What Does Scotland Think About More Devolution?

Today we release some further findings and data from the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes survey. With both Labour and the Conservatives due to unveil proposals for more devolution in the event of a No vote in the referendum, the new material focuses on attitudes towards the prospect of more devolution. A briefing that outlines and discusses the key findings can be found here.

The starting point for our analysis is to look at how voters think powers and responsibility should be divided between Scotland and London. Thirty-one per cent say that the Scottish Parliament should make all decisions for Scotland, a proposition that in effect implies independence. That proportion is slightly lower than the 32% who say that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for everything apart from defence and foreign affairs – a position that has come to be dubbed, ‘devo max’.  Meanwhile 25% say they are happy with the status quo whereby taxation and welfare benefits are also still primarily Westminster’s responsibility, while a further 8% reckon that all decisions for Scotland should be made by the UK government.

In short, no single option for Scotland’s constitutional future commands the support of more than a third of Scottish voters. That perhaps is one reason why finding a stable constitutional settlement for Scotland has so far proven so difficult.

However, just looking at people’s first preferences underestimates the level of support for more devolution.  This year we also asked SSA respondents what their second preference would be. Overall, 42% said that ‘devo max’ was their second preference. No less than 79% of those whose first preference is independence named ‘devo max’ as their second choice, as did two-thirds (66%) of those who would prefer to see a continuation of the status quo. That means that overall, nearly three-quarters of all respondents (32%+42%) said that ‘devo max’ was their first or second preference.

Consequently, if voters were asked to choose between independence and ‘devo max’ the latter would win out. Equally ‘devo max’ would also come top in any contest between ‘devo max’ and the status quo. In both cases just over 60% would support ‘devo max’ and a little under 40% the alternative.  More devolution may not be the most preferred option of a majority of Scots, but it does appear to be potentially the basis of a compromise around which a majority might be willing to coalesce.

However, an idea whose support is broad is not necessarily one for which enthusiasm is deep. Equally, we cannot presume that voters have necessarily come to accept all of the possible implications that such a step might entail.

For the most part, voters are no more likely to think that ‘devo max’ would have a beneficial impact on Scotland than they are independence. For example, only 30% think that the introduction of ‘devo max’ would result in a better economy in Scotland – exactly the same proportion as think independence would. Much the same is true of the anticipated consequences of the two alternatives for Scotland’s voice in the world, the amount of money there would be to spend on public services, and the overall standard of living.

Where, however, there is a distinction between the two alternatives is that voters are less likely to think that ‘devo max’ would prove harmful for Scotland. For example, whereas 34% believe that independence would be bad for Scotland’s economy, only 20% say the same of ‘devo max’. Here perhaps is one reason why so many people are willing to say that it is their second preference – it is regarded as a step that entails little risk.

Yet voters draw back somewhat at least when they are asked what they think of some of the potential implications of devolving responsibility for taxation and welfare to the Scottish Parliament.  Scots are evenly divided on whether it is better for devolved services in Scotland to be funded out of taxes determined and raised in Scotland as opposed to being funded, as at present, out of a block grant at Westminster.  There is actually a slight majority in favour of the proposition that the basic rate of income tax should always be the same in Scotland as it is in England, and even greater reluctance to embrace the idea that benefits such as the old age pension should be different on the two sides of the border.  Equally, most would prefer for those benefits to be paid for out of UK-wide taxation rather than from revenues raised in Scotland as a whole.

This picture leaves those who are trying to craft proposals for more devolution with a far from straightforward task. On the one hand it seems that the instinctive reaction of a majority of voters in Scotland is that the nation should be responsible for the vast bulk of its domestic affairs. But that does not, as yet at least, quite translate into a wish to be wholly devoid of financial ties with the rest of the UK, let alone a ready acceptance of the idea that taxes and benefits might be different on the two sides of the border.  That perhaps points in the direction of something rather less than full ‘devo max’, but a settlement that potentially gives the nation’s politicians more financial freedom should Scots become increasingly unhappy with the direction of ‘London government’ in future. But then, as the former Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, once quipped, devolution is a process not an event.

Topics: How Scotland should be governed, Expectations of constitutional change

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen, and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.