Scottish Social Attitudes Survey – Reaction and analysis


By S. Campbell

There’s only one story in the Scottish political media today.  The explosive contents of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey have been seized on with glee by the SNP, leaving the Unionist camp in desperate damage-limitation mode.  The news – first broken by the Express – that a whopping 65% of Scottish voters only need to be convinced that independence will benefit them by around £9 a week in order to vote for it has sent Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems into something of a panic, and it’s fascinating to watch both they and the predominantly-Unionist media try to spin it.

Tory Hoose takes the “I see no ships” angle, announcing that the SNP’s welcoming of the poll results is “hysterical grandstanding”, while rolling out David McLetchie to pick out a different section of the results and claim that “This is just one of the many polls that shows support for independence is still relatively low.”

The Scotsman goes for a similar approach, with trusty psephologist Prof. John Curtice sent in to find the most negative view of the survey possible, listing a whole slew of cautions and provisos and comparisons of dubious merit, eg pointing out that support for independence is still lower than that for devolution in 1999 (which is about as surprising as finding out that Andy Goram’s favourite fruit is oranges).

The Herald features a quote from Labour’s Margaret Curran that borders on flat-out hilarious in its twisting and turning to find a position from where the figures look bad for the SNP – eventually settling, like Curtice, on a bemusing comparison with 1999, which for all the relation it bears to the current economic and political climate might as well be 1929.  The Herald also runs the most perceptive piece in the mainstream media, in which Robbie Dinwoodie observes that the “old scare stories” beloved of the Unionist parties are slowly but surely losing their power over the Scottish electorate.

The BBC, meanwhile, comes up with a fairly snappy at-a-glance summary of the results, but none of the media pick up on some of the survey’s stranger quirks.

The most startling of these is the realisation of how much the phrasing of the question matters. For example, when ScotCen (the Scottish Centre for Social Research, authors of the poll) asked people directly whether they supported independence, 32% answered yes (itself a dramatic rise from the previous year’s figure of 23%), with 49% preferring “devo max” (generally interpreted as all powers except defence and foreign affairs residing with Holyrood), 9% backing the status quo and 6% calling for a return to complete Westminster rule with no Scottish Parliament at all.

But when the same respondents were asked which decisions about Scotland should be made by the Scottish Parliament, the most popular answer was “all of them”, at 43%, with the devo max position favoured by 29%, the status quo (where Westminster also retains control of tax and welfare) the choice of 21%, and the abolition of Holyrood and the reversal of all devolution to date preferred by 5%.

These are fairly extraordinary findings. The name of the scenario where the Scottish Parliament makes all decisions about Scotland, including defence, foreign affairs, taxation and welfare is, of course, “independence”. Try as we might we can’t think of the powers which might still be reserved to Westminster under the terms set out by the poll question. Simply by phrasing the question differently, removing the emotive word from the equation, support for independence has leapt 11 percentage points and overtaken devo-max to become the most popular choice.

(Labour is using these statistics to spin the figures as showing that “devolution is the choice of the majority”, which is a somewhat disingenuous and dishonest stance relying on counting two very different choices – devo max and the status quo – as the same thing. Both of those are indeed “devolution”, but the problem for Labour with that approach is that the party’s current stated policy is to reject a “devo max” question out of hand, stand in the referendum for the status quo – with the vague, woolly promise of some more devolutionary progress at some point in the future, of an unspecified flavour and dependent on Labour winning a Westminster election – and force the electorate to choose between that and full independence. In either form of the question, the status quo is the less popular of those two options.)

And when you factor the economy into the survey, things get even more confused. Everyone’s headlining with the 65% figure for support if independence would make Scotland better off, and also noting the converse figure that backing would plummet to 21% if independence meant being £500 worse off. But the most interesting stat is the one in the middle – if independence made no difference to people’s finances at all, 47% would be in favour of ending the Union. So let’s recap:

  • Support for “independence”: 32%
  • Support for “the Scottish Parliament making all decisions about Scotland” (ie independence): 43% (combined 55% against)
  • Support for independence if there are no economic effects either way, ie for the policy taken on its own merits and for its own sake: 46% (with 32% against)

Those are three remarkably different answers to what’s in every practical sense the same question. The gap between the first two in particular is hard to explain away, except by noting that perhaps the Unionist parties have made a tactical error in continuously using the word “separation” instead of “independence” – it looks as though “independence” might be a scary enough word in itself, while insisting on saying “separation” just looks like clumsy manipulative manoeuvering.

But the underlying messages from the survey are unmistakeable. After a blip in 2008-9 caused by the global economic crash, the trend for rising support for independence (which is also aided by demographics) has resumed. And the hard-headed, pragmatic people of Scotland are more open to persuasion than at any time in history, casting aside ideological or romantic notions of Scottish/British identity and demanding only that independence should not cost them money. With the numbers on that one largely on the SNP’s side, the Unionists are very slowly waking up to the fact that they’ve got a bigger fight on their hands than they imagined.


Courtesy of Wings Over Scotland