Do Promises of More Devolution Matter?

One of the major academic efforts to understand how voters behave in September’s referendum is being conducted as part of an enterprise known as the British Election Study (BES).  This study is now 50 years old; each election since 1964 has been graced by an in-depth survey of voters conducted after polling day, while in most cases one or more waves of interviewing have been undertaken beforehand too.  The current study, focused primarily on the 2015 UK election, is being lead by a team based at the Universities of Manchester, Nottingham and Oxford.

One part of the 2015 study consists of a panel of people who are being interviewed by the internet pollsters YouGov on a regular basis. The panel includes 4,137 people living in Scotland, and thus is big enough to provide estimates of behaviour and attitudes in Scotland alone. Panel members were first contacted in late February and early March, were interviewed again after last month’s European elections and will be once again shortly after the referendum in September.

So when the referendum is over we will be able to trace how people’s views and attitudes towards independence and the Union evolved during the last nine months or so of the campaign, valuable fodder doubtless for many an academic paper.

More immediately the study yesterday released the results of some initial analyses based on the results of the first wave of interviewing conducted in the winter. (In case you are wondering, 51% of the sample said they would vote No, 37% Yes, which means that after the Don’t Knows were excluded, No were on 58%, Yes on 42%, very similar to the 40% Yes vote obtained by a YouGov poll for The Sun that was also conducted in late February.) Fortuitously, given Monday’s joint promise of more devolution from the unionist parties, much of this analysis focuses in particular on the role that expectations of more devolution is playing and could play in influencing how people will vote in September.

Monday’s joint promise by the three unionist parties was intended to try and persuade Scots that they can vote No safe in the knowledge that, despite the disagreements about its precise shape, more devolution would indeed happen. Hitherto polling evidence from ICM in particular has suggested many voters are doubtful that more devolution would happen; its most recent poll, for example, found that only 38% believe that the Scottish Parliament would be given more power and responsibilities.  (In similar vein in its most recent poll for Yes Scotland, Panelbase report that only 35% believe the ‘Westminster political parties could be trusted to deliver any extra powers’, while 43% do not.)

The BES presents two analyses that both suggest that whether or not people think devolution will happen appears to influence whether voters will vote Yes or No. The first comes from looking at how people’s current expectations make a difference to whether they are inclined to vote Yes or No. The second is based on a survey ‘experiment’ in which some respondents were told that more devolution would happen and others that it would not, and subsequently were asked whether they supported or opposed independence.

The first analysis indicates first of all that voters may not be as pessimistic about the prospects for more devolution as suggested by ICM. As many as 50% said they expected Holyrood to get either ‘some’ or ‘many’ more powers in the event of a No vote – though most of these opted for  ‘some’ rather than ‘many’ more powers. Perhaps the opportunity offered by the BES (but not by ICM) to say that Holyrood would just get ‘some’ more powers made it more likely that people would say that they expected something at least to happen.  Meanwhile 36% say the Scottish Parliament’s powers will either remain unchanged or be diminished, rather fewer than the 43% who were of that view in the most recent ICM survey.

Of course, not all voters want more devolution to happen in the event of a No vote.  In the BES survey 22% say they oppose the idea, not dissimilar to the 25% who in the most recent ICM survey said that the Scottish Parliament’s powers should remain unchanged.  But for the 74% who do want it to happen, whether or not they think it will is clearly aligned with whether they say they will vote Yes or No.

Amongst those who want more devolution to happen and believe it will, only 35% say they will vote Yes.  In contrast amongst those who want it to happen but reckon it will not be delivered, twice as many (71%) are currently Yes supporters. The analysis then goes on to demonstrate that whether or most people feel their hopes for more devolution will be met remains related to their chances of voting Yes or No even after taking into account their attitudes towards a variety of other issues in the referendum debate.

Given that according to this survey as many as 57% of No voters actually want more devolution, one can see why unionist politicians have concluded that these voters need to assured that their wishes will indeed come true.

Meanwhile, the second analysis shows that when respondents are told that an expert has said that more devolution will not be delivered by the next UK government, they are more likely to express support for independence than if they are told that an expert has said it will happen. In the first circumstance 36% express support for independence, whereas in the second no more than a third do so. (It makes no difference by the way whether the expert says it is a Labour or a Conservative UK government that will or will not deliver.)

This difference is not large, and indeed is not dissimilar to the potential impact on the No vote that ICM’s data suggests would arise should voters become convinced that more devolution would not happen. But if the No lead is continuing to narrow, one can see why the unionists have apparently concluded that they cannot afford to risk losing their support.

What of course remains to be seen is whether voters prove to be reassured by the unionist parties’ joint promise.

Topics: Expectations of constitutional change, The Scottish independence referendum

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.