The September 2011 figures are out today on attitudes to independence from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey conducted by ScotCen, part of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
The Herald carries a picture above the statistics of Michael Moore, who looks as if he had just been performing a strange dance – or even a strange act - with three other people who have suddenly been removed – probably David Mundel, Margaret Curran and Willie Bain, the Anti-Scotland Coalition.
As with all polls, the advocates for opposing sides rush in where angels fear to tread to offer their partisan interpretation of the figures, and lofty, disinterested academics lay claim to a dispassionate analysis. I am not always easily persuaded that those claiming heroic objectivity truly are objective: there are quite a few Scottish academics around who are anything but objective, not to mention one or two captains of industry, and it is true that an expert can usually be found to say whatever those seeking his or her services wish to be said, e.g. experts called as ‘objective’ trial witnesses for a fat fee.
However, over the years, there is at least one Scottish expert that I trust and that is Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, who is also a consultant for ScotCen. He gives his objective view of the figures, one with which I don’t quarrel. It is that the appetite for a more powerful Scottish Parliament and for independence has grown in the last year, but it is still no higher than it has been on previous occasions since devolution, and the SNP has a long way to go before the referendum to persuade the electorate to vote for independence.
I will try to avoid the selective juggling with figures that goes after the publication of poll results, and simply focus on the three key facts, as I see them -
32% of those polled want full independence. So did 32% of Scots in 2004, and in 2005, 35% of Scots wanted out of the UK. Since devolution (1999) the figures have fluctuated narrowly around a low of 23% a year ago to the 2005 high of 35%.
58% of those polled want to stay in the UK with devolved powers to Scotland. Last year it was 61%. Since 1999, the figures have ranged from 44% in 2005 to that 61% figure last year.
Money matters – support for independence changes radically if voters believe they will be in pocket or out of pocket.
The poll has been properly conducted by a reputable organisation of integrity, and its sampling procedures and methodology are sound. (The sample size is significantly lower this time than in every previous years, under 1200 as compared with the 1500/1600 of all previous years.)
Repeating the core conclusion -
The support for a fully independent Scotland has increased since the same poll last year,
The support for continued membership of the UK and for devolution has fallen since last year.
Economic perceptions matter a helluva lot.
SOME MORE OBSERVATIONS
Over the last 12 years, somewhere between a quarter and a third of Scottish voters polled wanted full independence.
Over the last 12 years, somewhere between half and 60% of Scottish voters want to stay in the UK and have a devolved Parliament.
Those who want to go back to pre-devolution status and remain in the UK are in the minority, say around one in ten
The don’t knows are about one in twenty.
Something odd happened to preferences around 2004 and 2005, and anybody who claims to know why is engaging in speculation.
Some unknown factor or factors are at work when one tries to relate the figures to the election of a nationalist minority government in 2007 and the return of that government with a massive majority in 2010.
If this poll is predictive of how Scotland will vote in the referendum, the outcome would not be full independence.
Neither unionists nor nationalists can take unalloyed comfort from these figures.
THE BACKGROUND TO THE POLLS
The decade and a bit since devolution has been one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history, not just in the UK, but in Europe and globally.
Devolution, a radical enough event in its own right, designed by the Labour Party, still at their power peak after their landslide UK victory, to kill Scottish nationalism dead, failed in that primary objective, as forecast by the the likes of Michael Forsyth and Tam Dalziel.
On the 9th of September 2001, a single catastrophic event changed the nature of global politics, and led to the invasion of Afghanistan.
In 2003, the US and the UK launched an illegal war against Iraq, supported by an uneasy coalition of other nations.
In 2005, Tony Blair was returned as Prime Minister with Labour holding 355 MPs but with a popular vote of 35.2%, the lowest of any majority government in British history. (His popularity had been in decline even before the disastrous Iraq War.) Blair resigned in the same year, and Gordon Brown became Prime Minister.
In May 2007, the first ever Scottish Nationalist Government was elected by the Scottish electorate.
In 2008, the global financial and banking system went into near-meltdown, and catastrophe was narrowly averted by massive borrowing and effective nationalisation of some of the UK banks.
In May 2009, the UK Government and the UK Establishment finally failed in its long legal battle to prevent the British people knowing the truth about MPs – a blocking action led by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, a Scottish Labour MP - and the initial sordid facts of its investigation into MPs' expenses were published by The Telegraph, including claims by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw that they were forced to repay. The Speaker resigned in disgrace, and criminal prosecutions followed against MPs and members of the House of Lords, resulting in imprisonment in some cases.
In May 2010, a UK general election outcome created the potential of a hung Parliament, the radical difference between the voting patterns of Scotland and the rest of the UK became even more starkly apparent, with Scotland returning only one Tory MP. A Tory-led Coalition Government was hastily formed after John Reid, a Labour peer and others deliberately wrecked the possibility of a Rainbow Coalition involving Labour, the LibDems and the nationalist parties.
In May 2011, the Scottish electorate returned Alex Salmond and the SNP Government for a second term with a massive majority.
In England, serious criminal rioting that started in London spread to other English cities, but not to Scotland.
As of this moment, there is another European and global economic crisis that carries even greater dangers of economic meltdown than the 2008 crisis.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
All of the above is the context in which the Scottish peoples views on independence were canvassed. The Scottish electorate is one of the most sophisticated in the world. Having been betrayed by UK politicians, betrayed by Scottish Labour politicians and betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, they see a Tory-led government that they didn’t vote for attacking their living standards.
Sophisticated or not, they can be forgiven for being confused, and for feeling that no expert, media pundit or politician can be wholly trusted. But despite that, they made a massive act of trust in trusting the SNP, a party unequivocally committed to independence with their future for what will be five unpredictable and turbulent years. They also consciously and deliberately punished the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish LibDems for their betrayal of their hopes. They never trusted the Tory Party anyway, and never will again.
Anyone who tries to confidently explain the narrow fluctuations in the support for independence in polls over 12 years such as these is either a fool or a charlatan.
But the latest poll seems to confirm this– it’s the economy, stupid! It won’t be Braveheart politics or nostalgia for an imagined vanished golden age that determines how people will vote in the referendum, nor will it be intellectual and emotional commitment to the principle of independence – it will be their perception of which party has their economic and social interests at heart, can protect jobs and incomes and has the competence and the resolve to shield them from the global storm that is raging around them.
But can such a question as the independence of the nation really hinge on whether the voter is £10 a week better off or £10 a week worse off? I hae ma doots on that one – answering a simplistically loaded survey question is one thing – making the huge leap to freedom is a much bigger question. I believe the majority of Scots will decide based on a more complex argument than a tenner either way, even though the real difference between a YES or a NO might be £20 – not inconsiderable to many, and to a working family, £40 a week or more.
Since voters will be subjected to a barrage of contradictory statistics, whose version will they believe?
Will they gamble their future and that of their children and grandchildren on a crude monetary criterion? The demonstrably economically incompetent Labour, Tory and LibDem parties, or the party in which they placed their trust in May 2011?
In uncertain times, people have an instinct to “keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse” (Hilaire Belloc). But when they look at Nurse UK, they see something that all their instincts now tell them does not have their interests or Scotland’s at heart. Yet before they let go of that clammy embrace for ever, they will have to be certain that the new hand that they clasp will guide them through the storm.
The SNP has a window of somewhere over two years and a lot less than four to give the Scottish electorate the confidence they need to take that decisive step into an unpredictable, but exciting future.
The Scottish electorate will vote in the referendum as if their life depended on its outcome - because it does …