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The Scottish election: attitudes to independence

Posted on 04 May 2011 .
Tags: SNP, SSA, Scottish Centre for Social Research, Scottish National Party, Scottish Social Attitudes, Scottish election, alternative Vote, social and political attitudes

Given the relentless media focus on cabinet ministers squabbling over the Alternative Vote referendum, some voters in England could perhaps be forgiven for not entirely realising that voters in the devolved Nations are electing their own administrations tomorrow. In Scotland, it will be the fourth election to the Scottish Parliament since devolution. I also find it surprising that the London based media hasn’t taken more of an interest in how the different voting systems play out in the devolved nations but that’s London-centricity for you.
Following a strong showing by Scottish Labour in the political opinion polls earlier this year, most polls are now suggesting the Scottish National Party has surged, and will again emerge as the largest single party. So does this indicate strong Scottish support for independence in Scotland? Is the Union under threat? After all, the SNP’s manifesto contains a clear commitment to a Referendum Bill in next parliament giving people in Scotland a chance to have their say over Scotland's future and independence.

Our colleagues in the Scottish Centre for Social Research have been tracking attitudes to independence since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, drawing on the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. Certainly, there were increasing levels of support for independence around 2003-5. But the SNP’s first term in government itself has been associated with a relatively low point in support for independence.

Support for independence has remained at between roughly a quarter and a third since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. In 2007, when the current SNP administration was elected, support for independence stood at just 24 per cent, and in the second half for 2010 (when fieldwork for the most recent study was completed), it was just 23 per cent.
At the same time, the proportion who feel that Scotland does badly out of the Union has fallen over the past decade and has been particularly low since the SNP came to power. This trend may help explain why support for independence is not increasing – if people feel that Scotland is doing reasonably well out of the Union, they may feel less inclined to support independence.
Not that Scots are content with the status quo. When asked about who should make the key decisions for Scotland about taxes and benefits – two areas currently reserved to Westminster - most people in Scotland think it should be the Scottish Parliament. So-called ‘Devolution max’ – in which most things except defence and foreign affairs would be devolved – has considerable support among the Scottish public. And this position goes much further than the proposals for more limited devolution of some taxation powers contained in the Scotland Bill, currently making its way through Westminster.
So while the results of Thursday’s elections may not indicate much support for full-blown independence, the debate over what devolution means for Scotland and how far it should be extended is likely to persist.
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