photo by comedy_nose

A guest today from Dr Paul Cairney, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Head of Department of Politics and International Relations at Aberdeen University.

Say what you like about Lord Ashcroft, but he gets things done with money. While most of us might have been muttering under our breaths about the leading nature of the SNP Government’s proposed independence referendum question, Ashcroft just spent some of his money trying to show how leading it was. His comparison of three questions shows that the wording of the question does seem to have an effect on responses. While 41% agreed that ‘Scotland should be an independent country’ when merely asked to agree, 39% agree when invited to agree or disagree. That figure reduces further to 33% pro-independence when people were asked ‘Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?’ (oddly, there were no ‘undecideds’ in these polls, so the remaining respondents go down as ‘no’ votes). We have always known that there would be this kind of effect. In fact, it was more marked when the first SNP Government produced the more convoluted question ‘I agree [I do not agree] that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state’. This wording is one of the few to produce a plurality in favour, presumably because many people will feel that they are not yet being asked to choose (although the latest poll takes us from a slim lead for ‘agree’ back to a slim lead for ‘disagree’). In most other cases, and at most other times, a different wording generally produces a lead for the ‘no’ vote (see the 14-plus different ways to ask the question in chapter 7 here; compare the survey approach with Susan Condor’s work (on English attitudes to change in Scotland), which just asks people what they think – it suggests that they care much less about these issues than forced choice surveys suggest).

The usual conclusion is that we should look at longer term trends, to see if the same question shows more or less support for constitutional change over time. For example, support for independence has, for decades, been about one-third to two-fifths when people are given the option of choosing to retain or extend devolution instead. It may fluctuate, and that fluctuation may be a good story for the papers, but the trends are fairly clear. This is not the argument I want to pursue here. Rather, I think we should focus more on the potential for fluctuation. The referendum will be held on a particular day in a particular context after a particular campaign. Therefore, while the trends will give us a broad idea of public attitudes, they will not tell us what will happen if we witness a ‘perfect storm’ of events that produces a particular attitude on a particular day. I am not suggesting that people will radically reverse their views at a moment’s notice. Rather, I am suggesting one or more of four things. First, some people will be torn between the options and, if not given the comfort of further devolution as a choice, will not know what to do. Second, some people will have a clear idea of what they want, but without doing much soul searching to come to that conclusion. Third, some people will base their decision on a very small amount of information. Fourth, some people will get that information from biased sources and might see things differently if subject to a competing view. Overall, if many people are unsure, or their certainty is based on limited and biased information, it may be possible for a strong campaign – combined with key events – to change people’s minds for a little while. The best example for me so far was the Conservative Government gambit on giving permission to hold the referendum in 18 months. This sort of nonsense could produce all sorts of emotional reactions in the most calculating or ambivalent people.

I want to give this issue more thought than Lord Ashcroft, but I have less money. So, with my colleagues in psychology and physics at Aberdeen, I am developing an online project that probes people’s views about independence and examines how likely it is that those views will change when they are presented with new (or newly framed and sourced) arguments. We will gauge people’s existing knowledge and searches for information, then present them with the chance to agree or disagree with new arguments as presented by different people (on the assumption that they will react differently to arguments presented by, say, Alex Salmond or George Osborne). I need your help. I have a decent idea of the key arguments made about independence so far, and can do a trawl of the papers to make sure. However, I am sure that I have not heard them all. Can you think of pro- or anti- devolution arguments that would not fit into these broad categories (for example, I am not sure where to place the idea that the SNP’s image of governing competence will/ will not affect support for independence)? Or, can you think of some unusual examples in each category?

Economic – e.g. an independent Scotland could not have bailed out the RBS/ the Scottish Government would have avoided the catastrophe; an independent Scottish Government can tailor taxes and growth strategies to Scotland; businesses are happy/ will leave in droves; Scots will be better/ worse off in an independent Scotland

Economic deficits and North Sea Oil – Scotland relies on UK subsidies; the UK relies on Scottish oil

The State – Scotland will be a high tax, high spending country; the Scottish Government will reduce taxes to promote growth

European Union – someone will veto Scotland’s EU membership; we can decide whether or not we want to join; we will have to negotiate our entry or exit; we will have a larger or smaller voice in the EU

The Euro – we will have to join it; we can keep the pound until we choose to join it

Defence – will radically change/ not change Scotland’s role regarding the armed forces and nuclear question; Scotland will lose soldiers and defence contracts

Scotland and the UK – we will have to rebuild Hadrian’s wall and present passports at the border; key relationships will not change

Social attitudes – more Scottish than British? Devolution as a compromise between Scottishness and Britishness? People want/ do not want independence or more powers

History – Scotland as a stateless nation which demands self-government; the UK as a stronger, united country

Constitutional Issues – independence will solve the ‘English question’; the English should have their say; a referendum in Scotland has no legal authority; Scotland will keep the Queen as head of state

International affairs – we will have a small international voice; we will have to recruit a new generation of diplomats