So What Does Scotland Make of Devolution So Far?

Today sees the publication by the Scottish Government of the results of the latest instalment of what has come to be known as the ‘core module’ of the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, that is a suite of questions about various aspects of public policy that have been asked on behalf of the Edinburgh administration. Much of the report, based on hitherto unpublished findings from the 2013 survey, is about how well or badly Scotland thinks it is being governed – and thus covers territory that might be thought relevant to the debate about the referendum.

One of the most striking patterns to have been uncovered by previous rounds of SSA is that since the SNP first came to power in 2007 people in Scotland have seemed more inclined to believe that devolution has had a positive impact the way they are being governed. That pattern is largely upheld.

Consider, for example, two of the ambitions that were set out for devolution in the 1990s – to make it easier for people to get involved in how they were governed, while strengthening (rather than weakening) Scotland’s position within the UK.

As many as 46% now believe that having the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how they are governed, unchanged not only from last year, but also in line with the average proportion who have been of that view since 2007 – leaving aside 2011 when, in the immediate wake of the SNP’s success in winning an overall majority, the proportion rose dramatically to 60%. In contrast, between 2000 and 2006 on average only 37% were of that view.

Meanwhile, no less than 57% now feel that having a Scottish Parliament is strengthening Scotland’s voice in the UK, two points below the figure for 2012, but still two points above that for 2007-12 as a whole (again leaving aside 2011 when it reached 69%).  The equivalent figure for the period between 2000 and 2006 is 44%.

These two findings would appear to be a testament to the perceived success of the SNP in government. But, of course, if the party’s performance in office has helped persuade people that devolution has delivered, this need not be making it any easier to persuade them that Scotland in fact needs independence.

Certainly enthusiasm for the idea that the Scottish Government (and not the UK government) should be the principal decision maker north of the border (irrespective of whether it is in the Union) seems to have cooled a little. Last year the proportion that thought the Scottish Government ought to have most influence over how the Scotland is run dipped to an all-time low of 63%. That result has now been repeated. In contrast, between 2000 and 2006 the figure averaged 69% and between 2007 and 2011 had even been running even slightly higher at 72%.

Still, there remains a considerable difference between the proportion that think the Scottish Government ought to be the principal player in Scotland and the proportion that think it does enjoy that position. Indeed, after gradually increasing year on year from 13% in 2000 to 38% in 2011, the proportion that think that the Scottish Government does have most influence has slipped back to 34% last year and 30% this year. One explanation could be that the referendum debate has helped persuade some people that the devolved institutions are not that powerful after all. Even so, the continuing large gap (of 39 points) between the proportion that think that the Scottish Government does have most influence and the proportion who think that it should helps explain why (according to the No campaign at least) the status quo is not an option after September.

One reason why people might be thought to prefer decisions to be made in Edinburgh rather than by London is that they are more inclined to trust the Scottish Government to act in Scotland’s interests. In itself that is hardly surprising – after all looking after Scotland is the Scottish Government’s only job, while that is not the position the UK government enjoys.  In the most recent survey 59% say that they trust the Scottish Government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’, whereas only 26% say the same of the UK government.

However, when it comes to how attitudes have changed over time, the picture is more complicated. Here the report potentially provides an opportunity for both sides in the referendum debate to cherry pick pieces of it to their advantage.

On the one hand, the proportion that trust the Scottish Government is down by three points since last year, and by no less than 12 points since 2011. That sounds like something of an erosion of public confidence in Edinburgh rule (as presided over by the SNP!). However, as in the case of a number of other readings, the figure in 2011 was particularly high. So just looking at the trend in the last three years might be thought to be rather misleading.

Indeed, if we look across the whole of the period since the SNP have been in power, the proportion that trust the Scottish Government has averaged 64%. Between 2000 and 2006, in contrast, the equivalent figure was 56%. That suggests that over the longer run people have become more inclined to invest their trust in Edinburgh rather than London. However, that is to ignore the fact that (despite the fact that the Conservatives have been in power since 2010) trust in the UK government (26%) has also been higher on average since 2007 than it was between 2000 and 2006 (21%). In short, since 2007 people have been rather more willing to invest faith in both institutions.

When we look at the relative level of trust in the Scottish as opposed to the UK government (which is arguably what is most relevant to the constitutional debate), the picture looks much the same now as it has done ever since 1999.  In the most recent survey the difference between the proportion that trust the Scottish Government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ is, at 33 points, much the same as the difference of 37 points found on average across the dozen previous occasions since 2000 on which the pair of questions were asked. The relative faith that people in Scotland have in their (currently) devolved institutions has, it seems, very little to do with who actually occupies Bute House – or Downing St.

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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.