From World Cups to the Poll Tax: what influences support for independence?

Analysis of our polling since the late 1970s shows that several factors will play a role in persuading voters.

Our most recent poll for The Times shows that judgements about future economic prosperity in Scotland will be the key factor in deciding whether the electorate vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the independence referendum. But views on personal prosperity, job security and economic conditions in Scotland will not be the only referendum battleground. Analysis of our polling since the late 1970s shows that there other factors which will play a role in persuading voters. History shows that voters can certainly be influenced by the political hue of UK governments and the effects on Scotland of the agendas they pursue. When we began polling on the issue back in 1978, support for independence was below 20% (14% in March 1979). Within the first five years of a Conservative government, support was around 25% and by the late 1980s and early 1990s support was regularly around 35%. This increased support for the nationalist cause was driven at least in part by the effects of the Conservative’s industrial policy in the 1980’s and, specifically, by the introduction of the hugely unpopular ‘Poll Tax’ in Scotland in 1989. Such experiences continue to inform the strategies of the current UK Prime Minister who is careful to avoid appearing to patronise Scottish voters either through his stance on the issues or the tone he adopts The strategy of the Scottish government will also be vital. When first elected in 2007, the SNP were keen to prove that they were effective managers of the Scottish economy and could be trusted to make decisions in the interest of Scots within the existing constitutional settlement. For this reason, and because they were a minority administration, full independence was not top of their agenda. Subsequently, though they were a popular government, support for independence did not increase. This changed when the parliamentary arithmetic gave the SNP an overall majority after the 2011 election and enabled the party to confidently focus on the referendum and develop its long term strategy for winning it. This focus and strategy has led to a growth in support for independence though still some way short of majority backing. The other factor which helps explain support for independence is the events happening at any particular point in time which may play to a mood of nationalist sentiment and pride. Polling evidence shows that support for independence was highest in April 1998 (at 47%), a period between the successful devolution referendum in 1997 and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. It was also the last year in which the national team qualified to play in the football World Cup. This may partly explain the Scottish government’s preference for a 2014 ballot, a year in which Scotland will celebrate the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn and Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games. It’s also another Word Cup year! The key question going forward is whether the current rise in support for independence is the beginning of a shift towards a majority or a return to the levels of support in the 1980s which will go no further. A look back at our polling over 35 years highlights that, even at times of unpopular UK governments and events which boost national pride, support for independence has fallen short of a majority. For those supporting independence in the lead-up to the referendum this means that they still have a huge challenging in reaching that majority. This article was originally published in The Times

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