Does Scotland want independence?
Since its inception in 1999, Scottish Social Attitudes has asked respondents the same question each year about how they would prefer Scotland to be governed. This question was first asked in two other surveys carried out by NatCen Social Research: one fielded immediately after the 1997 UK general election, and one conducted following the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution. This means Scottish Social Attitudes is a unique source of evidence on trends in support for independence since the advent of devolution. The survey invites respondents to say which of five options is closest to their view about how Scotland should be governed:
Scotland should become independent, separate from the UK and the European Union
Scotland should become independent, separate from the UK but part of the
Scotland should remain part of the UK, with its own elected parliament which has some taxation powers
Scotland should remain part of the UK, with its own elected parliament which has no taxation powers
Scotland should remain part of the UK without an elected parliament
The first two responses refer to independence, either within or outside the European Union. The next two refer to devolution - Scotland having its own devolved parliament - either with or without taxation powers. The last option describes the status quo prior to devolution, that is, Scotland being part of the UK without its own parliament. In Figure 7.1 we have combined the responses to each of the first two pairs of options, so that we can see clearly the level of overall support each year for independence (middle line), devolution (top) and not having any Scottish Parliament at all (bottom line).
There has in fact been remarkably little change since 1997 in the level of support for independence. In most years it has been somewhere between one quarter and one third. It reached a peak of 37 per cent in the immediate wake of the 1997 referendum on devolution and another of 35 per cent in 2005. But more recently support has, if anything, been on the low side, falling as low as 23 per cent in 2010.
Far from stimulating support for independence, the experience of having the SNP
in power after 2007 seemed, if anything, to have depressed it (Ormston and Curtice, 2010; Curtice and Ormston, 2011). That drop appears to have been reversed in the immediate wake of the SNP's second and more spectacular electoral success in 2011. However, at 32 per cent the level of support for independence now is still in the range within which it has oscillated during the last dozen or so years, and still trails that for devolution (58 per cent) by some considerable margin. It is also clear that far fewer people currently support independence than were willing to vote SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections; indeed only 51 per cent of those who said they voted SNP in 2011 also favoured independence.
So support for independence remains a minority position, despite the SNP's electoral success. But what leads people to support independence or not? One possibility is that attitudes reflect people's sense of national identity. Perhaps people who feel Scottish rather than British are inclined to feel that Scotland should enjoy the full status of an independent state, just like any other nation (Gellner, 1983). However, previous research into levels of support for 'secessionist' movements around the world suggests that support also depends on perceptions of economic wealth and access to natural resources (Hechter, 2000; Sorens, 2005; Sambanis, 2006). Research on the basis of public support for Quebec sovereignty, for example, finds that while it is rooted in part in questions of identity and language, those who take a favourable view of the economic consequences of leaving Canada are also more likely to back the idea (Blais and Nadeau, 1992; Howe, 1998; Nadeau et al., 1999). Meanwhile in Scotland, the perceived material consequences of constitutional change have been cited as key influences on whether people voted 'Yes' in the 1997 referendum on devolution (Surridge et al., 1998; Surridge and McCrone, 1999; though see also Curtice, 1999). So we clearly need to examine how far support for independence is linked to perceptions of its consequences, and particularly its material consequences, as well as how far it appears to reflect a distinctive Scottish sense of national identity.
Table 7.1 shows what impact people in Scotland currently think independence would have, not only on various aspects of the country's material wellbeing but also on its sense of pride and its voice in the world (the full question text can be found in the appendix to this chapter). In each case, much the same question was also asked about devolution shortly after the 1997 referendum, in which a majority voted in favour of creating a Scottish Parliament. This means we can compare current levels of optimism about independence with the hopes and expectations people had for devolution when it had just been given the green light.
For the most part the balance of expectations appears to be relatively favourable towards independence. With the exception of taxation, where there is a widespread feeling that taxes would be higher, more people think that things would be better under independence than think they would be worse. However, the excess of optimists over pessimists is much greater in respect of the less immediately material consequences than it is when it comes to the material (and especially the economic) ones. For example, while 67 per cent feel that people in Scotland would have more pride in their country as a result of independence, just 34 per cent feel the standard of living would improve, while 23 per cent think it will get worse. Moreover, people are much less optimistic about the prospect of independence now than they were about devolution in 1997. Again, this is especially so with respect to the anticipated material consequences. While then, 64 per cent thought Scotland's economy would be stronger as a result of devolution, now just 34 per cent feel it would be stronger if Scotland became independent. While independence is far from being widely regarded as a wholly disastrous prospect, it would appear that most people in Scotland have yet to be persuaded that it would bring significant material benefits.
Moreover, despite the generally favourable balance of opinion on some of the anticipated consequences of independence, the prospect of independence is widely regarded with a degree of unease. This emerges most clearly in responses to the following question:
If Scotland were to become independent, would you feel confident about Scotland's future, worried, or neither confident nor worried?
No less than 46 per cent say that they would be worried (either "very" or "quite"). Just 31 per cent indicate that they would feel confident (again either "very" or "quite"), while a further 22 per cent state that they would be neither confident nor worried. It would seem that above and beyond its anticipated specific consequences, independence is regarded as something of a risk by a substantial section of the population.
But how far are any of these expectations linked with people's attitudes towards independence? Are people only likely to support the idea if they think it would benefit Scotland's economy or standard of living? And do any of these expectations make much difference once we take into account people's sense of national identity? These questions are best answered by using multivariate analysis (described in more detail in the Technical details chapter). This enables us to assess and summarise the strength of the relationships between a variety of expectations about independence and national identity on the one hand, and levels of support for independence on the other. We can also check whether there are any demographic differences in attitudes, above and beyond any differences relating to national identity or expectations.
The results of our analyses are summarised in Table 7.2. First though, we should note that how confident or worried people feel about independence is strongly associated with support for the idea. No less than 85 per cent of those who feel very confident about independence support the idea, while only six per cent of those who are very worried about the prospect wish to leave the UK. As a result our measure of confidence dominates the results if it is included in any model of support for independence. This means that any such model might be regarded as simply re-describing rather than explaining support for independence. We therefore model support for independence (as measured by our long-standing question reported in Figure 7.1) and confidence separately, in the knowledge that having confidence in independence appears to play an important role in fostering support for the idea.3
So far as support for independence is concerned, expectations about the impact of independence both on the economy and on national identity appear in our multivariate model. However, economic expectations are more closely related to support than is national identity, a finding illustrated by Table 7.3. There is a 43 percentage point difference in the level of support for independence between those who say they feel Scottish not British and those who say they are British not Scottish. But there is no less than a 74 point difference in support for independence between those who feel Scotland's economy would be a lot stronger and those who think it would be a lot weaker if the country were to leave the Union. By this measure, at least, material expectations appear to be the more important of the two considerations in voters' minds.
Economic expectations are not, however, the only expectations about independence associated with support for the idea. So too are beliefs about some less immediately material considerations - in particular, views about whether independence would mean people in Scotland had more pride in their country, and whether it would bring Scotland a stronger voice in the world. The former in particular might be regarded as a more 'affective' or 'emotional' consideration, in much the same way as national identity. Meanwhile, younger people are somewhat keener on independence than their older counterparts, irrespective of their expectations about the consequences or their national identity. Overall, as Table 7.4 shows, 42 per cent of 18-24 year olds support independence, compared with 24 per cent of those aged 65 and older.
Nevertheless, the critical importance of economic expectations in shaping attitudes towards independence is further underlined by our model of whether people feel confident or worried about independence. In this case economic expectations prove to be unambiguously the most important correlate, while expectations of what would happen to taxes and living standards under independence matter too. At the same time, perceptions that independence would enhance national pride and strengthen Scotland's voice in the world are once again significant. National identity, however, is not. It would seem that while some people support independence simply because they feel Scottish, such feelings do not necessarily translate into a sense of confidence in the prospect.
Meanwhile, we should also note that just as younger people are more likely to support independence, they are also more likely to feel confident about it (see Table 7.4). In addition, we find that men are more likely to feel confident about independence than women, irrespective of their expectations of what consequences it would bring. This latter difference may well help explain why, as Table 7.4 demonstrates, men appear more willing than women to support independence, a pattern that has been identified by many previous surveys (McCrone and Paterson, 2002), though it is one that disappears once we take into account where people stand on the variables that appear in our model of support for independence.
So far our findings have shown that independence remains the preference of a minority in Scotland, albeit a considerable one. This is despite the fact that around three-fifths (62 per cent) of people in Scotland say that they are "Scottish, not British" or "More Scottish than British". For many people then, feeling a strong sense of Scottish national identity is not sufficient reason for backing independence. Even among those who deny they are British at all, only just over half (53 per cent) back leaving the UK. To be willing to support independence, most people also need to be convinced it would bring some benefit, including above all some economic advantage; otherwise they are inclined to feel worried about the prospect. And at present, although only a minority reckon an independent Scotland would be economically weaker than it is now, optimism about the material consequences of independence is far from being widespread either. It seems unlikely that a majority of people in Scotland will decide to vote in favour of independence unless they can be persuaded that leaving the UK would be an economically advantageous course of action.
- Download chapter
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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.
- Bases for Table 7.3 are as follows:
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The relevant 2010 figures are 61 per cent for welfare benefits and 54 per cent for taxes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Related links