The “No” vote’s soft underbelly could yet see Scotland vote for independence in September

With polling day for the referendum on Scottish independence moving ever closer, John Curtice highlights the ‘soft underbelly’ of the pro-union vote that could swing it for the Yes side: those Scots who want more devolution but aren’t sure if they’re going to get it from a post- unionist camp, with both Labour and Conservative Parties unclear as to whether to press ahead with greater devolution. 

Alex Salmond may get his wish of an independent Scotland after all (Credit: Ewan McIntosh, CC BY ND 2.0)

Alex Salmond may get his wish of an independent Scotland after all (Credit: Ewan McIntosh, CC BY ND 2.0)

Over the last few months, the denizens of the Westminster village have been wondering if and when Conservative support will be buoyed by improving economic news. They have been preoccupied too with whether Labour and the Liberal Democrats might do a deal in 2015, in the event of another hung parliament. And they have been asking just how well Ukip might do in the European elections in May.

North of the border, however, the focus of attention has been very different. In September, Scotland must decide whether it wishes to remain part of the UK or to become an independent country. Should it take the latter route, many of the assumptions on which all the speculation at Westminster rests would have to be rethought. And in the last two or three months, there have been signs of a little nervousness in the ‘No’ camp that perhaps Scotland might just vote ‘Yes’ after all.

After having proven remarkably stable for many months, there has been a modest but noticeable increase in support for the Yes vote since the publication at the end of November of the Scottish government’s white paper on independence. In a dozen polls conducted between September and November, the Yes vote was put on average at 38 per cent (excluding the ‘don’t knows’). In 13 polls fielded since the end of November through to the middle of February, however, that average has increased to 41 per cent.

Moreover, the initial signs, at least, are that the coordinated announcements by the chancellor, shadow chancellor and Treasury chief secretary on 13 February, stating that they would not countenance any prospect of forming a monetary union with an independent Scotland, have not helped reverse that trend On average, the first three polls to be conducted following that initiative actually show a two-point increase for the Yes vote (excluding don’t knows), compared with those same three polls when they were previously conducted just a few weeks earlier.

This should not come as a great surprise. Many a voter had already got the message that monetary union was not likely to happen. The 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey found that no less than 28 per cent would like an independent Scotland to use the pound but reckoned it would not be able to so. A Panelbase poll conducted shortly before the announcement found that only 41 per cent believed monetary union would happen. The prospect that an independent Scotland might not be able to use the pound had already been taken on board by many voters.

Moreover, there are signs that on the currency issue the messenger matters as much as the message. In a post-announcement poll conducted by ICM, most Conservative and Lib-Dem supporters accepted that an independent Scotland would not be able to use the pound. However, almost as many Labour voters thought it would be able to do so (39 per cent) as reckoned it would not (42 per cent). And it is, of course, Labour voters who comprise the largest part of the unionist coalition. The No campaign would be wise not to rely too heavily on Conservative spokespeople in their efforts to win the support of a country where Tories – and Liberal Democrats – are thin on the ground.

But while the polls may have narrowed, the No side is still ahead. Is it really conceivable that by September the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign might have persuaded a majority of Scots to vote to leave the United Kingdom?

For all the focus in the campaign on currency – and the equally complex and disputed question of Scotland’s membership of the EU after independence – so far as voters are concerned, the key argument is the much broader one of what would be best for Scotland’s economy. According to SSA, no other perception or attitude does more to sort people into Yes or No voters than whether they think independence would be good or bad for Scotland’s economy. No less than 86 per cent of those who think it would be economically bad say they will or are most likely to vote No; 71 per cent of those who reckon it would be good are inclined to vote Yes.

At the moment, the Yes side is not winning the economic argument. True, SSA itself finds that roughly the same proportion of people think independence would be good for the economy (30 per cent) as believe it would be bad (34 per cent). But, for example, a YouGov poll in December found that only 28 per cent think that Scotland would be economically better off as a result of independence, whereas as many as 48 per cent reckon it would be worse off. Similarly, a Survation poll in February found that only 22 per cent believe independence would make them personally better off, while 38 per cent feel they would be worse off.

Moreover, it is an argument the Yes side actually has to win, not just avoid losing. SSA, for example, found that as many as 55 per cent of those who think that independence would make no difference either way to Scotland’s economy expect to vote No, while only 23 per cent say they will vote Yes. Unless they think independence would actually have a positive economic impact, voters are apparently inclined to stick with the union.

Nonetheless, it seems the Yes side may have made some progress on this front. According to ICM, the proportion who think independence would be good for the economy is four points higher now than it was in September. Whether they can make any further progress remains to be seen. But the Better Together campaign certainly needs to remember that claims about the currency, Europe or anything else are unlikely to prove effective in helping to shore up its lead unless they serve to persuade voters that independence would not be a good idea economically.

3697633377_8be767293b_zOne important implication flows from this emphasis on the economic consequences of independence – it demonstrates that the commitment of many to the union is conditional rather than absolute. At the same time, although independence may still be a minority cause, that does not necessarily mean that most voters are happy with the existing devolution settlement, under which most decisions about taxation and welfare benefits are still primarily the preserve of Westminster.

The instinctive reaction of most Scots is that domestic issues such as taxation and benefits should primarily be decided by the Scottish parliament rather than the UK government in London. According to the latest SSA, 59 per cent believe the key decisions for Scotland about taxation should be made by the Edinburgh parliament; 57 per cent say the same about welfare benefits.

In truth, many who express that view are nationalists seeking independence. The proportion who say the Scottish parliament should decide everything except defence and foreign affairs – that is, who support more devolution within the union – is no more than 32 per cent. It is much the same as the proportion (31 per cent) whose first preference is for the Edinburgh body to decide absolutely everything (in other words, independence). Indeed, it is also no more than the combined proportion who either favour the status quo (25 per cent) or would prefer no devolution at all (8 per cent).

Even so, that still means there is a considerable body of voters who would like to have a more powerful Scottish parliament within the union. According not only to SSA’s data but also to ICM’s, they constitute around 45 per cent of those currently inclined to vote No, and so comprise an important part of the coalition that currently would bring the No side victory.

It is a group on which the Yes camp have set their sights. They hope to persuade these voters that they cannot rely on whoever is in power at Westminster after May 2015 to deliver more devolution for Scotland and so, consequently, that they should vote for independence instead.

Not that this will necessarily be easy. SSA’s data shows that, although they are somewhat less sceptical of the benefits of independence than backers of the status quo, most supporters of more devolution still require considerable persuasion that independence would be beneficial. Whereas 59 per cent of those who would prefer independence think that leaving the UK would be good for Scotland’s economy, only 27 per cent of those who would prefer more devolution within the union take that view. Such economic pessimism will have to be reduced before most supporters of more devolution are likely to be willing to vote Yes.

At the same time, many pro-devolution No voters are apparently open to persuasion: no less than 44 per cent say they have not yet finally made up their mind. And of that group, just 21 per cent actually think independence would be bad for Scotland’s economy, far less than the equivalent figure of 49 per cent among those who support more devolution and claim they will definitely vote No. Here perhaps is the soft underbelly of the current No bloc that might just be within the Yes side’s reach.

The group of soft No voters who want more devolution is not enormous, but it is still potentially big enough to matter. According to SSA, some one in 10 of all those who say they are likely to vote No are people who back more devolution and who have not yet firmly made up their minds. Meanwhile, ICM’s polls to date have found, on average, that one in 20 No voters say they actually would switch from No to Yes if they were to become convinced that more devolution would not happen following a No vote, while another one in 15 are not sure what they would do. This suggests as many as one in 10 No voters could possibly switch sides, which would produce a six-point swing from No to Yes and leave the referendum race, on any reading of the polls, looking very close indeed.

The political parties backing a No vote have not been deaf to the apparent demand for more devolution. The Scottish Liberal Democrats published a proposal for more devolution of tax powers and responsibilities 18 months ago. Both Labour and the Conservatives have established commissions on more devolution that are due to report in the next few weeks, as Scotland gears up for its spring party conference season.

But it is far from certain what either Labour or the Conservatives will eventually produce. Many Labour MPs are said to be deeply unsympathetic to more devolution, while Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, won her post after suggesting she opposed more devolution, only then to do an apparent about-turn, which left many in her party uneasy. It is far from clear how far either party will be willing to respond positively to any attempt to get all three parties to back a common declaration of intent that could help to convince voters that more devolution would follow a No vote, irrespective of who is in power at Westminster after 2015.

In the meantime, there appears to be plenty of potential for disagreement and dissent, which could leave pro-devolution voters feeling uncertain. It is not an impression the No side can afford to allow to take hold.

Note: this post originally appeared in the IPPR’s Juncture publication under the title ‘How the SNP could win the independence referendum’ and can be found here. Please read our comments policy before posting. Inset image credit: Crystal Jeurig, CC BY 2.0. The shortened URL for this post is:

picture-30-1374928964John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator at, an ESRC funded website that offers a comprehensive collection of easily searchable data on attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future. For more information via Twitter see @whatscotsthink.

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