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Better together, but on what terms?

Posted on 25 June 2012 .
Tags: ScotCen Social Research, independence, SSA, Scottish Social Attitudes

Today sees the launch of ‘Better together’, the official campaign for a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. The precise tactics the campaign uses to persuade voters to reject independence will no doubt be the subject of intense debate over the coming weeks and months. But one area that has already attracted considerable attention is the decision of many of those involved to oppose a ‘second question’ on the referendum ballot. This second question would give people the option of voting for an enhanced form of devolution short of full independence – so-called ‘devo max’ or ‘devo plus’.

Findings from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, published yesterday, confirm that there is indeed an appetite for more power to be devolved. 73% said that the Scottish Government should have most influence over how Scotland is run. In contrast, only 38% felt they currently had this level of influence. So there is a big gap between where people would like power over Scotland’s affairs to reside, and where they think it sits currently.

More specifically, SSA has shown that a majority would like the Scottish Parliament to be taking most decisions about the basic rate of income tax (68%) and the old age pension (65%) – two areas currently reserved to Westminster.

SSA also highlights the significant gap in public trust in the Scottish and UK governments. 71% said they would trust the Scottish Government ‘just about always’ and ‘most of the time’ to act in Scotland’s best interests. Just 18% said the same of the UK government. Given this apparent lack of faith in policy makers in London, it is unsurprising that many Scots would prefer more decisions to be made closer to home.

Yet we know from over a decade of SSA data, supported by almost every other opinion poll on the subject, that full independence is the preference of only a minority of people in Scotland (32% in SSA 2011). And we know that there remain some lines in the sand the Scottish public is reluctant to cross. For example, most still think defence and foreign affairs should be mainly handled at a UK level.

Taken together, these findings provide further evidence for the likely popularity of ‘devo max’. If most people in Scotland do not want independence, but a majority want the Scottish Parliament to be making most decisions about how Scotland is run, then extended devolution seems to be the option most likely to meet public aspirations.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why those campaigning for a No vote might still want a single question on the ballot. Adding a ‘third option’ would most likely mean Unionists were campaigning on multiple fronts – against independence, but also for or against further devolution. This may be why David Cameron and others have indicated that they are open to discussions about further devolution, but that these would need to take place after the independence referendum. And it is clear from our findings that, even if the No campaign is successful, the Scottish public’s appetite for more powers means this is very unlikely to be the end of the debate about Scotland’s position in the UK.
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