Scotland's Constitutional Debate - Patterns and Trends in Public Opinion in 2012

Lead Research Organisation: National Centre for Social Research
Department Name: Research Department

Abstract

Following the success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in winning an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, it now seems inevitable that a referendum on whether Scotland should become independent will be held at some point, most likely in the autumn of 2014. Earlier this year (2012), both the UK and the Scottish government held consultations on how the referendum should be conducted, while putative Yes and No campaign organizations have been launched. In effect the campaign that will eventually lead to a vote has begun.

The outcome of this referendum will have profound implications not only for Scotland but also for the rest of the UK. For example, should Scotland vote to leave the UK, the future of the UK's nuclear weapons base on the Clyde would be in doubt. Even if Scotland eventually opts to remain within the UK, there is considerable debate about the merits of further significant devolution, in particular of taxes and benefits, and some such proposal that may appear alongside independence on the ballot paper. Some argue such a step would undermine the principle that everyone in Britain should have access to the same level of government help in time of need.

Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) is an annual, independent high quality survey conducted by ScotCen Social Research. Around 1,200 adults selected at random and intended to be representative of Scotland as a whole are interviewed face to face each year. SSA has tracked and analysed the preferences and attitudes of people in Scotland about how they should be governed ever since the advent of devolution in 1999. As a result it has established itself as the only source of detailed consistent but impartial information on the long-term trends and patterns of public opinion on this vital subject.

This project will exploit this legacy and provide further contemporaneous information on the state of public opinion north of the border by including a module of 40 questions on the 2012 SSA. These latest results will be compared with those for previous years to assess whether there has been any significant change in the pattern of attitudes since the intensification of the debate about independence earlier this year. At the same time the project will develop further previous research into how far support for independence reflects people's emotional feelings (including in particular their sense of Scottish identity) and how far it reflects what they think the material consequences might be (such as its impact on Scotland's economy). It will also extend this approach to analyzing why people might prefer Scotland to remain within the UK but at the same time would like to see further taxation powers and responsibility for welfare benefits given to the Scottish Parliament.

The findings are expected to be of intense interest to all sides in this extremely important debate, providing clues as to what might motivate voters to vote one way or the other as well supplying the most detailed source of evidence on the current state of opinion. Initial findings are expected to be released at a half day seminar in Edinburgh in December 2012, accompanied by extensive press publicity. Further follow-up presentations will be given to key audiences inside and outside government. A written briefing will be published in February 2013 in collaboration with the Electoral Reform Society, followed by subsequent book chapter and academic journal publications. The data will also be made available for other academic researchers to analyse.

Planned Impact

According to the recently retired former Cabinet Secretary, Lord O'Donnell, the possibility that Scotland might opt to leave the UK is, along with the economic and financial crisis, one of the two biggest challenges currently facing the UK government. The decision on whether Scotland will leave the UK will eventually be taken by the general public living north of the border. This project will provide vital evidence on what that public thinks at the outset of the referendum campaign , both identifying what are likely to be the key considerations that eventually persuade people in Scotland to vote either Yes or No and providing information on the extent and basis of public support for further devolution within the framework of the UK. Such information is likely to be regarded as invaluable intelligence by those on all sides of the argument in devising their strategies and policy responses as well as by those organizations whose future could well be significantly affected by the decisions that are eventually taken.

The community of those with a potential interest in the project is thus large and includes:

UK ministers, politicians and campaigners from all parties
Scottish ministers, politicians and campaigners from all parties
Organisers of the Yes Scotland and Better Together referendum campaigns.
UK government civil servants with responsibility for devolution/Scotland
Scottish government civil servants with responsibility for supporting that government's referendum policy
Thank tanks working on devolution policy including Reform Scotland and the Institute for Public Policy Research
Pressure groups with an interest in the future governance of the UK in general and Scotland in particular, including the Electoral Reform Society, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Scottish Trades Union Council and CBI Scotland.
Businesses located in Scotland, especially those with significant UK-wide operations, including most notably the substantial financial sector based primarily in Edinburgh.
Journalists both north and south of the border, together with journalists from outside the UK
Diplomatic representatives of overseas governments, especially those located in Edinburgh.
Members of the general public with an interest in politics

It should thus come as little surprise that the project potentially has important implications for both the wealth and the culture and the United Kingdom. In so far as the findings of the project inform the campaigning and policy strategies of key participants in the debate, it could materially affect the detail of the options and arguments that are put before the Scottish public and thus perhaps the decision that they eventually take. In so far as the findings inform the decisions made by business about how they should respond to the emerging political environment, this could affect the future economic wellbeing of Scotland and the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, the culture of the UK will be enhanced by advancing media and public understanding of the distinctive political environment that exists in Scotland and of the motivations, including those pertaining to people's sense of identity and culture, that underlie the demand for self-government north of the border.

We would anticipate that much of this impact will arise relatively early on in the lifetime of the project in the wake of the initial efforts to disseminate the results of the project as widely as possible as detailed in the Pathways to Impact statement.

Publications

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Description 1. There is no evidence that the electoral success of the Scottish National Party in 2011 has been followed by an increase in support for independence. At 23%, support for leaving the UK equals an all-time low, confirming a broader trend whereby support for independence has tended to be lower since the SNP first came to power in 2007.
2. There has been a drop (from 29% in 2011 to 23% in 2012) in the proportion who regard themselves as 'Scottish, not British'. While those who describe themselves in that way are more likely than those who admit to being British to support independence, the relationship is far from perfect and shows no sign of having strengthened over time. Still only 46% of those who say they are 'Scottish, not British' support independence.
3. If people are asked separately about how Scottish they feel and how British they feel, we discover that those who say they are strongly Scottish do not necessarily feel weakly British. Meanwhile, it is how British someone feels that is the more strongly related to people's support for independence. Seemingly for many people the independence referendum is more about whether they wish to leave the UK than whether they want Scotland to become independent.
4. Even for those with a weak sense of British identity, support for independence is typically conditional on their views on whether a change of constitutional status would be instrumentally beneficial. Of particular importance are expectations of whether independence would be economically beneficial. No less than 73% of those who think that Scotland's economy would be 'a lot better' under independence back the idea. Opinion on whether independence would be economically beneficial remains evenly divided.
5. Around three-fifths of people in Scotland think that the Scottish Parliament should make the most important decisions for Scotland about both taxation and welfare, the two areas of domestic policy that are still the principal preserve of the UK government. However, more devolution is the first preference of only around one in three voters (32%). The apparent discrepancy between the two findings arises because nearly everyone whose first preference is independence supports the devolution of taxation and welfare and in this they are joined by around half of those who would prefer to stay in the UK.
6. Voters are no more likely to think that more devolution would be instrumentally beneficial than they are independence. However, they are less likely to think it would be damaging.
7. Women continue to be far less likely than men to support independence (and more likely than men to support more devolution). This is not because they are concerned about different issues. Rather the gender gap arises (in part at least) because women (63%) are more likely than men (52%) to say they feel uncertain about the consequences of independence.
8. Those who hope that Gaelic will be spoken by more people than it is now are significantly more likely to support independence even after a variety other possible influences on attitudes to Scotland's constitutional future have been accounted for.
Exploitation Route This project contributed to public understanding of attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed in advance of the Scottish Independence Referendum
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description This project was undertaken during the early stages of the campaign for the referendum on Scottish independence that was eventually held on September 18 2014. It was also the precursor to further research and dissemination activity undertaken as part of two projects funded under the ESRC's research initiative on The Future of the UK and Scotland, viz. a supplementary award to AqMen (ES/K006460/1) and a Scotland Senior Fellowship awarded to Prof. Curtice. (ES/K007149/1). Those later two projects drew in part on the research conducted and data collected for this project, and facilitated the further dissemination of the findings of this project. Meanwhile the survey work for this project was conducted on the same platform as an ESRC project on attitudes to Gaelic (ES/J003352/1) and this created the opportunity examine the link between attitudes towards the language and the constitutional question. The question of how Scotland should be governed is of course politically contentious. It was not the purpose of this project to generate 'impact' by influencing or changing public opinion on how Scotland should be governed, let alone change the direction of a public policy whose merits was disputed by two governments. Rather it was intended to ensure that impartial information on public attitudes - and what might influence those attitudes - should be available to those within the UK and Scottish governments who were responsible for developing their respective institutions' policy pronouncements, to those campaigning on all sides of the referendum argument, to journalists reporting on the campaign, and to the interested lay public. In this way the project could help inform public policy (and maybe therefore increase its effectiveness) and enhance the quality of pubic discourse about the referendum (and thus the quality of life). Each of these target audiences was reached by the project. The initial results of the survey were unveiled at a half-day seminar at Edinburgh University in January 2013, accompanied by an extensive press publicity exercise that secured widespread coverage. This event was attended inter alia by representatives of the Scottish National Party and the then nascent Better Together campaign. Meanwhile, the seminar was followed shortly thereafter by private presentations to both UK government and Scottish government civil servants who were working on their respective government's policies on the independence referendum. Subsequently a similar private presentation to help inform their planning for the referendum was given to the staff and commissioners of the Electoral Commission. The results also featured in a report written by Prof. Curtice for a UK Government Office for Science Foresight Project on identities. Apart from attitudes towards independence the project also examined attitudes towards more devolution. This part of the project was co-sponsored by the Electoral Reform Society and resulted in a briefing that was published in collaboration with the society and was presented at a seminar held in the Scottish Parliament attended by parliamentarians and their staff. This work was followed by further research conducted as part of the two Future of the UK and Scotland projects that formed the basis of a contribution to a submission to the Smith Commission on more devolution that was organized after the referendum by the Future of the UK and Scotland initiative. The data from this project also featured heavily in a set of research briefings and seminars that were produced and presented in the initial phase of Prof. Curtice's Scotland Senior Fellowship. These seminars, conducted under Chatham House rules, were attended regularly by officials from the two governments, representatives from the official 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns, and diplomats for overseas governments. The briefings became one of the elements of the heavily used whatscotlandthinks.org website that was established as part of Prof. Curtice's Scotland Fellowship. This site also gave lay users access to a facility that enabled them undertake simple crosstabulations of all of the data on attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed that had been collected by Scottish Social Attitudes since 1999, including the data collected as part of this project. In addition, presentations based in whole or in part on the findings were also given to a wide variety of non-academic audiences including meetings at or of the British Academy, political parties, the Scottish Parliament Festival of Politics, the ESRC (at Portcullis House), the ESRC Festival of Social Science, the University of Edinburgh, a breakfast briefing for Scottish business organisations and directly to a number of private business organisations., Meanwhile a report on attitudes to Gaelic and political autonomy was published by Soillse, with a view to informing policy towards and public debate about the Gaelic language in Scotland. It is thus evident that the findings of the project reached a wide non-academic audience - and the fact that some of the key players in the referendum campaign came back for more suggests that they found the findings useful. The extent to which they used it in private in developing their campaign strategies is, of course, impossible to tell. But we can show that the findings were noticed and used by key 'stakeholders' in the debate as evidenced by their citation in political speeches and in commentary on the referendum. For example, findings from the survey were cited by the then Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, in his speeches as shown at these two links. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/03/alex-salmonds-new-statesman-lecture-full-text http://www.snp.org/blog/post/2013/mar/alex-salmond-speech-snp-spring-conference Meanwhile, here are two examples from the Financial Times and the Institute of Government of analysts using material from the survey to inform their coverage of the referendum. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bc9ce780-97ee-11e3-8dc3-00144feab7de.html#axzz3XDsrVcmQ http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/6819/sterling-for-subs-scotlands-referendum-and-the-future-of-the-uk/
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Title Scottish Social Attitudes 2012 
Description Rectangular file of all of the data collected by the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, including data on attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed that were collected as part of award ES/K006355/1. The data set also contains data on attitudes towards the Gaelic language, funded by the ESRC (ES/J003352/1), on the use of the STV ballot paper in the 2012 Scottish local elections, and on attitudes towards policing. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact See the narrative impact reports for ES/K006355/1 and ES/J003352/1. The data on people's use of the STV ballot paper in the 2012 Scottish local elections were funded by the Nuffield Foundation and are contributing to the Scottish Government's planning for the 2017 elections. A supplementary award to AqMen (ES/K006460/1) gave young researchers guided access to the data on attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed, and this resulted in both conference presentations and articles in a special number of Scottish Affairs authored by these young researchers. 
URL http://discover.ukdataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/?sn=7338&type=Data%20catalogue
 
Title whatscotlandthinks.org 
Description A unique continuously updated collection of opinion findings (from 2007 onwards) and data from the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey (from 1999 onwards) of relevance to the debate about Scotland's constitutional future. The collection is fully searchable and contains a variety of tabulation and data visualisation facilities. The site contains a data explorer facility that enables the user to construct crosstabulations of the SSA data. There is also a blog that provides regular commentary on new poll results and academic research findings. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, the site came to be very heavily used and was frequently quoted by journalists, academics and other commentators who were seeking to follow and write about the forthcoming ballot. It thus made a major contribution to the public debate about and Scotland's constitutional future. 
URL http://whatscotlandthinks.org
 
Description AreScots getting cold feet about independence? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article in Comment is Free section of The Guardian website.

Impossible to discern
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/24/scots-cold-feet-independence
 
Description Attitude to risk holds key 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article in Scotsman newspaper discussing some of the initial findings of the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey.

Part of a wider media publicity exercise on the occasion on the release of the first results from the 2012 SSA. This exercise secured widespread publicity and helped inform the debate about Scottish independence
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.scotsman.com
 
Description ESRC Briefings on Scottish Independence Referendum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Post-events discussions

Invitation to speak at an academic conference on the Scottish referendum in Amiens
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014
 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Science Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Post event discussion

None known
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://aqmen.ac.uk/events/foss2013
 
Description Scottish Parliament Festival of Politics 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Post-seminar discussions

Not known
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014
URL http://www.festivalofpolitics.org.uk
 
Description Stevenson Trust on Citizenship Lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Post-lecture discussions

Not known
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014