Scottish independence

The state of the Union: public opinion
and the Scottish question

  • The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) success in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections has renewed and invigorated the long-running debate on Scotland’s constitutional status. In the near future, it seems certain that people in Scotland will be asked to decide whether they wish to become independent and leave the UK. But does the SNP’s electoral success reflect a desire for independence
 among people in Scotland? And is there any sign of weakening support in England for Scotland’s current position within the Union?

    SS_Scott _Ind _Intro

    Highlights

  • Scottish support for independence

    Only a minority of people in Scotland support independence. People’s willingness to back the idea depends more on whether they think it would make Scotland’s economy stronger than on whether they have a strong Scottish identity.

    Around a third of people in Scotland favour independence, and there is no consistent evidence of an increase in support over time. At 32% support for independence is up 9 points on 2010, when it was at a record low of 23%, but is still lower than in 2005, when it stood at 35%.

    SS_Scott _Ind _Fact1

    Highlights

  • Scottish support for independence

    Only a minority of people in Scotland support independence. People’s willingness to back the idea depends more on whether they think it would make Scotland’s economy stronger than on whether they have a strong Scottish identity.

    Only just over half (53%) of those who say they are “Scottish, not British” support independence, compared with over three-quarters of those who say that Scotland’s economy would be a lot stronger if the country left the UK. But at present only 34% in Scotland think the economy would be stronger.

    SS_Scott _Ind _Fact2

    Highlights

  • The English perspective

    There is evidence of increasing unhappiness in England about the ‘anomalies’ thrown up by the current asymmetric devolution settlement, and of greater willingness to question its continuation.

    Although less than half (44%) of people in England think that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, that is double the proportion who were of that view little more 
than a decade ago.

    SS_Scott _Ind _Fact3

    Highlights

  • The English perspective

    There is evidence of increasing unhappiness in England about the ‘anomalies’ thrown up by the current asymmetric devolution settlement, and of greater willingness to question its continuation.

    26% of people in England now believe Scotland should leave the UK compared with 14% in 1997. Conversely, support for Scotland remaining part of the UK but with its own Parliament has declined from 55% in 1997 to 44% in 2011.

    SS_Scott _Ind _Fact4

    Highlights

Introduction

The success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in securing an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election has had profound implications for the long-running debate about Scotland's constitutional status. The SNP's election manifesto included a commitment to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should become a separate country, independent from the rest of the UK.1 Although there remain question marks over whether the Scottish Parliament has the legal authority to hold a ballot, the SNP's opponents have accepted that their electoral success has given the nationalists the moral right to do so. Meanwhile, the UK government has signalled a willingness to give the Edinburgh institution explicit authority to hold a vote (Scotland Office, 2012). Given these developments, it now looks inevitable that in the next couple of years, people in Scotland will be asked to decide whether they wish to dissolve the 300-year Union between their country and the rest of the UK.

Pullquote _Scott _Ind _1However, current debates about Scotland's constitutional future are not focused solely on the merits or otherwise of independence. The SNP's victory in 2011 has also sparked renewed discussion about whether Scotland should have increased rights and responsibilities within the United Kingdom. This debate does not appear to have been quelled by the passage through the UK Parliament of the Scotland Act 2012. Prompted in part by the SNP's earlier success in forming a minority government in 2007, that Act grants the Scottish Parliament increased powers, including taxation powers. But even before the Scotland Act received Royal Assent, the debate about Scotland's powers within the Union already appeared to have moved on. Commentators and politicians have variously advocated 'devolution plus' (under which the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for raising more or less all of its own revenues (Thomson et al., 2011)) or 'devolution max' (under which most welfare benefits would also be devolved (Scottish Government, 2009)) as better reflecting the aspirations of Scotland for further self-government within the UK. Interestingly, discussion of these possibilities has in part been promoted by the SNP themselves, who have repeatedly shown a willingness to consider including some such option on the referendum ballot as an alternative to full independence. In contrast, the UK government, together with the Labour opposition, have opposed the inclusion of a 'second question' on the referendum ballot paper, although they have indicated they are open to considering options for further devolution should Scotland opt to remain within the Union (Cameron, 2012; Lamont, 2012).

While the future of the Union is currently being questioned most openly north of the border, ultimately the future stability of the UK depends on public opinion in England too. The current devolution settlement is already highly asymmetric. Many of Scotland's domestic affairs - health, education and public transport, for example - are determined by Scotland's devolved institutions, on which England is unrepresented. Yet public policy for England itself continues to be decided by UK-wide institutions in which Scotland does have a say. It has long been argued that this situation would eventually lead to an 'English backlash' - that people in England would be increasingly unhappy about the apparently advantaged position that Scotland enjoys within the Union. The risk of such a backlash might well be thought to be heightened if the rights of the Scottish Parliament were further extended. Meanwhile, maintaining Scotland's membership of the UK would certainly be made more difficult if people in England decided they would prefer the two countries to go their own separate ways.

This chapter addresses these three issues. First, we examine the level and character of support north of the border for Scottish independence. In particular, we assess how far the demand for independence appears to reflect a desire to express a distinctive sense of Scottish national identity, and how far it appears to be contingent on expectations of what independence might bring, including not least its material consequences. Second, we consider whether there is support north of the border for some form of 'devolution plus' or 'devolution max', that would extend Scotland's say over its own domestic affairs while retaining its membership of the UK. Finally we consider whether there is any evidence of increasing unhappiness south of the border with the current asymmetric devolution settlement - an unhappiness that might perhaps lead people to regard Scottish independence as preferable to a Union that leaves England at a disadvantage.

The first two questions are addressed using data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey. This survey is conducted in much the same way as British Social Attitudes but interviews sufficient people living in Scotland to provide robust estimates of public opinion there. The third question is answered using British Social Attitudes data but looking only at the views of those living in England.

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Notes
  1. Such a commitment had also been included in the SNP's 2007 election manifesto. However, as a minority government between 2007 and 2011, the SNP lacked the votes in the Scottish Parliament needed to pass legislation authorising a ballot.
  2. In the case of the first two items the unweighted and weighted sample size in 1997 is 676. In the case of the remaining items the unweighted size is 657 and the weighted 659. The unweighted sample size for all items in 2011 is 1156 and the weighted 1167.
  3. Support for independence has been modelled using binary logistic regression in which the dependent variable is support for independence (either inside or outside the European Union) versus any other response. Confidence in independence has been modelled using ordinal logistic regression in which the dependent variable is a five-point scale ranging from "very confident" to "very worried".
  4. In contrast to binary logistic regression, the ordinal logistic procedure in SPSS does not provide a stepwise facility. This means we do not know the order in which the variables would be entered using such an approach. However, an alternative analysis of the data on confidence in independence using stepwise binary logistic regression revealed that the order in which the variables were entered using that approach was much the same as the order of the Wald scores reported by the ordinal regression.
  5. Bases for Table 7.3 are as follows:

    NT_Scott _Ind _7.3
  6. The full question wording was as follows:

    Which of the following do you think has most influence over the way Scotland is run?

    And which do you think ought to have most influence over the way Scotland is run?

    [the Scottish Government, the UK government at Westminster, local councils in Scotland, the European Union]
  7. Note that, unlike the questions reported in Table 7.5, these questions did not offer the answer options "local councils in Scotland" or "European Union". As so few respondents chose these options when they were offered, their exclusion will have made little or no material difference to the pattern of response.
  8. We should note though that the balance in favour of decisions being made in Edinburgh rather than London is in both cases somewhat less than for the already devolved area of university tuition fees, where no less than 86 per cent think decisions should be taken by the Scottish Parliament and only 10 per cent say responsibility should lie with Westminster.
  9. Note that in contrast to the question reported at Figure 7.1, independence is not referred to here as involving 'separation' from the rest of the UK. In general, survey questions that include 'separation' in their description of independence have tended to elicit lower levels of support than those that do not.
  10. In the case of welfare benefits, the relevant figure in 2010 was 82 per cent while in the cass of taxes it was 83 per cent.
  11. The relevant 2010 figures are 61 per cent for welfare benefits and 54 per cent for taxes.
  12. Debarring Scottish MPs from voting on English laws would not necessarily prove unpopular with the general public north of the border either. When the question presented in Table 7.8 was last asked by Scottish Social Attitudes, in 2009, 47 per cent agreed that Scottish MPs should not vote on English laws, while only 22 per cent disagreed.
  13. In 2004-2006 the second option read "that makes decisions about the region's economy, planning and housing". The 2003 survey carried both versions of this option and demonstrated that the difference of wording did not make a material difference to 
the pattern of response. In Figure 7.2 the figures shown for 2003 are those for the two versions combined.
  14. It has also been suggested that the creation of directly elected mayors in the major cities of England might provide a focus for greater devolution in a manner that, along with the creation of the Greater London Assembly, it has already done. However, as the Constitutional reform chapter shows, public opinion towards directly elected mayors is somewhat equivocal and, in practice, when 10 of England's largest provincial cities were asked in May 2012 to vote in a referendum on whether they should have such a mayor, only one voted in favour.
  15. This increase would appear to be attributable to the increased concern about Scotland's share of public spending, albeit not wholly so. Those who think that Scotland secures more than its fair share are markedly more likely to support Scottish independence (33 per cent) than are those who do not think it secures more than its fair share (19 per cent). The increase in support for Scottish independence between 2007 and 2011 among those who say that Scotland secures more than its fair share is, at five points, a little less than the seven point increase in the population as a whole. At the same time, the equivalent figure among those who feel Scotland does not secure more than its fair share is, at two points, well below the general increase of seven. Some of that overall increase of seven points must therefore have arisen because of the rise between 2007 and 2011 in the proportion who think that Scotland secures more than its fair share.