Attitudes towards the Economics of Independence – An Update

Today Nicola Sturgeon is releasing the latest and most important instalment in the Scottish Government’s series of white papers intended to make the case for independence. The latest publication will address the economy and currency.

This is an important development in the independence debate. Attitudes towards the economy played a key role in voters’ decisions in the 2014 referendum, while the question of what currency an independent Scotland would and should use proved one of the most contentious during the referendum campaign. Much may rest on how well or badly today’s publication is received by voters.

But where does public opinion stand on this issue at present? We posted a blog on this subject in February this year. It suggested that, as in 2014, voters were somewhat more inclined to be pessimistic than optimistic about the economic consequences of independence. However, the blog noted that the choice that would be put to voters in any ballot held now would (in contrast to 2014) not simply be about being inside or outside the UK. Rather it would be whether Scotland should be inside the UK but outside the EU or be inside the EU but outside the UK. And while voters may have their doubts about the economics of independence, concern about the financial implications of Brexit is even more widespread. The blog showed that some polling has found both that the public are not especially optimistic about the economic consequences of remaining in the UK and that more voters feel that the option of being inside the EU and outside the UK is less unattractive than being in the UK but outside the EU. At the same time we also noted that even if voters felt that independence would not make much difference either way they were more inclined to back Yes than No.

In this blog we update that earlier posting by looking at the findings of more recent polling on the subject. For the most part it suggests that little has changed.

Voters still have their doubts about the economics of independence. In August Panelbase found that while 36% believed that Scotland would be financially better-off if it were independent, substantially more, 47%, reckon it would be worse off. These figures had not changed dramatically since previous readings in February this year and January last year. Confirming the continued importance of the debate, no less than 95% of those who thought that Scotland would be better off said they would vote Yes to independence, though a somewhat smaller proportion, 85%, of those who thought it would be worse off indicated that they supported No. Meanwhile, in line with previous evidence, 45% of those who thought independence would not make much difference were Yes supporters, while only 22% preferred No.

Meanwhile, polling undertaken by Ipsos – also in August – indicates that voters are still inclined to regard independence as a relatively risky project. They found that 57% regard the argument that leaving the UK would be a major risk for Scotland’s economy and jobs as convincing, while 38% do not, figures not dissimilar to what the company found when it asked the same question in the autumn of 2020 (when Yes were ahead in the polls).  In similar vein, in February (shortly after our previous blog was posted) Savanta ComRes found that while 35% believe that independence offers more opportunities than risks, 45% take the opposite view.

However, the balance of opinion was no more than evenly divided when Ipsos asked voters how convincing they found the argument that in the long-term Scotland’s economy would be stronger outside the UK than inside it. The 46% who found this argument convincing almost counterbalanced exactly the 48% who did not. Although in this instance the attractiveness of this argument was lower than two years previously, when the figures had been 52% and 43% respectively, again we find that staying in the UK is not necessarily seen as a much more attractive prospect than independence.

If we then return to Panelbase’s poll, we see further evidence of how the UK’s decision to leave the EU is regarded as damaging to Scotland’s interests. Just 21% believe that Scotland will be better off as a result of Brexit, while nearly half (49%) feel the country will be worse off. The latter figure, which is just as high among No voters as it is among their Yes counterparts (suggesting it is seam that the Yes side might be able to mine further), is now five points higher than it was in January 2021, shortly after the UK left the EU single market. For many voters in Scotland Brexit has undoubtedly made being part of the Union a less attractive prospect economically.

But one particular economic issue on which the Yes side have yet to satisfy voters is the question of which currency an independent Scotland would use. Polling by YouGov in March suggests that the idea of having a separate currency, a step that the SNP now thinks an independent Scotland should eventually take, is still not widely seen as an attractive proposition. The company found that although 7% were more likely to support independence if Scotland were to adopt a new currency within two years, nearly three times as many (20%) said that they would be less likely to do so. Of course, many of the latter are people who voted No in 2014 and might well do so again anyway, but it also included 16% of those who voted Yes in 2014 (while just 8% of 2014 No voters said the prospect of a single currency made independence more attractive).

Finally, we should note that so far there is little sign that the fiscal crisis in which the UK government has become embroiled has had much impact on the level of support for independence. Four readings have been taken since the financial markets first became turbulent. True, YouGov reported a four-point increase in support as compared with last May, but its previous reading of 45% (after excluding Don’t Knows) was lower than that recorded by other polls at the time. Meanwhile, neither Panelbase (in two polls) nor Savanta ComRes found any significant change in support (since August and June respectively).  All four polls indicate that Scotland remains more or less evenly divided on the subject – leaving both sides badly needing to put their best foot forward in the economic debate.


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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.