Scottish-RUK Collaboration: The View from South of the Border

One of the key characteristics of the Scottish Government’s vision for an independent Scotland, as laid out in last week’s White Paper, is that there should be many areas of continuing collaboration and sharing between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK (RUK).  The most controversial such proposal is that Scotland should continue to use the pound (as part of a monetary union with the RUK) but also includes such ideas as continuing access to the BBC as well as keeping the Queen as Head of State.

But as the UK government and others in the unionist camp have often pointed out, collaboration and sharing are only possible if the RUK is willing to do so too. The willingness of the UK government to enter into such arrangements will depend on its perception of whether it is in its own interests to do so . One consideration that will enter into that calculation is what public opinion south of the border is seemingly willing to tolerate.

We got a glimpse of what that public attitudes might be towards collaboration and sharing from the responses to some questions that were included in last Sunday’s regular YouGov GB-wide survey for The Sunday Times. And they suggest that it would be unwise for the Scottish Government to assume that RUK public opinion will be urging its government to accommodate Scotland’s wishes.

On the most controversial issue, whether Scotland should be able to continue to use the pound, slightly more people in England & Wales (43%) are opposed to the idea than in favour (38%). Meanwhile opinion is split down the middle on the idea that the BBC should continue to provide programmes such as EastEnders and Doctor Who to Scotland’s public television service. While 37% support the proposal, 38% are opposed.  In both cases opposition is particularly high amongst Conservative and UKIP supporters, suggesting that the current UK government might well feel under pressure to take a tougher stance than a Labour one would.

Meanwhile, it would appear that there would be little pressure on the UK government from its public opinion to help smooth the path towards Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union. As many as 59% of people in England & Wales feel that an independent Scotland should have to ‘reapply’ for EU membership while just 19% think Scotland ‘should be automatically accepted’ into the EU.

True, not all proposals for collaboration and sharing are met with hostility. Rather more people (48%) support than oppose (31%) the proposal that the Queen should continue to be Scotland’s Head of State, though evidently assent to the idea is far from overwhelming. Meanwhile just over half (55%) believe that there should be either a temporary or permanent arrangement for some UK troops to remain north of the border, while only 29% think the UK should withdraw all forces immediately on independence. Here perhaps is one issue on which public opinion south of the border feels it might be in the RUK’s interests to collaborate – but of course this is an issue on which (at least so far as nuclear weapons are concerned) the Scottish Government is most keen to see a clean break.

But in truth, it appears that people living south of the border have become less inclined to believe that independence would be in either side’s interests. Even back in May 2011, in a poll conducted by YouGov shortly after the last Holyrood election, as many as 54% felt that Scotland would be financially worse off as a result of independence. Now as many as 62% feel that way. And while, in contrast, rather more feel that the RUK would be better off (30%) than worse off (21%) if Scotland became independent, the gap is rather narrower now than it was in May 2011. Then as many as 40% felt the RUK would be better off and only 14% that it would be worse off.

It thus perhaps should come as little surprise that this poll confirms the impression created by another YouGov poll published earlier this month that opinion south of the border has swung against independence. In this most recent poll, YouGov asked not the question that will appear on the ballot paper, but a question about independence it had asked on previous polls in May 2011 and (twice) in January 2012, viz. ‘Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the UK’.  Now as many as 50% say they oppose Scottish independence, whereas only 27% are in favour. Previously YouGov had found roughly equal numbers of supporters and opponents.

In the end it will of course be the people of Scotland who will decide whether they wish to become independent. But there are signs that the public mood south of the border is not one that will make it any easier for the Scottish Government to argue that it will be straightforward to deliver the kind of relationship between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK Mr Salmond would like to see.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.