The state of public attitudes

Published: 19 August 2013
Author: John Curtice

As measured by Father Time at least, we have now reached the half way mark in the referendum campaign.  It is just over twelve months since the two ‘official’ referendum campaigns, Better Together and Yes Scotland, were launched. And it is just over twelve months to polling day on 18th September 2014.

Of course we can anticipate that the second half will be fought more intensely that the first half as been – not that a lot else has been discussed in Scottish politics during the last year.  Even so, if the experience of the first half proves to be any guide, both sides face a formidable task in their attempts to shift public opinion in their direction.

Since February of this year nine polls have been published in which respondents have been asked how they will vote in response to the question that it was eventually agreed should appear on the referendum ballot paper, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’. On average they have reported a 33% Yes vote, and a 51% No one. (Details of the results of all nine can be found at whatscotlandthinks.org.)

Now consider the results of eleven other polls, all conducted between January 2013 and January 2013, that asked respondents how they would vote in response to the version of the referendum question originally proposed by the Scottish Government, that is, ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country’. On average these polls found that 34% said they would vote Yes and 50% No.

In short, the message from the polls so far is that the balance of public opinion has barely shifted at all – including the fact that around one in six voters have yet to make up their mind. Numerous lengthy white papers published by the UK government  in recent months, all seemingly designed to sow the seeds of doubt about the merits of independence, have apparently failed to make much of an impression. Equally, claims by the Yes campaign that voters are coming over to them when the issues are explained to them by its army of activists have yet to be registered in any of the publicly published polls.

Why might public opinion apparently be proving so difficult to move? Well for a start it is worth bearing in mind that the arguments for and against independence have been a regular part of Scottish political debate now for forty years, ever since the SNP made its first electoral breakthroughs. Many people may feel they have heard it all before.

 Meanwhile, the debate is in part at least about identity, about people’s feelings about where and with whom they belong. As analysis of the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey has shown, the more strongly British someone feels, the less likely they are to back independence.

People’s identities are not easily shifted, so we should not be surprised that their views about whether or not they would like to remain part of Britain appear to be relatively immutable too.

However, the debate is not just about identity. After all, given that for many people in Scotland whatever British identity they have plays second fiddle to their sense of Scottish identity, the Yes side would be doing better in the polls if it were.

The debate is also about whether independence would be good or bad for Scotland, and especially whether it would result in a more or less prosperous country. Hardly anyone who thinks that Scotland’s economy would be worse under independence backs the idea. In contrast nearly three-quarters of those who think that Scotland’s economy would be ‘a lot better’ do so.

The economic argument is still to be won and lost. According to SSA 34% think the economy would be better under independence, while exactly the same proportion, 34%, think it would be worse. If those numbers were to shift in either direction then perhaps the polls might finally begin to shift too. But can either side come up with more effective arguments than those they have conveyed so far?

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Research Consultant at ScotCen Social Research and an ESRC Scotland Fellow. As part of his fellowship at whatscotlandthinks.org he is compiling and commenting on all recent polling and survey data about the referendum.

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