How Voters View the Economics of Independence

Voters’ evaluations of the economic consequences of independence played a central role in the choice they made in the 2014 independence referendum. In their final poll conducted before polling day, YouGov found that no less than 98% of those who said the country would be worse off if Scotland became independent were backing No, while 97% of those who felt the country would be better off intended to vote Yes. Similarly, Opinium reported that 99% of those who thought that independence would benefit the economy were backing Yes, while 98% of those who felt the economy would be damaged were intending to vote No. The fact that those who thought Scotland would be worse off (47%) outnumbered those who reckoned it would be better off (35%), and that more people felt that the economy would be damaged (45%) than believed it would benefit (37%) undoubtedly put the No side at a decided –  and perhaps even decisive – advantage in its attempt to win the ballot, which it duly did by 55% to 45%.

However, in contrast to outcome of the referendum seven and a half years ago, Scotland is now, according to the polls at least, evenly divided in its attitude towards independence. On average, the last half dozen polls (undertaken between late October 2021 and mid-January 2022) put Yes on 50% and No on 50%. Indeed, support for the two sides has been oscillating around the 50:50 mark for the last three years. Does this signal that there has been a change in how Scots view the economic consequences of independence?

Only a few polls have in fact asked more recently the same question about the economics of independence as they asked before the 2014 referendum. However, those that have done suggest that there has only been a marginal shift in voters’ outlook. YouGov, reported in January 2020 that 34% now believed that Scotland would be better off if it were independent (down three points on 2014), while 42% felt it would be worse off (a drop of five points). Similarly, Opinium reported in September 2021 that 35% (down two points) now thought that independence would benefit the economy, while 40% (a drop of five points) believed it would be damaged.  In short, at most there has been a slightly bigger drop in the proportion who now have a negative assessment of the economic consequences of independence than there has in the proportion who take a positive view, while the biggest difference is that the ranks of those who say that independence would not make much difference (or say they don’t know) have swelled somewhat.

That said, there are other recent polls that suggest that voters are rather more optimistic about the economic consequences of independence than these two readings imply. In September 2020, JL Partners suggested that, at 40%, those who agreed that ‘Scotland’s economy would be stronger as an independent country’ matched the 39% who disagreed. The previous month, Panelbase found that as many as 48% agreed that ‘independence would be good for Scotland’s economy’, while only 38% disagreed. Meanwhile, in October Survation reported that 45% agreed that ‘Independence would be good for the Scottish economy in the long run’, while 34% disagreed.

However, it should be noted that each of these questions invites people to indicate whether they agree or disagree with a pro-independence proposition. One of the potential pitfalls with this approach is that people are more willing to agree than they are to disagree with more or less any proposition. Indeed, one indication of this tendency  lies in the fact that when JL Partners presented the same respondents in September 2020 with the pro-Union proposition that, ‘Scotland’s economy would be stronger in the United Kingdom’, there were clearly more (45%) who said they agreed than stated that they disagreed (34%).

Still, we should remember that the choice that would be put before voters in any second independence referendum would not simply be whether they are for or against independence. They would be asked to compare the anticipated consequences of independence with those of being part of the UK. While on balance voters may still be inclined to be pessimistic about the consequences of independence, perhaps they are not that optimistic about Scotland’s economic prospects as part of the UK either. Indeed, while in their September 2020 poll JL Partners found that by 39% to 34% voters were inclined to the view that if the country became independent, Scotland’s economy would go down rather than up over the next ten years, they also took the view – by 41% to 22% – that the same would happen if Scotland remained in the UK.

We thus, perhaps, should not be surprised that when voters are invited directly to compare the economic prospects of independence and being part of the UK, more than one poll has found voters to be more or less evenly divided.  In JL Partners’ September 2020 poll, 43% said that Scotland’s economy would be better if it were an independent country, while 43% indicated that it would be better if Scotland were part of the UK. Similarly, Hanbury Strategy found in February 2021 that while 35% thought that the economy and taxes would be better as part of the UK, 35% stated that they would be better in an independent Scotland (though perhaps of equal note is that as many as 30% said that it would not make much difference or that they did not know which would be better).

But in truth the choice that would be put before voters in any second ballot is not simply between independence and the Union. Given the SNP’s continued opposition to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, we can anticipate that the referendum would be framed as a choice between an independent Scotland that would seek to rejoin the European Union and a Scotland that was part of the UK but still outside the EU. There is little doubt that whatever their views about the economics of independence, voters in Scotland are pessimistic about the consequences of leaving the EU. For example, in March 2021 YouGov found that 52% believed that Brexit had already had a negative impact on Scotland’s economy, while just 5% said that it had had a positive impact. Even among those who had voted No in 2014 43% said that it had had a negative impact. Meanwhile, only 22% told Panelbase in January 2021 that they thought Scotland would be financially better off as a result of Brexit, while twice as many (44%) said that it would be worse off. Again, the latter figure included 42% of those who voted No in 2014.

As a result of this pessimism about Brexit, when voters are asked to compare the likely consequences of independence with those of Brexit, independence does not always emerge as the less attractive prospect. In October 2019 Panelbase found that 45% thought that Scotland would be better off economically as an independent country within the EU, while just 35% thought it would be better off as part of the UK outside the EU. The following month the same company found that 45% thought that independence would ‘offer a greater opportunity’ to the Scottish economy than Brexit, while only 24% took the opposite view. Moreover, when the same poll asked which option would pose the greater threat, slightly more said Brexit (39%) than independence (37%). At the same time, when in October 2020 Survation asked whether ‘independence would be more damaging to the Scottish economy than Brexit’, slightly more said that they disagreed (39%) than indicated that they agreed (37%).

Overall, then, the evidence suggests that there may still be slightly more who are doubtful than hopeful about the economic consequences of independence, but that that tilt is not necessarily robust against an invitation to compare the economic consequences of independence with the prospects for Scotland’s economy as part of the UK, and especially when respondents are invited to bear in mind the fact that being part of the UK means being outside the EU. At the same time, we should also remember our observation that many voters currently either say that they do not know what independence might bring or indicate that they are inclined to the view that it will not make much difference.

This is potentially a crucial group. Contrary to what one might anticipate, they are not evenly divided between those who support independence and those who back the Union. Rather, according to Opinium, they are nearly two to one in favour of Yes – just as indeed they were in 2014. For some voters the feeling that independence will not make much difference either way may well be enough for them to back independence – much as it was sometimes enough for people to vote in 2016 in favour of leaving the European Union. Unionists need to win the economic argument in the eyes of voters; for nationalists, on the other hand, a draw might well be enough.

This blog first appeared on the Economics Observatory website and is re-published here with permission.

John Curtice

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.