What a difference a year makes. Or even a week, depending on who your choice of pollster is.
Two polls, asking about independence, seemingly polls apart in the response rates. What gives?
On the 2nd September, the Herald published findings from the survey conducted through TNS-BMRB’s Scottish Opinion Survey. Then, on 7th September, Ipsos-Mori published the second wave of findings from its Scottish Public Opinion Monitor.
Sample sizes were similar, and the dates on which the research was conducted were practically the same, with fieldwork conducted during the last week of August (give or take a day or two). The methodology might account for some of the difference in findings: TNS conducted its survey in people’s homes, face to face, while Ipsos-Mori surveyed participants by telephone.
But is there really as much difference as some made out?
On the question of full independence, TNS found 39% in favour, while Ipsos-Mori found 35% would vote for it. That’s pretty close actually.
Variance comes due to the way the questions were structured. Ipsos-Mori posited a two question referendum, one on independence, the other on a full range of powers but still within the UK (which we’ll call devo-max for brevity’s sake), while TNS asked a straight independence yes or no. 38% were against independence here while 58% were against it in the Ipsos-Mori survey. On the surface, it seems conclusive.
If, however, we move to actual numbers of participants and extrapolate the findings of those supporting devo-max against those who’d vote for independence, it actually becomes less clear-cut.
There are 291 respondents who would support either devo-max or full independence, and only 217 who would disagree with either option – those who would vote against devo-max and also, against independence. Thus, there is a hard core who would support more powers in some form or another, and a smaller rump who want to stay as we are. In between are the majority who favour one of the additional powers’ options rather than either/or. What it means is that devolution as a final destination in our constitutional journey is now supported by a much smaller part of the population: most of us are agreed that we still have further to travel.
One other interesting observation from the Ipsos-Mori poll, – please do gather round, opposition parties, because you might want to listen hard. Most people do not support an immediate referendum. Only a quarter agree with that proposition, while 36% want it held within two to five years (2013 – 2016), and 30% within two years (by 2013). So, all this jumping up and down and calling the First Minister a feartie is unlikely to win hearts and minds or turn voters on. As with so many other things right now, it is the SNP whose political antennae are more attuned to the public’s wishes.
Whatever conclusions you draw from both polls, the over-riding one is that we have travelled a fair distance in a relatively short space of time. Support for full independence is gathering pace. As my Better Nation colleague, Malc Harvey, observed wryly, SNP on holiday – independence leads polls. Maybe doing nothing is the way to deliver the constitutional change the party holds dear?
Actually, what we are witnessing is a perfect constitutional storm. It was Professor David McCrone’s research some ten years ago (conducted I think with Professor Lindsay Paterson, when these two were the giants in the world of Scottish psephology and social attitudes – I miss them still), which found that there were two points in our recent history when a majority of Scots favoured independence. The first was in 1992, after the UK General Election, when against all the odds, the Conservatives got back. Scotland was agog and channelled its anger into agitating for constitutional change to address our keenly felt democratic deficit. Scotland United was born, culminating in a huge march and rally in Edinburgh that brought 25,000 out on to the streets. That cross-party, civic society movement definitely put Scotland on the downhill sprint to devolution. The second time was in 1997, just after Scotland voted yes-yes in the devolution referendum. It was a time of sky-high expectations, a reaction – perhaps an over-reaction – to an unparalleled moment of positivity in Scottish political history. If we could achieve this, then anything might be possible, so the mood went.
What is interesting is that support for independence reached majority proportions because of two extremes in political sentiment – profound disquiet and pessimism, and unbridled joy and optimism. And now in 2011, we might not have reached those polar opposites – yet- but unlike in the 1990s, we do have both situations happening at once. There is a Conservative government at Westminster, even though Scots did not vote for them, and widespread disbelief among Scots at how hard and how fast they are cutting. There is also an SNP government at Holyrood, having been voted in on a campaign that succeeded in promoting confidence, where hope beat fear, and which reinforced just how aspirational we are becoming as a nation.
Considering where we are on the political spectrum of sentiment, a rise in support for independence becomes explicable. Indeed, the SNP can be mighty pleased at how far opinion has travelled and how quickly. Given that we are saddled with a Conservative government until at least 2015, with austerity the only dish on their menu right now, and as long as the SNP can keep projecting confidence and hope for the future – the idea that Scotland can be better – then the conditions exist for support for independence to grow.
Support is on an upward trajectory and when those polls tip into majority territory, that’s when the referendum will be.