What should we make of the referendum campaign now that polling day is drawing near? That is the question being addressed today by a major ScotCen/What Scotland Thinks conference being held in Edinburgh today. To help us answer the question the event will see the unveiling of initial results from the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, based on interviews conducted between mid May and mid July.
These results suggest that the long campaign has not simply been a waste of time. Public opinion has changed during the course of the last two or three years. Support for independence is up, yet at the same time fewer people now think it will be beneficial. That sounds like a bit of a paradox, but the reason why the two trends have occurred in parallel is that those who think independence would be beneficial are now more willing to vote for the idea. And the fact that people’s likely vote choice on 18 September is now more closely aligned with their views on the arguments for and against leaving the UK is worth at least one cheer from all those who, irrespective of their views on independence, would like voters to be casting a well informed vote on polling day.
As regular readers will remember, every year since 1999 SSA has asked its respondents a question that asks them to choose between independence inside or outside the EU, a devolved parliament with or without tax powers, and no parliament at all. In 2012 only 23% said in response to this question that that they backed independence. Last year that figure rose to 29% and now it stands at 33%.
That 33% figure is not record breaking. The 2005 survey put it at 35%. But it is towards the higher end of the range of between roughly a quarter and a third within which it has oscillated ever since 1999. That suggests the Yes campaign has managed to mobilise most of its potential support, but has not necessarily been particularly successful in breaking new ground
Much the same modest advance in support for independence is also evident when people are asked whether they propose to vote Yes or No. Once as many as possible of the 29% who said they were undecided were persuaded to say whether they think they will vote Yes or No, in total 33% of the sample said they would were inclined to vote Yes, while 51% stated that they would or were inclined to vote No. When the remaining Don’t Knows are discarded, this equates to Yes 39%, No 61%. The equivalent figures in last year’s SSA were Yes 30%, No 54% before the Don’t Knows were removed, and Yes 36%, No 64% afterwards. So however referendum vote intention is tallied, the survey suggests that has been a three point swing from No to Yes since last year. That of course is very similar to the message of the opinion polls during that period.
Yet at the same time, fewer people appear to be enamoured of the case for independence than they were a year or two ago. For example, in 2012 34% thought that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence. But that figure fell to 30% last year and now stands at just 25%. Equally the proportion that think Scotland’s voice in the world would be strengthened has fallen from 42% in 2012 to 38% last year and now just 33% are of that view. Even the proportion who think that more people would have pride in their country has fallen from 55% in 2012 to 51% last year and 47% now.
How can it possible for support for independence to have increased when over the same period fewer people think it would be beneficial? The answer lies in the fact that those voters who do think independence would be beneficial are now more likely to say that they support leaving the UK. For example, no less than 83% of those who think that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence now back the idea. Last year the equivalent figure was 67% and in 2012 just 50%.
Similarly in 2012 only 39% of those who thought that independence would strengthen Scotland’s voice in the world said they thought Scotland should be independence. That figure was still only 54% last year. Now, however, it stands at 71%.
There is of course more than one possible reason why this change has happened. Some voters who always thought that perhaps independence might have its advantages may have been persuaded by the referendum campaign to switch to backing the idea. Conversely, some people who have always backed independence but were not sure about its practical benefits may now have convinced themselves that leaving the UK would have its advantages after all.
Either way, however, the fact that there is now a closer alignment between people’s willingness to support independence and their views of the arguments for and against suggests that, when Scotland does vote next month, the outcome will more clearly reflect the nation’s collective judgement on the merits of the arguments put before them. And that after all is what in a democracy at least a referendum is supposed to do.
A copy of the briefing paper on which this blog is based is available on this site.