Never mind the answer – What was the question?

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By Dave Taylor

The two polls, recently published by Ipsos-MORI for the Times/Sun and Reform Scotland, suggested different attitudes of Scots to the constitution.

But in the world of polling things are not always as they seem.  The two polls are actually one poll – the quarterly Scottish Public Opinion Monitor.

UPDATE – The question by “Future of Scotland” isn’t a new poll either. Yet another bit of the Scottish Public Opinion Monitor.

The Scottish Public Opinion Monitor also asks questions on any topic of interest to public, private and third sector organisations, interested in tracking attitudes to their brand or organisation.

As is normal with polling companies, several organisations ‘piggy back’ their questions on a regular poll to share costs.  The sample is selected by age, sex, working status and region to match the Scottish adult population.

The Times/Sun asked straightforward questions about satisfaction with political leaders and a balanced question on the constitution: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” In reply, 32% said Yes, and 55% No.

The questions from Reform Scotland, on the other hand, asked questions on the constitution which introduced significant distortion.  None of the questions are technically flawed, but they do introduce a lot of political bias.

On independence, their wording was: “Scotland should become a fully independent country, separate from the rest of the UK.”  That wording attained significantly less support, only 27%, as I’m sure Reform Scotland were pretty confident it would.

When responding to questions on the phone in a single interview, it’s reasonable to assume that respondents would think that “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” and “Scotland should become a fully independent country, separate from the rest of the UK” were describing different positions.  That 5% fewer supported Reform Scotland’s description is not surprising.

The 29% who agreed with “Scotland should remain part of the UK with the same devolved powers it has at present” probably neither knew nor cared that the provisions of the Coalition’s Scotland Act are not in place “at present”.  We know that around 30% of those in Scotland regularly oppose any increase in devolution, and support the status quo – regardless of what that status quo is.

However, the most significant piece of political chicanery comes from Reform Scotland’s description of its own proposal “Devo Plus”.

The Reform Scotland Poll asked people to agree with the statement: “Scotland should remain part of the UK with the increased powers outlined in the Devo Plus proposal.”  In their press release, Reform Scotland omitted to mention that the only explanation of Devo Plus that was given was “Devo Plus is a proposal whereby the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for raising most of the money it spends with Scotland remaining within the UK.”

Few people could be expected to understand the differences between Devo Plus and Devo Max.  “Devo Max”, although the term has being criticised for being ill-defined, is widely understood to mean that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for everything except defence, the intelligence services, and foreign affairs, which would be left to the Westminster Parliament.

Supporters of Devo Max see Scotland raising all its own revenues with the Scottish Parliament responsible for raising and collecting all taxes in the country.  Scotland would then pay a certain amount annually to Westminster to cover the costs of the limited competencies which would be left to the Westminster Parliament.  

Devo Max is significantly different from Reform Scotland’s “Devo Plus”, which would see many important financial pursestrings remaining under Westminster control.  Under Devo Plus, Westminster would still be responsible for National Insurance, VAT, and certain other important taxes.  

That the largest number opted for the enhanced devolution option – especially against a distorted independence option – was to be expected (as Reform Scotland would have designed it to be.)

Reform Scotland’s Jeremy Purvis, formerly a Lib Dem MSP, was certainly hyping the limited extension of devolution that he advocates.  The pressure group enjoys the support of a number of Liberal Democrats and some Conservatives, and is believed to be bankrolled by a small group of wealthy businessmen who seek a low-tax regime in Scotland.

Purvis said: “the very clear support for Devo Plus as the best way forward for Scotland should be listened to.  The evidence is also clear that the vast majority of people would like the parties that do not support independence to work together to progress the case for Devo Plus.

“Devo Plus is not a tactic to defeat independence, rather it is a carefully considered way forward for a stronger Scotland within the UK  – this Ipsos Mori poll now shows it is the way forward most preferred by the people of Scotland also.”

Which is where we started.  Never mind the answer – What was the question?