Friday brought two pieces of opinion polling regarding Scottish independence. Neither could exactly be called authoritative, and both may well reflect the current febrile atmosphere more than anything else, but they’re important as indicators of aspects of the public mood.
One was a survey of Conservative party members by ConservativeHome, which is available here. ConHome finds that its (wholly uncontrolled, it seems) slice of Conservative members think the various parts of the UK are stronger together than apart; that England is more likely to remain Tory if Scotland leaves the UK; and that Westminster should force the issue by holding a snap referendum. It also finds an expectation that Scottish votes will vote for independence, and that devolution has put Scotland on ‘a conveyor belt to independence’. No doubt those views will comfort both the SNP and Conservative (if not other) unionists.
More rigorous and useful is an opinion poll conducted by TNS-BMRB for the Herald, showing an increase in support for the proposal that ‘the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state’ (which is rather different to the question suggested by the Scottish Government in February 2010). The Herald‘s news report of the survey from Friday is here, and there’s a follow-up from Saturday here. TNS-BMRB’s issue of the results is here, and their press release about it is here. (There have to be reservations about how authoritative this is, as the ‘referendum’ question was part of a wider questionnaire and much can depend on what those other questions were. The wording of the question put to the public also affects responses, so this survey isn’t comparable to others asking about independence.)
TNS-BMRB have put this question on various occasions since August 2007, when the tally was Yes: 35 per cent, No 50 per cent, Don’t know 15 per cent. This time, the result was Yes 37 per cent, No 45 per cent, Don’t know 18 per cent. There’s quite a jump since the last survey, as far back as November 2009 (after the Calman commission report, before the end of the National Conversation or the first UK Government white paper responding to Calman, as well as the UK election), but over both that period and since 2007 the shift largely seems to have been Don’t knows shifting to support a Yes vote.
All that suggests that the key issue is likely to be appealing to the ‘centre ground’ of voters, presently Don’t knows – and that depends on offering them something that corresponds to their constitutional preferences. I’ve argued in this paper about what that means, in institutional terms. Clearly it means something much more extensive than the present Scotland bill. Suggestions that that bill is all that will be on offer and will not be used to enhance devolved powers significantly (also hinted at by Michael Moore in his evidence to the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee) will therefore simply handicap the unionist position in any referendum, though that position is further confused by suggestions of an immediate extension of borrowing powers. The bill needs to be passed to enable that to happen; otherwise, the borrowing power in the Scotland Act 1998 is very limited both in extent and in the purposes for which it may be used (basically, smoothing fluctuations in revenue, and emphatically not capital spending).
I’ve tried to show the gap between where the public is and the various constitutional positions presently on table in this diagram.
The key point is that the gap between what the Unionist parties are presently willing to offer and that ‘average Scottish’ position is considerably greater than that between where the SNP is and that average Scot – and that’s the battleground when it comes to public opinion. As I’ve already argued, the SNP are using the greater proximity of their position to public view to give themselves a very good chance come a referendum; if the Unionist parties want to challenge them, they need to offer a credible alternative.