How are Scotland’s Voters Reacting? Trends and Patterns in Referendum Vote intentions

How are Scotland’s Voters Reacting? Trends and Patterns in Referendum Vote intentions

John Curtice, Strathclyde University/NatCen Social Research

The decision as to whether Scotland should become an independent country or remain part of the United Kingdom lies ultimately in the hands of the voters of Scotland. Consequently, the views and intentions of the Scottish public so far as the referendum is concerned are now regularly being polled and surveyed.  No less than seventeen commercial opinion polls were published in the first three months of this year – in a part of the UK where regular monthly polling had previously ceased a decade ago. Meanwhile on the academic front the annual Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey is continuing to monitor the trends and patterns in attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed while earlier this year the British Election Study inaugurated a three-wave panel study of the dynamics of public opinion during the final nine months of the campaign.

Until recently there was quite a large question mark over whether all this effort really was worthwhile. Poll after poll not only suggested that Scotland was inclined to vote No to independence by around three to two, but also that the balance of public opinion was proving to be utterly immutable. In Table 1 we show the average level of support for Yes and No, after those who said they did not know how they would vote are excluded from the denominator, as registered by opinion polls during five time periods since February of last year (when the question that will appear on the ballot paper was finally settled). It shows that the level of support for Yes and No barely changed throughout 2013. It looked as though most voters in Scotland had already made up their minds on a subject that the country had, after all, been debating for at least the last forty years.

Table 1 Scottish Referendum Vote Intentions, February 2013 – March 2014

2013

2014

Reported vote intention

Feb-May

July-Sept

Oct-Dec

Jan-mid Feb

mid Feb-Mar

%

%

%

%

%

Yes

38

39

39

41

43

No

62

61

61

59

57

(Number of polls)

9

10

8

7

10

Source: All published polls recorded at whatscotlandthinks.org. Don’t Knows excluded from the denominator

Three months on, however, it seems that public attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed are not so fixed after all. As Table 1 shows there has been a small but discernible increase in the average level of support for Yes. Indeed this shift has been maintained and has seemingly even continued further despite the announcement on 13th February that the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the Labour Shadow Chancellor all agreed that the rest of the United Kingdom would be unwilling to form a sterling monetary union with an independent Scotland (HM Treasury, 2014).  Every single polling company has been reporting somewhat higher levels of Yes support than they were last year.

So efforts to chart how public opinion evolves during the referendum campaign, and attempts to understand what is persuading voters to vote in one direction or the other appear to be worthwhile after all.  How the referendum is fought could apparently still make a difference to the outcome.

Apart from the fact that the issue is far from being a new one, there is one obvious reason why one might have anticipated that the balance of public opinion would prove difficult to shift. After all, surely at root this is a vote about people’s fundamental and enduring sense of identity? Is Scotland not a nation whose population has a distinctive sense of national Scottish identity that they want to see reflected in independent ‘statehood’? For Scots who feel that way, can we not anticipate that Scotland, not the UK as a whole, is regarded as ‘us’ and thus is considered to be a distinct community that should have the right to govern itself? Contrarily, cannot those who feel strongly British be expected to want to hang on to the Union that currently binds Scotland and England (and the rest of the UK) together?

Table 2. Moreno National Identity and Referendum Vote Intention [1]

Moreno National Identity

Scottish, not British

More Scottish than British

Equally Scottish and British

More British than Scottish

British, not Scottish

% who claim that identity

25

29

29

4

6

% who will vote Yes

64

42

15

10

6

 

The referendum debate is indeed partly about identity. As the second row of Table 2 shows, those who say they are Scottish and deny that they are British are more likely to be in favour of independence than anyone else. However, at the same time we learn from the first row of the table that for many people in Scotland feeling ‘Scottish’ and feeling ‘British’ are not necessarily antithetical to each other. Just under two-thirds (62%) of adults in Scotland say they feel some mixture of the two. Quite how they will reflect their sense of identity in saying either Yes or No to independence is not immediately obvious. Meanwhile, even those who claim to be exclusively Scottish are far from unanimous in backing a Yes vote.

So while people’s sense of identity colours the way in which they regard the referendum debate for many it is seemingly an insufficient basis on which to decide whether to vote Yes or No. This potentially creates the space for other, perhaps more instrumental considerations to enter into the reckoning. And people’s views of the practical consequences of independence might be thought to be more open to persuasion than their sense of national identity.

In the White Paper that lays out its prospectus for an independent Scotland (Scottish Government, 2013), the Scottish Government sets out two main instrumental arguments in favour of leaving the UK. First, an independent Scotland would be a more prosperous country. Second, it could be a more equal society. The degree to which either argument was persuasive in the eyes of the Scottish public was assessed by the most recent SSA by asking people whether they thought that, as a result of independence, (a) Scotland’s economy would become better or worse, and (b) the gap between rich and poor would become bigger or smaller.

Table 3 Expectations of Independence and Referendum Vote Intention (SSA) [2]

Expectation

% who say this of

Better

No Difference

Worse

Economy

30

26

34

Inequality

16

49

25

% of that view who will vote Yes
Economy

78

30

5

Inequality

62

35

22

Source: Scottish Social Attitudes 2013

The first half of Table 3, where the results are displayed, suggests that neither argument has so far proved particularly persuasive. However, what is of relevance here is that people are evidently more likely to think that independence would make a difference (in one direction or the other) to Scotland’s economy than reckon that it would result in a bigger or smaller gap between rich and poor. That suggests the possibility of a connection between independence and the state of Scotland’s economy comes more readily to voters’ minds than does the possibility that independence might result in a more or less equal society.

Expectations of the economic consequences of independence certainly seem to make more of a difference to people’s inclination to vote Yes or No. As can be seen in the lower half of the table, at 73 points the difference between the level of support for independence amongst those who take an optimistic view of the economy and the level amongst those who take a pessimistic view is much greater than the equivalent gap of 40 points for people’s expectations of inequality.

But is there any evidence that people’s views of the instrumental consequences of independence in general, and of the economy in particular, have shifted at all during the campaign? The answer is that there is. In Table 4 we show how expectations of the impact on both the economy and equality shifted between September 2013 and March 2014 according to polls conducted by ICM. In both cases expectations of the consequences of independence have become somewhat more optimistic. Meanwhile not only is independence more likely thought to make a difference (for good or ill) to Scotland’s economy than to the extent of inequality, but further analysis of these polls confirms that it is perceptions of the economy that are particularly linked to whether people are inclined to vote Yes or No – and thus by implication have helped to shift the balance of opinion a little in the direction of voting Yes.

Table 4 Expectations of Independence (ICM)

Expected Impact on Economy

Good

No Difference

Bad

Sept. 13

%

31

6

48

Jan. 14

%

35

7

42

Feb. 14

%

35

7

46

Mar. 14

%

38

6

43

Expected Impact on Inequality

Less

No Difference

More

Sept. 13

%

27

34

20

Jan. 14

%

31

31

21

Feb. 14

%

33

32

19

Mar. 14

%

36

30

16

Source: ICM Research

So with six months to go, Scotland still seems set to vote No in September. But that looks a little less certain now than it did six months ago. People’s sense of identity, Scottish or British, matters, but not definitively so. Voters are also taking into account the apparent instrumental consequences of the choice that they make. This gives both sides some reason to hope that they might yet shift the balance of opinion in their direction in the months that they have left.

Notes

[1] % who will vote Yes includes those undecided voters who say they think they are most likely to vote Yes. Those who remain undecided are excluded from the calculation. For the rationale behind Moreno national identity see Moreno (1988). Source: Scottish Social Attitudes 2013.

[2]  In the case of inequality, ‘better’ is taken to mean a smaller gap between rich and poor, and ‘worse’ a bigger gap. On % who will vote Yes see the note to Table 2

References

HM Treasury (2014), Scotland Analysis: Assessment of a sterling currency union, Cm 8815, Norwich: The Stationery Office.

Moreno, L. (1988), ‘Scotland and Catalonia: the path to home rule’, in McCrone, D. and Brown, A. (eds) The Scottish Government Yearbook. Edinburgh: Unit for the Study of Government in Scotland.

Scottish Government (2013), Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

 

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and Research Consultant to NatCen/ScotCen Social Research. He is currently an ESRC Scotland Fellow in the ESRC’s research initiative on The Future of the UK and Scotland, as part of which he is running a website, whatscotlandthinks.org, on public attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future during the course of the referendum.

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