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Is Scotland set to separate?

Posted on 13 January 2012 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: Scottish Centre for Social Research, Scottish National Party

This week’s announcement by the UK coalition government that it believes the devolved Scottish Parliament lacks the legal authority to hold any kind of referendum on independence – as the majority SNP Scottish government wants to do - has stirred up an enormous constitutional row.

True, the coalition offered to find a way out of the alleged legal difficulty by using a provision in the Scotland Act that makes it possible to transfer legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament. But there were strings attached, strings unacceptable to the SNP.

The referendum would have to be held ‘sooner rather than later’. The SNP responded by announcing it intended to hold the ballot in the autumn of 2014 – rather later than UK ministers appear to have had in mind.

In addition the referendum should simply be about independence, Yes or No? The SNP insisted they still wanted to keep open the possibility of also asking about ‘devolution max’, that is the idea that Scotland should be responsible for nearly all her domestic affairs, but remain part of the UK, with defence and foreign affairs continuing to be the responsibility of London.

But what is the mood of Scotland’s voters? And is there is any reason to believe that exactly when the referendum is held might make a difference to the outcome?

No other survey provides a richer source of evidence on public attitudes in Scotland towards the country’s constitutional status than ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey. Uniquely SSA has tracked and analysed opinions on this subject on a regular annual basis ever since the Scottish Parliament was first created in 1999.

The most recent SSA, conducted during the second half of 2011, found that 32% now support independence. Leaving the UK still appears to be a minority preference.

Nevertheless, this represented a nine point increase in support for independence compared with 2010.
However, at 23%, support was unusually low in our 2010 survey – in fact the lowest we have ever recorded. Support for independence was in fact consistently on the low side throughout the SNP’s first term in office (as a minority administration) between 2007 and 2011.

Overall, our 32% figure for 2011 is towards the higher end of the range of readings we have obtained since 1999, but still lower than that recorded in 2005 (34%) and no higher than in 2004. It is far from clear that there is a rising trend of support for independence, that makes it more likely Scotland would vote ‘Yes’ in 2014, than in 2012 or 2013.

Nevertheless, people in Scotland do appear to want the Scottish Parliament to have more powers than it has at the moment.

Two of the biggest areas of domestic policy that are still primarily the responsibility of the UK government are taxes and welfare benefits. SSA has consistently found that a majority reckon these issues should be decided by the Scottish Parliament instead.

In our 2010 survey, 57% said that the Scottish Parliament should make the important decisions for Scotland about tax. Equally, in 2011 we found that 68% reckoned the Edinburgh parliament should decide the basic rate of income tax north of the border.

Similarly, in 2010 62% agreed the Scottish Parliament should be in charge of welfare benefits while in 2011 65% stated it should decide the level of the old age pension.

While most people in Scotland are apparently still disinclined to leave the UK, it does seem a majority reckon the country should be able to settle its own domestic affairs. That is why the Scottish Government is unlikely to give up easily the idea of including ‘devolution max’ on the referendum ballot paper too.
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