One of the most widely discussed and debated issues in the Scottish independence referendum campaign was whether leaving the UK would be good or bad for Scotland’s economy. Those on the Yes side argued that public policy could be tailored more effectively to Scotland’s distinctive economic needs, while those advocating a No vote claimed that creating a border between Scotland and England was bound to reduce the flow of trade between them, to the former’s particular disadvantage.
This debate will be revived tomorrow when the SNP unveil the report of its so-called ‘Growth Commission’. Chaired by a former SNP MSP, Andrew Wilson, the creation of the Commission was announced by the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, back in 2016. Its remit has been to re-examine the economic case for independence so that the party might be better prepared should another independence referendum be held any time soon. In making this move, the SNP seemed implicitly to be accepting that the arguments used by Yes in 2014 had not proved sufficiently convincing in the eyes of voters.
After having had to wait nearly two years to see the fruits of the Commission’s labours, the media can be expected to take an intense interest in the extent to which its report does or does not signal a potential change of tack by the SNP – including not least on what proved to be the particularly vexed issue during the referendum campaign of what currency an independent Scotland would use.
How much does any of this matter? The answer is – quite a lot.
The polling evidence in the run-up to the referendum told us two things about voters’ views of the economic arguments advanced by the two campaigns. The first is that those views influenced which side voters eventually backed; the second is although the Yes side may have made some progress at winning voters over on the issue, it did not do enough to come out ahead.
The first point was illustrated by the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, which was conducted in the weeks leading up to the referendum. As many as 92% of those who indicated which way they were going to vote and who thought that Scotland’s economy would be better as a result of independence said that they were going to vote for Yes. Conversely, hardly anyone (just 6%) who thought the economy would be worse indicated an intention to back independence. No other consideration, including people’s sense of national identity, divided voters so sharply into the Yes and No camps.
Moreover, those who during the course of the campaign came to be persuaded of the merits of the economic case for independence tended to switch to the Yes side. In a follow-up survey of respondents to the 2013 and 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes surveys that was conducted shortly after the 2015 UK general election , the level of support for Yes was found to have increased from 39% to 72% amongst those who, when first interviewed before the referendum, did not think that independence would make Scotland’s economy better, but who, when interviewed again afterwards, said that it would. Whether or not it could persuade voters of the economic arguments for independence was crucial to the Yes side’s prospects.
But that the Yes side did not convince enough voters of its economic case is clear from those polls that tracked people’s perceptions of the economic consequences of independence during the course of referendum. YouGov asked respondents on a regular basis throughout the campaign whether Scotland would be economically better or worse off if it became independent. Back in October 2012, when the referendum first came clearly into view, only 23% thought that the country would be better off, while as many as 52% thought it would be worse off. In short, the Yes side started a long way behind on the issue. By the eve of polling day in September 2014, the gap had narrowed, but it was still the case that the 35% who thought the country would be better off were substantially outnumbered by the 47% who thought it would be worse off.
ICM, too, charted voters’ perceptions of the economic debate during the year leading up to polling day. Their figures paint much the same picture. In September 2013, 31% said independence would be good for the economy, while 48% felt it would be bad. A year later there were still as many as 45% who thought it would be bad, while only 38% reckoned it would be good.
But what about the vexed issue of currency? It is widely argued that the Scottish Government’s proposal that Scotland should use the pound as part of a monetary union with the rest of the UK was the Achilles’ heel of the Yes campaign after the then Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, backed by his Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts, announced that the UK government would not be willing to form such a monetary union – in the expectation that this would make independence look like a less attractive proposition in the eyes of voters.
One thing is clear – most voters backed the Scottish Government’s position. The Scottish Social Attitudes survey, ICM, and YouGov all found that at least two-thirds of voters wanted to keep the pound, with most of those preferring to do so as part of a monetary union, while a somewhat more complicated question asked by Survation still found over half wanting to keep the pound. Moreover, the Yes side’s position was seemingly just as popular amongst No voters as it was amongst their Yes counterparts. Not long before polling day ICM, for example, found that 59% of both Yes and No voters wanted to keep the pound as part of a monetary union, while Survation, similarly, put the figures at 49% and 52% respectively.
So, the Yes side’s position on the currency issue was not obviously an immediate electoral liability. The calculation that the No side made was that by threatening to deny what most Yes – and No – voters wanted they would take fright at the prospect of leaving the UK. But telling voters that you are unwilling to countenance what they want is not the most obvious way of endearing your cause to the electorate. They might just as easily conclude that you do not have their interests at heart.
Which reaction proved to be the more common during the referendum campaign is difficult to determine. However, the fact that so many No voters were still saying by the end of the referendum campaign that they would want to keep the pound does not suggest that the substance of the No side’s case against monetary union was particularly effective at persuading voters on its own side, let alone anyone else. Meanwhile, we might note that during the two periods during the referendum campaign when the currency issue was particularly prominent – after George Osborne’s initial currency announcement in February 2014 and after the first leader’s debate in August 2014 when the then SNP leader, Alex Salmond, struggled to defend his side’s position on the issue – coincided with the two periods when the Yes side made most progress in the polls.
Of course, a lot of water has flowed under many bridges since the independence referendum. On the one hand, Scotland’s fiscal position relative to that of the rest of the UK has deteriorated, not least as a result of a decline in the price of oil. On the other hand, the UK has voted to leave the EU, a prospect that nearly three-fifths of Scots think will make the Scottish economy worse. But it remains the case that those arguing for independence have yet to persuade a majority of voters of the merits of the economic argument. The most recent ScotCen mixed mode panel survey of attitudes in Scotland towards Brexit conducted last October found that it was still the case that rather more people (44%) felt that Scotland’s economy would be worse as a result of independence than believed it would be better (35%). Panelbase, meanwhile, have suggested that public opinion currently views the economic implications of independence even more adversely.
Nicola Sturgeon has discovered in the last two years that, on its own at least, Brexit has so far not changed many minds in Scotland about the merits of independence, contrary to her initial expectations. However, a reinvigorated debate about the economics of independence would seem to have the potential to do so. Much therefore rests on tomorrow’s report – for both unionists and nationalists.