quo, where taxes are pooled and then divided up by the UK government, has dropped from 43 per cent to 40 per cent today.
But, on a host of questions about UK-wide institutions, the current British model is overwhelmingly more popular than a go-it-alone Scottish option.
A total of 82 per cent of respondents support the retention of the pound, up 9 per cent on 2008, while 60 per cent want to keep the Queen, up 5 per cent. Two-thirds of people, 67 per cent, continue to want Scotland to contribute to the British army – up 1 per cent from five years ago. Only 22 per cent back a “separate armed services”, down 1 per cent. On broadcasting, 63 per cent said they want to keep the UK-wide BBC Six O’Clock News, with the Scottish news following afterwards, up 3 per cent from 2008. There is also backing for maintaining a British-wide Olympic team, with 54 per cent wanting to keep the status quo, up 3 per cent.
On foreign affairs, people’s support for UK embassies, and for Britain representing the country at the UN and EU has remained static or slightly fallen – but not by as much as the idea of separate Scottish representation.
On immigration, only 28 per cent said they wanted Scotland to have its own laws, with border controls between it and England – down 8 per cent from 2008. UK-wide immigration rules, with free movement of people within the UK, are backed by 62 per cent of people, up 7 per cent.
Experts said last night that the findings revealed the reasons behind the SNP strategy on independence, which has emphasised the continuity of the country’s links to the rest of the UK.
Professor Peter Lynch at Stirling University said last night: “This shows you the reality of what the SNP has to deal with. You can see from this why Alex Salmond is talking about a social union because, when it comes to things like retaining the monarchy, he is describing the reality for a large part of the Scottish population. They are emphasising continuity, but the challenge will be when they have to talk about things that will be different, for example, broadcasting.”
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University added: “A lot of this explains what the SNP is doing at present. It is going around saying you can still have the Archers, you can still watch Huw Edwards on the BBC news if you want and you’ll still have the pound.
“All these things will help reduce the anxieties of people towards independence.”
He added: “However, none of these issues is absolutely crucial. The big issue is the economy. The SNP has to win that battle.”
On constitutional reform, the poll also offered people a three-way choice between independence, the status quo and full fiscal powers. The most popular choice was more powers, with 36 per cent, followed by the status quo, with 33 per cent, and then independence, with 24 per cent.
Those respondents were then asked what their second choice would be – with more powers clearly the most popular, with 54 per cent. Independence was the second choice of 11 per cent, suggesting that, aside from those people who back it, there are only a small number willing to consider it as a fall-back option.
A spokesman for the First Minister said: “This is a very encouraging poll, which shows majority support for Scotland having responsibility for all the nation’s resources so that we can deliver key fiscal measures to boost growth and jobs – and for the Scottish Government’s policy that an independent Scotland will keep the monarchy and the pound. The people of Scotland want their country to be in charge of its own finances, including our vast natural resources. We are confident of winning the case for independence in the referendum.”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “These figures show that if the referendum was held tomorrow, separation would be rejected by the majority of Scots who want to stay within the United Kingdom. The SNP are desperately trying to create a sense of both momentum about their campaign and inevitability about independence – this proves there is neither.”