With the 18th September ‘exactly a year to go’ date coming into view, we can expect a flurry of media interest in the state of the referendum debate – and thus of polling activity too.
First out of the blocks is an Angus Reid poll in today’s Sunday Express – though we should note that with a sample size of just 549, it is very much on the small side and not too much reliance should be placed on it. It puts ‘Yes’ on 34% and No on 47%.
As it happens, Angus Reid were the very first company to ask voters whether they would vote Yes or No in response to the finally agreed version of the referendum question that will appear on the ballot paper. That poll (sample size, a much better 1,003), conducted at the end of January and the beginning of February, put Yes on 32% and No on 47%.
So even if this a rather small poll, its message is much the same as other polls – that little or nothing has changed. The Scottish public are clearly proving very difficult to shift – in either direction.
Perhaps one explanation is that much of the campaign to date has been focusing on issues that are not at the forefront of voters’ minds. Much of the debate has, for example, been about whether an independent Scotland would be able to secure membership of the EU without too much difficulty, and how much financial freedom an independent Scotland would really have if it were to continue to use the pound.
True, the No side seem to be getting the better of the argument on these two issues. On Europe, only 24 % are very confident that Scotland will be able to retain its EU membership on the same terms as the UK enjoys now, whereas as many as 34% are very doubtful indeed – though evidently many are simply none too sure either way. On whether Scotland would have any influence on things like interest rates if it were to continue to use the pound the equivalent figures are 24% and 38%
People’s confidence or otherwise in the Yes side’s arguments on these issues are quite clearly related to their views too. As many as 58% of Yes voters express confidence in their side’s arguments on EU membership, while 57% say the same about keeping the pound. Conversely 60% of No voters are skeptical about the nationalist arguments on Europe while as many as 65% are of that views when it comes to keeping the pound. So other things being equal, we can reasonably anticipate that if the Yes side could instill greater confidence in their arguments on these issues they might reasonably hope to see support for independence increase.
However, it is far from clear that they are the most important arguments for the Yes – or the No side – to win. More important is an issue that has so far received much less attention than either the currency or Europe – pensions and welfare benefits. Again only 24% express confidence in claims that an independent Scotland would be able to afford better pensions and welfare benefits, while no less than 39% are highly doubtful. In short scepticism about the nationalist vision on this issue is even higher than it is on Europe or the currency.
More importantly, however, people’s views on pensions and benefits are more strongly related than is their degree of confidence in the arguments about Europe or the currency to whether they intend to vote Yes or No. As many as 61% of Yes voters are very confident that independence will deliver more generous pension and benefits, while as many as 72% of No voters are very doubtful that it would. Both these figures are higher than the equivalent ones on Europe or monetary policy, suggesting that at the end of the day the arguments about nitty gritty issues such as pensions and welfare benefits matter more to voters than the relative abstractions of Europe or monetary union. If one side or the other is to succeed in moving the polls in their direction, they probably need to focus more on the nitty-gritty.
The poll contains two other findings of note. First, no less than two-thirds of Scots, including a third who sat they will vote Yes, would like to retain their British citizenship in the event of Scotland becoming independent. Whether or not people will be allowed to do so and on what conditions will be an important issue for the Scottish Government to address when it publishes its independence white paper. In the meantime, the finding is a reminder of the degree to which many people in Scotland still retain a residual sense of Britishness that could potentially hold them back from voting Yes. Second, in line with the findings of the recent Wings over Scotland poll, more people (34%) trust what Alex Salmond has to say about Scotland’s constitutional future than what the Better Together leader, Alistair Darling, has to offer (27%). The hopes of the Yes side that the polls can be turned around would seem to rest heavily on the First Minister’s shoulders.
About the author
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.