Is the Rest of the UK Becoming More Concerned about Scottish Independence?

As the referendum debate has warmed up, so the rest of the UK (or at least its media) has begun to take more notice. Consequently, in recent weeks more than one poll has asked people south of the border what they think about some of the issues at stake.

Here we share a few observations about what those efforts have uncovered.  We pay particular attention to some readings obtained by YouGov, whose polls, because they have asked a number of questions that have been asked previously, enable us to get a glimpse of how opinion south of the border is evolving.

First, it is quite clear that people in England and Wales are reluctant to see Scotland leave the UK. Indeed, their wish to see Scotland remain has become increasingly stronger.  When on three occasions in 2011 and 2012 YouGov asked people in England & Wales whether they supported or opposed ‘Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom’, there were more or less equal numbers of supporters and opponents.

But when YouGov revisited the question last November, they found that just 27% were in favour, while 50% were opposed. Those proportions were more or less replicated when the question was posed once again in January this year; 24% were in favour and 54% opposed.

Now, most recently, in a poll conducted for The Sunday Times in the third week of February, YouGov found that only 21% support Scottish independence while as many as 61% are opposed.

Almost identical results were obtained by Opinium in a poll for The Observer published a week later, with 22% of people in England & Wales in favour and 61% opposed. In a poll conducted for The Sunday Express, Vision Critical found that 63% disagreed with ‘the SNP’s plans to make Scotland an independent country’, though in their case as many as 37% said they agreed with them.

Wales is seemingly no more sympathetic to Scottish independence than England, either. According to ICM’s St David’s Day poll for BBC Wales , only 19% of people there now support Scottish independence while 69% are opposed.

It would appear that, as the issue has become more salient to those living south of the border – and thus perhaps what independence for Scotland actually means – so any sympathy that might have once existed for the notion that it might be fine for Scotland to ‘do its own thing’ if it wishes has now dissipated.

One possible explanation is that people in England & Wales have come to be concerned that Scottish independence might have an adverse impact on themselves. There is some evidence to support this.

Back in May 2011, shortly after Alex Salmond won his Holyrood majority, as many as 40%  said to YouGov that they thought the rest of the UK would be financially better off if Scotland were to leave. Just 14% felt they would be worse off.  By last November the proportion who felt the rest of the UK would be better off had fallen back to 30%, while 21% believed it would be worse off.

Now in the most recent YouGov reading, slightly more people (27%) reckon the rest of the UK would be worse off than believe it would be better off (23%).  Meanwhile a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI at much the same time for King’s College, London, has reported that no less than 43% of people in England & Wales reckon that a Yes vote would have a ‘negative impact’ on the ‘UK economy’, while just 18% felt it would have a ‘positive impact’.

We might anticipate that one possible consequence of growing opposition in England & Wales to Scottish independence is increasing reluctance to acquiesce in the SNP’s vision for close relations between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. This certainly seems to be what has happened so far as sharing the pound is concerned. Indeed George Osborne’s statement that this would not be possible seems to have had rather more impact on those resident in England & Wales than it has done on those at whom it was primarily aimed, that is the voters of Scotland.

Back in November, before the Chancellor’s statement, almost as many people in England & Wales (38%) supported allowing an independent Scotland to continue to use the pound as were opposed (43%). But in a poll conducted immediately after the statement YouGov found that only 23% were in favour while as many as 58% were opposed. The company then found much the same result a week later, with 25% in favour and 58% opposed, in response to a slightly differently worded question on the subject.

Other recent polls have uncovered English & Welsh hostility to sharing the pound too.Vision Critical found only 18% in favour of sharing the pound, while 58% were opposed. True, Opinium found somewhat less hostility, but even it found plenty more people (46% across Britain as a whole) opposed to allowing Scotland to keep the pound than favouring the idea (31%).

Of course the voters of England & Wales will be but bystanders when Scotland decides its future on 18 September. But they will get a chance to express their views on the fallout from the referendum when the UK as a whole goes to the polls the following May. If Scotland does decide to vote Yes, it may find those on the opposite side of the negotiating table are under pressure not to strike an overgenerous deal to their departing northern neighbour.

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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.