The Scottish independence referendum campaign has now been raging for 18 months, ever since the Yes Scotland (pro-independence) and Better Together (anti-independence) umbrella organisations were launched in the middle of 2012. But according to ScotCen’s latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey, conducted between June and October last year, the campaigns have so far had remarkably little impact.
For a start, the survey, which has been charting Scots’ attitudes towards how they should be governed on every year since the advent of devolution in 1999, suggests the level of support for independence has not shifted significantly during the course of the last year.
Support for the proposition that “Scotland should be independent, separate from the UK” has increased overall from 23% in 2012 to 29% now – but that means it is still three points lower than it was in 2011. Meanwhile, the proportion who agree that “the Scottish parliament should make all decisions for Scotland” (a statement that implies independence) has slipped from 35% in 2012 to 31%. Both figures are close to the 30% who say they “will” or “think they are most likely to” vote Yes in the referendum (while 54% say they are likely to vote No).
Much the same picture emerges when we look under the bonnet and examine what people say when asked how good a deal they think Scotland gets out of the union at present – and whether independence would make any difference. Such changes as have occurred have been small and not entirely consistent. The proportion who think it is England’s economy that benefits most from the union has increased marginally over the last year from 28% to 32%; at the same time, the proportion who thought that independence would make Scotland’s economy better has now slipped from 34% in 2012 to 30% today.
Meanwhile, voters are apparently still just as uncertain what independence would mean as they were 12 months ago. The proportion who say they are “unsure” what would happen if Scotland were to become independent has actually increased from 58% to 64%.
What really matters
So what needs to be done if either side is to shift the balance of public opinion, and voters are to feel that the campaign is actually helping them to make a decision? To find the answer, we can look at which issues actually divide voters into the Yes and No camps – and which do not.
On the one hand, voters’ expectations for the economic consequences of independence are clearly a key factor as they decide how to vote. Among those who think Scotland’s economy would be better under independence, 71% are inclined to vote Yes. On the other side, as many as 86% of those who think Scotland’s economy would be “worse” expect to vote No. Equally, when voters are asked what they would do if they thought they would be £500 a year better off as a result of independence, 52% indicated that they would support the idea. On the other hand, only 15% said they would do so if they thought they would be £500 a year worse off.
The debate has focused heavily on the economy, but also much else besides: the terms and conditions Scotland would have to accept to remain in the European Union, whether the UK government allow an independent Scotland to use the pound, and whether an independent Scotland would be a more equal society that was willing, for example, to spend more on welfare. These are issues on which Yes and No voters hold largely similar views.
While 67% of Yes voters say an independent Scotland should be a member of the European Union, so do 70% of No voters. Not that either side’s voters are very enthusiastic about that prospect: while 57% of Yes voters think Britain should either leave the European Union or at least reduce its powers, so do 63% of No supporters.
Although 39% of No voters who would like an independent Scotland to use the pound are doubtful it will be able to do so in practice, so are 33% of Yes supporters. On welfare, as many as 56% of No voters think benefits for the unemployed are too high and discourage people from finding a job. But so do 46% of Yes supporters.
The choice that Scotland has to make in September is vital to the country’s future. But the debate needs to focus on the economic consequences of independence, rather than remaining in the UK. Spending time on many of the other issues that have so far been prominent in the campaign simply risks wasting time.
John Curtice is co-editor of the British Social Attitudes 30th report. Partial funding for the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes data reported here was generously provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/K006355/1) and the Electoral Reform Society. Funding for the 2012 British Social Attitudes data came from NatCen Social Research’s own resources. Responsibility for the views expressed lies solely with the author.