So What Should Be Done About The Vow? Public Opinion and More Devolution

When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in October 2012, the UK government declared that it would ensure that the independence referendum would be ‘legal, fair and decisive’. Although some supporters of the Yes camp may be doubtful that the referendum was entirely fair (pointing not least to what they perceive to be some biased media coverage), the legal authority of the vote has not been questioned, while few have disputed the fairness of the formal regulatory framework within which the referendum was held.

What, however, can certainly be questioned is the decisiveness of the referendum. For far from ending the argument about Scotland’s constitutional future, the ballot has simply seen the debate move on from one about independence to one about more devolution. This, of course, is because in the latter stages of the referendum campaign, concern within the No camp at the apparent progress made by the Yes campaign stimulated the three unionist party leaders into signing a ‘vow’. This stated that the three somewhat different proposals for more devolution that had hitherto been unveiled by the unionist parties would be replaced by the end of November by a common plan to which all three parties would be committed to implementing after the UK general election next May.

But how big is the public’s appetite for more devolution? Did it grow during the referendum campaign? How far do people want it to go? What kind of proposals will need to emerge from the commission chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin that has now been charged with the task of developing a common plan?

The clearest evidence on trends in attitudes towards more devolution during the referendum campaign comes from the surveys conducted by ICM for Scotsman Newspapers. Every one of these polls (the first was conducted in September 2013 and then on a regular monthly basis from January 2014 onwards), asked respondents what they thought should happen if Scotland were to vote No. One option was that, ‘There should be no further change to the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament’, while the other was, ‘The Scottish Parliament should become primarily responsible for making decisions about taxation and welfare benefits in Scotland’. Taxation and welfare benefits are, of course, the two areas of domestic policy that are still primarily reserved to Westminster and thus the second option might thus be thought to imply moving quite a long way towards ‘devo max’.

Even when first asked a year before polling day this question elicited relatively high levels of support for more devolution. As many as 59% backed the more devolution option, while only 28% supported the status quo. Thereafter from January 2014 onwards typically just over 60% chose more devolution while only around a quarter backed the status quo.

However, the three-fifths in favour of more devolution consisted of two very different groups. At least half were people who proposed to vote Yes in the referendum. Only around a third were avowed No supporters. Moreover, amongst No supporters themselves less than half wanted more devolution.

But this picture changed during the later stages of the referendum campaign. In August support for more devolution increased to 67%, and then by the eve of polling reached no less than 74%. Crucially this increase reflected an apparent change of heart amongst many a No supporter. Whereas in May still no more than 47% of No voters wanted more devolution, by August the figure had increased to 53% and then by the eve of poll no less than 65% supported the idea. In contrast, by this stage just 28% of No voters backed the status quo.

Two other pieces of evidence also suggest support for more devolution grew during the campaign, including in particular amongst No supporters. The first comes from YouGov who in March and again shortly before polling day invited its respondents to choose between independence, more devolution and maintaining the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers. Support for maintaining the parliament’s powers fell among voters in general from 22% to 14%, and amongst No supporters in particular from 40% to 32%. Second, when on three occasions between January and June TNS BMRB invited people to choose between a similar set of three options, support for retaining the current arrangements dropped from 31% to 22%. Moreover, whereas in January 58% of No supporters wanted to keep the status quo and just 40% wanted ‘to transfer more powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament including tax and welfare’, by June only 41% were supporting the status quo and as many as 56%, more powers.

There is more than one possible explanation as to why support for more devolution should have increased. One possibility is that the arguments of the Yes side persuaded people of the need for Scotland to have more autonomy, but still left them reluctant to leave the UK. Alternatively, in unveiling their plans for more devolution during the spring and the summer Labour and the Conservatives helped persuade their own (No) supporters of the merits of more devolution. Either way, what already looked like no more than lukewarm support for the constitutional status quo seems to have evaporated during the campaign, and that consequently whereas at one stage many a No voter was quite sceptical of the merits of more devolution, by polling day a clear majority were in favour.

But how much more devolution do voters say they want? The most recent detailed investigation comes from a poll conducted immediately after the referendum by Survation tor the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Respondents were asked, ‘Which of the following areas do you think the Scottish Parliament should or should not be given control over?” And as the following table shows, it appears that there is majority support for devolving more or less any aspect of domestic policy that might be mentioned:

Table 1: Attitudes towards the devolution of specific policy areas


Source: Survation/Scottish Mail on Sunday 18-19.9.14

This picture is in line with previous evidence. Since 2007 the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has repeatedly found around three-fifths say that the Scottish Parliament should make the ‘important decisions for Scotland’ about both taxation and welfare benefits. Only a third or so have said that decisions about taxation should be taken by the UK government, while only a fifth reckons Westminster should be principally deciding welfare. These figures were even higher when people were asked specifically about income tax and pensions. Meanwhile, much the same picture of apparent support for ‘home rule’ emerged from an Ipsos MORI survey conducted for the Future of Scotland group in June 2012.

It thus seems that the public’s appetite for more devolution extends much further than anything proposed by the three unionist parties so far; their proposals have focused on the further devolution of income tax beyond that already being implemented as a result of the 2012 Scotland Act while on welfare they extend little beyond transferring responsibility for housing benefit from Westminster to Holyrood. The instinctive reaction of a majority of Scottish voters appears to be that their country’s domestic affairs should more or less be decided in Edinburgh, leaving London just to look after its defence and foreign affairs.

However, beneath this instinct there are some cross-cutting eddies. Voters might feel that the legitimate locus of domestic decision-making lies in Edinburgh, but that does not mean to say that they are comfortable with some of the apparent consequences. One is that levels of taxation and benefits might be different in Scotland from what they are in England.  That is a proposition that has repeatedly been shown in recent years to be backed by less than half of voters, both in respect of the basic rate of income tax and of the basic state pension. Another is that many or all public services would be paid for mainly out of revenues raised in Scotland, but that is an idea that is only supported by around a half of voters so far as the funding of public services in Scotland in general are concerned, and by only little over one in five when it comes to the state pension in particular.

Such apparent contradictions do not necessarily mean that voters’ instinct as to where decisions should be made can simply be ignored – though their presence probably is indicative of the fact that (in contrast the position on independence) there has as yet been too little public discussion of the arguments for and against more devolution for a well informed public opinion to have emerged. These contradictions may perhaps indicate that many (and thanks to the referendum, an increased number of) Scots do indeed want the ‘best of both worlds’ of which the No campaign invited them to partake – the formal power to make their own domestic decisions while retaining access to the security of the UK-wide taxation system. If so, then the task of the Smith Commission will be to show that this vision is not an infeasible pipe dream.

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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.