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Society, Politics & Law

Assessing the popularity of Scottish independence

Updated Tuesday, 30th April 2013

Article two of eight: A case of opinion.

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Several technical and contextual areas of political campaigning have also been keenly contested, such as the meaning of opinion polls, the fairness of media coverage, and the 'authority' of some politicians to speak on Scottish affairs. For years opinion polls have shown support for Scottish independence to fluctuate between 20-45% – but always a minority figure. Only once has a poll shown independence in the majority (ICM/Telegraph, November 2006). However, even though support for Scottish independence was 'low' in 2011, electors still voted for an Scottish National Party (SNP) government. Better Together have emphasised that while support for independence is low (at only 23-29%) support for 'devolution' is high (67-72%) with only 5% undecided. Yes Scotland have countered by stating that 41-44% of people in the same polls do not want devolution as it currently stands, and when those in favour of independence are added to those wanting more power devolved to Scotland, 67-79% of people are 'in favour of change'. This highlights the wide discrepancy in how opinion polls can be interpreted.

However, the accuracy of such polls has also been questioned. Many polls are 'one off' and the questions asked have varied greatly and this elicits widely differing responses and results. Just as the referendum question itself has been scrutinised for bias, opinion polls can also be skewed to achieve a certain type of response. Long-running polls with a consistent question are, therefore, more reliable in demonstrating shifts in attitudes. But the longest running poll (Scottish Social Attitudes Survey), used continuously and asked of a 'sample' of 1,000 respondents since 1999, uses the phrase 'should Scotland become ... separate from the UK?' The SNP, with regards to a motion tabled in Westminster about the role of the Royal Mail in a 'separate' Scotland (February 2013), convinced the UK Electoral Commission that 'separate' is a pejorative term (meaning it 'expresses disapproval'), and this indicates how such long-used questions might be misleading, especially when the actual referendum question is so different. Only since late 2012 it has been possible to use the actual question. The largest poll to date, a mock referendum among students at Glasgow University, gave the No campaign 63% and the Yes one 37%. But only 12.5% (2,500) of students eligible to vote (20,000) did so.

The key political issue with such polls is that while they are meant to report on what people think, they actually generate a 'feedback mechanism' in that they can also shape what people think and therein the debate itself. It is for this reason that they are hotly debated.

Take your learning further  

Examine the results of the Scottish independence opinion polls.

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