Salmond, the economy, and an uncertain future: Women’s attitudes to independence

Women may well hold the key to the outcome of the referendum in 2014. Neither the Yes nor the No side is likely to win unless it can secure the support of a majority of women as well as that of men. And if one side were to win without winning a majority of women’s votes, its mandate would certainly be badly weakened .

Both sides are acutely aware of this fact. Both have created campaign organisations aimed specifically at women. Women for independence are campaigning for a Yes vote while Better Together Women is arguing for a No one. Meanwhile, in recent months the SNP have stepped up their attempts to bring women into the ‘Yes’ fold. In his conference speech in March, Alex Salmond promised an independent Scotland would ‘have the best childcare system anywhere in these islands’. Nicola Sturgeon has committed her party to reversing key elements of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, arguing that they ‘discriminate against women’.

The emphasis placed by the Yes campaign in particular on securing women’s support no doubt reflects an awareness that women are less likely than men to support independence. This gender gap has been found in survey after survey. For example, in 2012, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) put the gap at some 7 percentage points. More recent opinion polls  that have asked people how they will vote in response to the question that will appear on the referendum ballot paper have recorded gaps of between 1 and 22 points.

The success or otherwise of Yes Scotland’s attempts to woo women voters will depend on whether or not they address the key reasons why women are less inclined to want to vote ‘Yes’. My recent paper on this issue examined a number of possible explanations for this gender gap. It provides some vital lessons for both the Yes and No campaigns.

First, Alex Salmond is not the Yes campaign’s main problem. True, both SSA and other surveys have found that Alex Salmond is less popular amongst women than men. Moreover, those (of either gender)who do not rate Salmond highly are less likely to support independence. However, women were also less likely to support independence between 2000 and 2004, when Alex Salmond was not leader of the SNP. While the First Minister may not be the best person to convince women of the merits of independence, the gender gap would probably still exist anyway.

Second, women are not less likely to support independence because they have different concerns than men.. Since the recession, women have repeatedly said the Scottish Government’s top priority should be to help the economy to grow faster. In this they are no different from men. At the same time, women take much the same view as men about what independence might mean for the economy – around a third anticipate the economy would be better while a third think it would be worse.  Meanwhile, when it comes to deciding whether they back independence or not, what would happen to the economy seems to matter just as much to women as it does to men. [1] In short, if they are to win over women voters, both sides need to win the economic argument – just as they will have to do to secure the support of men.

However, while women are no more likely than men to think independence would have adverse economic (or indeed any other) consequences, they are more uncertain about what   independence would bring. As many as 63% say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly unsure’, compared with 52% of men. That uncertainty matters. Among those (men and women) who believe that the economy would be better and who are very or fairly sure what the consequences of independence would be, 68% support independence. But among those who think the economy would be better but also say they are not sure about the consequences, only 36% support independence. So one of the key reasons why women are currently less likely to back independence is because they are more uncertain than men about its consequences.

In rebutting the case for independence, the UK Government seems inclined to point out as many alleged uncertainties as possible – including its possible implications for pensions, the currency and Scotland’s membership of the EU. This approach appears well tailored to keep women in the ‘no’ camp. If the Yes side is to narrow the gender gap it needs to convince women that the future under independence does not look so uncertain after all, and that instead they can have confidence in the prospect of a bright economic future. The most recent survey data suggest it is a challenge Mr Salmond and his colleagues have yet to show they can meet.


[1] See Curtice, J (2013) Who supports and opposes independence – and why? ScotCen Social Research

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About the author

Rachel Ormston is a Senior Research Director at ScotCen Social Research and co-director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey. She regularly writes and presents on social and political attitudes and has a particular interest in attitudes to devolution and independence in Scotland.