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Spinning around

Posted on December 05, 2011 by

There’s only one story in the Scottish political media today. The explosive contents of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey have been seized on with glee by the SNP, leaving the Unionist camp in desperate damage-limitation mode. The news – first broken by the Express – that a whopping 65% of Scottish voters only need to be convinced that independence will benefit them by around £9 a week in order to vote for it has sent Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems into something of a panic, and it’s fascinating to watch both they and the predominantly-Unionist media try to spin it.

Tory Hoose takes the “we see no ships” angle, announcing that the SNP’s natural welcoming of the poll results is “hysterical grandstanding”, while rolling out David McLetchie to pick out a different section of the results and claim that “This is just one of the many polls that shows support for independence is still relatively low.”

The Scotsman goes for a similar approach, with trusty psephologist Prof. John Curtice sent in to find the most negative view of the survey possible, listing a whole slew of cautions and provisos and comparisons of dubious merit, eg pointing out that support for independence is still lower than that for devolution in 1999 (which is about as surprising as finding out that Andy Goram’s favourite fruit is oranges).

The Herald features a quote from Labour’s Margaret Curran that borders on flat-out hilarious in its twisting and turning to find a position from where the figures look bad for the SNP – eventually settling, like Curtice, on a bemusing comparison with 1999, which for all the relation it bears to the current economic and political climate might as well be 1929. The Herald also runs the most perceptive piece in the mainstream media, in which Robbie Dinwoodie observes that the “old scare stories” beloved of the Unionist parties are slowly but surely losing their power over the Scottish electorate.

The BBC, meanwhile, comes up with a fairly snappy at-a-glance summary of the results, but none of the media pick up on some of the survey’s stranger quirks.

The most startling of these is the realisation of how much the phrasing of the question matters. For example, when ScotCen (the Scottish Centre for Social Research, authors of the poll) asked people directly whether they supported independence, 32% answered yes (itself a dramatic rise from the previous year’s figure of 23%), with 49% preferring “devo max” (generally interpreted as all powers except defence and foreign affairs residing with Holyrood), 9% backing the status quo and 6% calling for a return to complete Westminster rule with no Scottish Parliament at all.

But when the same respondents were asked which decisions about Scotland should be made by the Scottish Parliament, the most popular answer was “all of them”, at 43%, with the devo max position favoured by 29%, the status quo (where Westminster also retains control of tax and welfare) the choice of 21%, and the abolition of Holyrood and the reversal of all devolution to date preferred by 5%.

These are fairly extraordinary findings. The name of the scenario where the Scottish Parliament makes all decisions about Scotland, including defence, foreign affairs, taxation and welfare is, of course, “independence”. Try as we might we can’t think of the powers which might still be reserved to Westminster under the terms set out by the poll question. Simply by phrasing the question differently, removing the emotive word from the equation, support for independence has leapt 11 percentage points and overtaken devo-max to become the most popular choice.

(Labour is using these statistics to spin the figures as showing that “devolution is the choice of the majority”, which is a somewhat disingenuous and dishonest stance relying on counting two very different choices – devo max and the status quo – as the same thing. Both of those are indeed “devolution”, but the problem for Labour with that approach is that the party’s current stated policy is to reject a “devo max” question out of hand, stand in the referendum for the status quo – with the vague, woolly promise of some more devolutionary progress at some point in the future, of an unspecified flavour and dependent on Labour winning a Westminster election – and force the electorate to choose between that and full independence. In either form of the question, the status quo is the less popular of those two options.)

And when you factor the economy into the survey, things get even more confused. Everyone’s headlining with the 65% figure for support if independence would make Scotland better off, and also noting the converse figure that backing would plummet to 21% if independence meant being £500 worse off. But the most interesting stat is the one in the middle – if independence made no difference to people’s finances at all, 46% would be in favour of ending the Union. So let’s recap:

Support for “independence”: 32%

Support for “the Scottish Parliament making all decisions about Scotland” (ie independence): 43% (combined 55% against)

Support for independence if there are no economic effects either way, ie for the policy taken on its own merits and for its own sake: 46% (with 32% against)

Those are three remarkably different answers to what’s in every practical sense the same question. The gap between the first two in particular is hard to explain away, except by noting that perhaps the Unionist parties have made a tactical error in continuously using the word “separation” instead of “independence” – it looks as though “independence” might be a scary enough word in itself, while insisting on saying “separation” just looks like clumsy manipulative manoeuvering.

But the underlying messages from the survey are unmistakeable. After a blip in 2008-9 caused by the global economic crash, the trend for rising support for independence (which is also aided by demographics) has resumed. And the hard-headed, pragmatic people of Scotland are more open to persuasion than at any time in history, casting aside ideological or romantic notions of Scottish/British identity and demanding only that independence should not cost them money. With the numbers on that one largely on the SNP’s side, the Unionists are very slowly waking up to the fact that they’ve got a bigger fight on their hands than they imagined.

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10 to “Spinning around”

  1. Ross

    Excellent analysis, but I'm left scratching my head at the 25% of people who don't want indepenence *even if they were £500 better off*


  2. daretodare

    Enjoyed the analysis.
    While events have moved on the irony of this story (and the final quote) cannot go unrewarded – hypocrisy of the year award??   

    The following is from the Herald 10.11.11

    SCOTTISH Friendly is selling an administration business for “wrap” investments, which it built from scratch in 2006, to Citi for tens of millions of pounds.

    A total of 134 staff in Glasgow are transferring to the US-based banking giant. A spokesperson for Citigroup said that, as part of the deal, Citigroup would take over the St Vincent Street and West George Street sites of the wrap administration business

    The spokeswoman for “Citigroup” which employs about 250 people in Edinburgh, confirmed the commitment to keeping the operations being acquired in Glasgow.

    She added: “There are no lay-offs. It is an investment in Scotland.”

  3. Newsnet Scotland

    Interesting analysis, we would be grateful if you would allow us to reproduce it – with byline citing you and a link to your blog of course.

  4. Jona

    The scottish edition of the Daily Mail (or maybe the Express?) had a hilarious and furious 'Scots would sell out the union for £500' take on the story.

  5. RevStu

    “Interesting analysis, we would be grateful if you would allow us to reproduce it – with byline citing you and a link to your blog of course.”

    Yeah, that’d be fine.

  6. Gavin Lessells

    Good analysis and welcome aboard the good ship "Independence"!

  7. RevStu

    I’ve been aboard that ship for quite some time, Gavin… 😀

  8. Patrick Stirling

    Good analysis, of course the figuire we will be better of by is a £1000, and maybe more as I presume we will not need to pay the bbc for the nonsense they try to feed us,not that I will benefit from that, I stopped paying the bbc a year ago, I need the money for better things.

  9. Morag

    I'm still puzzled.  Over half of the first year of the SNP majority government has passed, and the SNP are looking as sure-footed as ever.  The self-destructive negativity of the unionist parties continues unabated.  Both by word and deed they belittle Scotland and make the invidious consequences of the Union clearer by the day.
    Even better, Salmond's strategists have played a long-term blinder on this "devo-max third option" subject, manoeuvering Labour in particular into rejecting and bad-mouthing its own logical position and the option it seems most voters want.  Turning to Labour and saying, if you want such a question on the referendum it's up to you to formulate the option you undertake to deliver through Westminster, and propose it as an amendment to the referendum bill, and campaign for it, is an absolute show-stopper after all the dreck about demanding Salmond should define "devo-max".
    So why is it still possible to treat us to stories about how low the support for independence is in Scotland?  Why are yes/no opinion polls still turning in majorities for "no"?  Is it spin?  Is it slanting of the question?
    Blog after blog comments about how circumstances are piling up to make a yes vote in a yes/no referendum a shoo-in for "yes".  Logically, it would seem so.  I'd be a lot happier of the opinion polls suggested that logic was actually getting through.
    Maybe once the SNP campaign gets beyond group hugs and blue wristbands and moves into presenting its case, we'll see some movement.  But at the moment, it's all a bit confusing.

  10. Morag

    I suppose I could answer my own question by looking at last January.  Opinion was very much behind SNP policies and personalities, but Labour had a 15% lead in the polls.  Once the real debate began, that turned right round in about three months.  Close on a 30% swing.
    So, it's early days.  And as someone pointed out, it's close to a one-way street.  People become convinced about independence, but few if any supporters of independence return to the arms of unionism.  This could come down to a bandwagon much nearer the actual vote.
    Also, that survey is a lot better than the headlines made out, as this article highlights.  The straight yes/no result looks like 46% on yes, which in reality is 59% if the don't knows are regarded as non-voters (giving a very respectable 78% turnout).  That'll do.  As was also pointed out, a lot of the "support for independence not really rising" stuff is due to percentage in a three-way choice being compared to earlier results from two-way choices.  Which is pure spin.
    Three years is a long time, though.  A lot can happen.  You know, if polls get very, very favourable, I wouldn't die of shock if Alex abandons the "well into the second half of the parliament" stuff.  The unionists would scream foul of course, but then that'll play really well after the sustained barrage of "bring it on" we've been treated to.  Right.  It could all be organised in six months, quite easily.
    Interesting times.

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