Can Scotland and the Rest of the UK Get Along?

Whatever the outcome of the referendum in September, Scotland and the rest of the UK are going to have to find ways of getting along. In the event of a Yes vote, then as envisaged by the SNP at least, an independent Scotland would continue to share a number of institutions with the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, should Scotland vote No all three unionist parties envisage that it would be followed by more devolution, especially in respect of power and responsibility for income tax.

But how far are these two visions consistent with public opinion on the two sides of the border? How much collaboration with the rest of the UK does Scotland want in the event of independence and how much is the rest of the UK willing to tolerate? Equally, is Scotland really ready to embrace more devolution, and is the rest of the UK willing to see it granted?

In the latest British Social Attitudes report, published today, we try to look beyond the vote on 18th September to establish whether public opinion on the two sides of the border is likely to be at odds – or at one – on how to deal with whatever vote transpires. The analysis is based on the responses to parallel questions included on both the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey and on its Scottish counterpart, the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes survey.

In both cases the message that emerges is that, for the most part, public opinion in Scotland on the one hand and in England and Wales on the other need not necessarily serve as a barrier to collaboration.  However, there are a few pitfalls of which politicians on both sides of the border need to be aware.

In the event of independence, clear majorities of people in Scotland want to keep the monarchy (62%) and the BBC (86%).  Very similar proportions of people in England & Wales (65% in the case of the monarchy and 82% the BBC) think that Scotland should definitely or probably be allowed to do so.

Sharing these institutions has, however, largely not been a source of contention in the referendum debate. That is not true though of either currency or defence. Even here, however, public opinion does not necessarily represent the barrier to collaboration that is sometimes suggested.

Nearly four in five people in Scotland (79%) say they want to keep the pound. And when we interviewed them last year at least, as many as 69% of people in England and Wales reckoned it should be allowed to do so. True, there was not great enthusiasm south of the border for the idea – just 38% ‘definitely’ reckoned Scotland should be allowed to use the pound, while 31% only felt that it should ‘probably’ be allowed to do so. It thus perhaps should not come as a surprise that polling evidence collected since the Chancellor’s announcement in February this year that the UK government would not be willing to share the pound has uncovered much greater opposition to the idea – many people were apparently open to persuasion. But this suggests that whatever reluctance to share the pound there is amongst the public in England & Wales now is a consequence of the stance taken by the UK government rather than a force that required it to take that stance in the first place.

Defence is, of course, one area where the SNP at least wishes to reduce collaboration with the rest of the UK. It believes an independent Scotland should require the UK to remove its nuclear weapons facility from the Clyde. The prospect of having to do is often thought to be biggest problem facing the rest of the UK in the event of a Yes vote.

In fact, it is far from clear that public opinion in Scotland is united behind the SNP’s stance. Slightly more agree (41%) than disagree (37%) that the UK should be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland. The greater pressure for them to be moved would apparently come from south of the border, where no less than 63% feel they should be moved out of an independent Scotland. So the SNP might get its wish thanks to public pressure in England & Wales!

So where might there be a pitfall? The answer, it seems, is on citizenship, where it has been suggested that on independence British citizens living in Scotland would be able to keep both their British passport and claim a shiny new Scottish one. Less than half (47%) of people in Scotland and only a third (33%) in England & Wales support allowing people to hold both passports.

But what about the prospect of more devolution should Scotland vote No? This certainly seems relatively popular north of the border.  In addition to the 31% who say that the Scottish Parliament should make all decisions for Scotland, another 32% say it should be responsible for everything apart from defence and foreign affairs – and thus by implication should have more responsibility than it does at present for those domestic policy areas that are still largely ‘reserved’ to Westminster, viz. taxation and welfare.

England & Wales are, perhaps not unsurprisingly, not particularly enthusiastic about this prospect, but do appear to be willing to tolerate it if necessary. Just under half (45%) say they would be in favour of giving the Scottish Parliament greater power and responsibility over taxation and benefits, while only around a quarter (27%) are actually opposed.

However, support for the principle is one thing, acceptance of some of the implications is another matter.

Under legislation already passed, let alone the proposals for further devolution, the basic rate of income tax could well be different in future in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK. But only 41% of people in Scotland think it is OK for the basic rate to be different in Scotland than in England, while in England itself only 31% are of that view. And there is even less support in both countries for the idea that the old age pension might be different.

Another implication of both current legislation and future proposals for tax devolution is that the money raised from income tax in Scotland would only be spent on public services in Scotland. But Scots are evenly divided on whether that is a good idea (48% are in favour, 47% opposed), while only a quarter of people in England & Wales back the idea.

So, on the one hand there seems to be little to stand in the way of giving more devolution, at least so far as public opinion throughout Britain is concerned. But future Scottish governments might well find that there are severe constraints on how much they could use their newly acquired freedoms in practice – not because doing so might touch a raw nerve in England but rather because of wariness amongst their own voters. Still, perhaps that means more devolution would not necessarily result in the two publics being at loggerheads in future!

Topics: Expectations of constitutional change, Cross border attitudes, National identity & cultural issues

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.