2013 Festival of Politics IV—Public Attitudes

Chaired by the respected Ian Macwhirter, this FoP session launched right into the psephology of the upcoming referendum vote, powered by a deluge of data and graphs from John Curtice and his usual enthusiasm for the subject. In illustrating the debate, I am indebted to the web site whatscotlandthinks.org (“Non-partisan information on attitudes to how Scotland should be governed“). The panel consisted of:

  • Ian Macwhirter, journalist & commentator (Chair)
  • Professor John Curtice, University of Strathclyde
  • Mandy Rhodes, Editor, Holyrood Magazine
  • David Walker, writer & journalist
  • Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff Uni.
  • Dr Nicola McEwen, snr. lecturer in Politics, University of Edinburgh

In terms of support for independence, recent polls don’t, in fact, differ much from earlier ones—in fact as long ago as the 1970 Kilbrandon Commission. However, if the ‘don’t knows’ and those unlikely to vote are removed, the committed ‘Yes’ faction sits closer to 40% than the 23% currently published. I t is also interesting that the SNP strategy of the noughties (get power -> demonstrate they can govern -> support for independence will rise—a strategy to which I enthusiastically subscribed) does not seem to have worked. They have governed well since 2007 but their support base has not budged.



Poll Responses to “If Held Tomorrow, How Would I Vote on an Independence Referendum?” (source: Curtice/whatscotlandthinks.org)

In analysing polling intentions regarding a vote in favour of independence in more depth, a number of clear trends emerge that are hidden in the overall data. These include:

  • men are more likely to be in favour
  • working class are more likely to be in favour
  • those aged 55 to over 60 are least likely to be in favour, although…
  • in extending the franchise to 16, more voters 16-18 are not in favour than are
  • the range of feeling of “Scottishness” has little effect but “Britishness” has more
  • expectations of the economic impact of independence has a major influence

These last two are interesting discoveries. Two thirds of Scots feel strongly Scottish but are no more likely to vote ‘Yes’ than the other third. But the strength of ‘Yes’ commitment  is in almost exact inverse proportion to the strength of feeling of ‘Britishness’. Since older people tend to hold stronger feelings of British identity, this does some way to explaining the third bullet above. On the economic aspect, there is a strong correlation between optimism regarding Scotland’s economic future under independence and a desire for it.

"How do you perceive the state of the UK economy at the moment?" (source: Curtice/whatscotlandthinks.org

“How do you perceive the state of the UK economy at the moment?” (source: Curtice/whatscotlandthinks.org


This goes far in explaining people’s reluctance to vote ‘Yes’ in the current economy. When the public is asked its opinion in a manner that avoids facing the economic consequences, a far more positive picture emerges. David Walker posed the question: “to what extent do Scots trust the British state” this brought pretty clear answers.  Not only would people prefer the Scottish Parliament to have a dominant, if not total, control over all Scottish Affairs but the degree to which people would choose to have involvement from Westminster is minimal.

Polling results for "Who should make decisions for Scotland?" (source: Curtice/whatscotlandthinks.com

Polling results for “Who should make decisions for Scotland?” (source: Curtice/whatscotlandthinks.com

The bad news for ‘Yes’ is that so many people are still negatively influenced by the UK’s recession of the last five years and a sense that we are not yet out of it. This does, however, offer a chance for positive movement. The most positive things that ‘Yes’ has going for them is their leaders, with Salmond/Sturgeon still rated high in credibility and Cameron/Moore in negative figures (and Moore essentially unknown). Some supposedly pivotal factors do not seem to register as major with the general public—including membership of NATO or the EU; horror at the prospect of more Tory rule if Scotland remains in the Union and the sheer intertia caused by familiarity with the status quo.

Richard Wyn Jones observed that, despite 3/4 of Scots seeming to prefer ‘Devo Plus’ to either of the extreme solutions on offer (Indy/status quo), there is no sense of outrage or unfair play at this ‘third way’ not being available as an option on the September 2014 ballot. Politicians on both sides of the debate were ignoring a pretty clear requirement which, in Wales has been reflected in parties there—including Labour—accepting the wind has changed. But in England, as well as Scotland, there is an existential angst for which few politicians appear able to rise to adequate answer.

What is confusing the issue in Scotland for Mandy Rhodes was that Scottish media had lost impartiality and that this was being aggravated by institutional bias, even within scotland itself. Even when making its best effects, the Scottish media always seemed to posit a ‘glass half-empty’ scenario and never rise to a positive alternative. As an example, the same time as The Scotsman was reporting that the ‘Yes’ camp needed to capture 75% of all undecideds to have a hope of winning, Mori was observing that there was ‘all to play for’.

Perhaps the most insightful observation came from Nicola McEwen—that we are getting into a lather far too early with the vote over a year away. By any standard, the White Paper due in two months will still allow 10 months for debate and a volatility in opinion until closer to the time is to be expected. People (especially undecideds) mainly come to a conclusion only when faced with the decision. After the Crest survey in 1997, many people changed their minds positively before the actual vote on devolution.

The ‘Bottom Line’ appears to be that the ‘Yes’ campaign may be losing the argument but not nearly as badly as the ‘No’ campaign is succeeding in portraying the situation as a ‘done deal’ when polling statistics imply that it is not.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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1 Response to 2013 Festival of Politics IV—Public Attitudes

  1. Jeff M. says:

    While perhaps wasted on a Yank with no skin in the game, your erudite postings in support of independence and self determination are both well reasoned and well documented. Bless the Yes.

    “Public opinion polls are rather like children in a garden, digging things up all the time to see how they’re growing.”
    J. B. Priestley

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