FEATURE18 March 2014

Getting off Scot free


With the referendum on Scottish independence due to take place in 200 days, Simon Anderson of ScotCen discusses what attitudinal research can tell us about the likely outcome.


ScotCen Social Research has been running an annual study of what Scots think and feel – the Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) – every year since devolution. SSA is effectively the little sister of NatCen’s long-running British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) and, like BSA, it looks in depth at a range of pressing social and political issues. Inevitably, in a Scottish context, questions of national identity and constitutional preference have been a core fixture, but the survey has also carried questions on discrimination, homelessness, anti-social behaviour, violence against women and a host of other challenging topics.

SSA is not an opinion poll – or at least not in the sense that term is usually used. What distinguishes it are the rigour of its methods, the depth and care of its design and analysis, and its focus on understanding deep patterns and long-term trends in public views and sentiment. The survey has used essentially the same data collection methods since 1999, making it a highly valuable source of trend information. And its sample of 1,500 interviews is larger than most opinion polls, giving scope for detailed analysis of how attitudes are patterned across the population.

Was a vote for the SNP a vote for independence?

Many observers outside Scotland assumed that the SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections was a sign that Scottish opinion had shifted decisively in favour of independence. In fact, as SSA showed, support for independence in 2011 – and subsequently – was little different from that recorded during the previous decade. What is also clear, however, is that voters felt the SNP administration had proven its competence during its first term, and had done a good job of sticking up for Scotland’s interests within the UK – both things that many voters favoured, regardless of their attitude towards independence. Ironically, then, the very success of the SNP in government, while propelling the party into a position in which it was able to call the Referendum, also perhaps dampened some of the underlying demand for independence in the first place.

It really is the economy, stupid…

Another theme from SSA – and from the ongoing analysis of other polls available on our website – has been the underlying stability of likely voting intentions throughout the campaign (and indeed over a much longer period). The results of SSA 2013 suggested that many of the issues enthusiastically argued over by protagonists on both sides and given widespread media coverage – such as those relating to Europe, the pound, and welfare – have had little or no impact on voting intentions. What matter more, it seems, are voters’ views about the likely economic consequences of independence compared to staying in the Union. In 2011, SSA introduced a question asking Scots what difference it would make to their voting intentions if they were to find themselves £500 better off or worse off in an independent Scotland. The results are striking – it seems it really is ‘the economy, stupid’, to borrow the catchphrase from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. When participants were asked how they would vote if they thought they would be £500 a year better off, support for independence rose from 32% to 50%. When asked how they would vote if they thought they would be £500 a year worse off, support fell to just 15%.

Understanding women’s attitudes towards independence

Another issue that SSA has been able to shed light on has been the attitudes of women towards independence. Since 1999, the survey has shown that women have been consistently less likely to support independence. While this ‘gender gap’ is not necessarily widening, it presents a significant challenge for the Yes campaign, and poses some important questions about why such a gap should exist in the first place. Evidence from SSA calls into question the idea that the women’s priorities are substantially different from those of men. There is no evidence that women feel ‘less Scottish’ than men, nor that they are more negative in their expectations of the consequences of independence. What is distinctive about women is that they are significantly more likely to say they simply do not know what those consequences will be. And this greater uncertainty about its consequences appears to be a key factor in explaining why the yes campaign continues to struggle to make headway in this critical area.

The undecideds and the option not on the ballot paper

Although the evidence from SSA and elsewhere suggests that we can expect a high turnout for September’s referendum, this does not mean that voters are already clear about how they will vote. While some voters have not made up their minds simply because they are not very interested in anything to do with politics, as many as half of those who are undecided say they will definitely vote. For some at least, making a choice is difficult because they are not sure they know enough about what independence means and are as yet unconvinced it would make much difference to their lives. But a significant number also appear to be undecided because they feel that neither of the options on the ballot paper conforms to their views. For them, the exclusion of the so-called ‘devo max’ option from the ballot paper has presented them with a particularly difficult choice. If either campaign is to win over a substantial number of undecided voters, it will have to convince the (numerous) supporters of ‘devo max’ that it represents the best alternative to being able to vote directly for more devolution.

Whatever happens on 18 September, the constitutional future of Scotland is going to remain on the political agenda, and SSA will continue to shine a light on this and the other big social issues facing Scots.

Simon Anderson is director of ScotCen Social Research.