Tracking Attitudes to independence

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS) was published today. This is not a normal opinion poll, rather it is a long term project which tracks how public opinion about a variety of topics has changed over time. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey runs in parallel to the British Social Attitude Survey and has included a question on Scotland’s constitutional debate since 1999. The survey uses a random sample of all those aged 16 and over who live across the whole of Scotland, so it provides a robust and reliable picture of public attitudes in Scotland, with a sample size of over 1600, which is larger than that of a typical opinion poll. SSAS has been a face-to-face survey since 1999 but in2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey was conducted as two separate surveys; one on the telephone and one primarily online. Field work was carried out in October 2021.

This question about the constitutional issue is not framed in the same way as the question in more usual polls, where the question asked, at least in reputable polls, mirrors the likely question which would be put to voters in a referendum – Should Scotland be an independent country?

You might be wondering why an opinion poll carried out a year ago is still relevant. Certainly the usual British nationalist suspects on social media and the supremely self-regarding Scottish Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton have been rushing to dismiss it as irrelevant. However as pointed out above, this is not an ordinary opinion poll, but a long term survey, It does not not ask about Scottish independence in the same way as other polls, rather the SSAS asks respondents about their views on a range of possible constitutional options for Scotland, independence, devolution, or the abolition of Holyrood and direct Westminster rule. The survey invites respondents to say which of five options is closest to their view about how Scotland should be governed:

1. Scotland should become independent, separate from the UK and the European Union
2. Scotland should become independent, separate from the UK but part of the European Union
3. Scotland should remain part of the UK, with its own elected parliament which has some taxation powers
4. Scotland should remain part of the UK, with its own elected parliament which has no taxation powers
5. Scotland should remain part of the UK without an elected parliament

For that reason this survey is not directly comparable to the regular opinion polls that we are more used to. These polls give a snapshot of public opinion at a given moment in time, the aim of the SSAS is to provide a picture of how public opinion is evolving over a longer period. That is what makes today’s publication highly significant, because the SSAS has discovered that for the first time ever, independence is the preferred constitutional option of the people of Scotland. 52% of respondents said that they preferred independence versus 38% who chose devolution and a mere 8% who would like to see the outright abolition of the Scottish Parliament and a return to the constitutional position which held prior to the establishment of devolution following the referendum of 1997.

That 8% who want the abolition of Holyrood is highly vocal on social media and in the comments sections of the anti-independence press, they are also disproportionately represented amongst the embittered ranks of the Scottish Conservatives, who opposed devolution in 1997 and have never been reconciled to it. Of course the fact that so few people in Scotland are in favour of this country coming under the direct control of Westminster will not prevent the most right wing Conservative government that the UK has ever had from continuing its assault on the devolution settlement. Scottish democracy was and has never been a concern of the Conservative party, which is more than willing to ride roughshod over Scottish public opinion when it suits the interests of the Conservative party. This o course makes Tory bleating about ‘respecting the result of the 2014 referendum’, particularly hypocritical.

The survey has found that support for independence has gradually increased in Scotland since the question was first included. In 1999, the year that the devolved parliament was opened, a mere 27% of respondents chose independence as their preferred option, 59% chose devolution, and 10% did not want any Scottish Parliament at all. In 2010 support for independence had declined to 23%%. That was a period when the Scottish Parliament was still new, there was a Labour government in Westminster, and there was still confidence that Holyrood would be able to do the job that it was created to do, to protect Scotland from the excesses and cruelty of a Westminster Conservative government that Scotland did not vote for. Brexit and the years since 2016 have disabused Scotland of that notion.

Over the course of the past 23 years there has been a sea change in Scottish attitudes about independence and Scotland’s constitutional status. The referendum campaign of 2014 normalised independence and forced even those who oppose it to take it seriously. The Brexit vote of 2016 and the perfidy of the anti-independence parties in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum demonstrated that devolution is toothless when it comes to protecting Scotland from the policies of a British Conservative government that it didn’t vote for. We have learned the hard way that opposing independence is not, as British nationalists like to claim, a means of protecting Scotland from damaging change. Damaging change is happening anyway, but without independence Scotland is subject to decisions made elsewhere, and without the powers to allow it to respond adequately to that change.

Independence is now the preferred option of the majority in Scotland, that’s a finding which would have been incredible back in the 1990s, yet now it scarcely comes as a surprise. Over the years, Scotland has been growing away from the UK, a process which will only gain pace as the right wing reactionaries of the Truss government seek to bend an unwilling Scotland to their will. The trajectory charted by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is clear. Scotland is well on the path to support for independence being the settled will of the people of Scotland.


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