Ian Dunt, fondly known to millions across Scotland as "the thinking woman's Richard Madeley", has scaled new heights of idiocy by posting an article on politics.co.uk bearing the title "Major new Scottish independence poll brings fresh despair for Alex Salmond". To be fair, he is indeed talking about a "major" poll, and it's a "new" poll in the sense that it's only just been released (albeit the fieldwork is several months out of date, meaning that it's already been superseded by at least nine referendum polls that have been conducted more recently). But the slight snag is that the poll shows an increase of 6% in support for independence. Yes, that's right, I said "increase", not "decrease". And this is the news that is supposed to have left Mr Salmond in a state of despair? Presumably Dunt has already got his headline of "Heartbreak for Salmond as Scots only vote for independence by quite a narrow margin" all raring to go for September 19th.
You might be amused to learn that politics.co.uk describes itself, without any discernible trace of irony, as "an impartial political website with no political affiliation, which prides itself on standing out as an independent voice in a landscape where the norm is to nail your colours to the mast". I was going to issue the editor with a friendly hint that getting an openly Nat-bashing hack like Dunt with a proven track record of boastful ignorance on Scottish matters to pen a "news" article like this might not be the ideal way of burnishing the website's desired image of studied neutrality. But it turns out that Dunt actually IS the editor. The mind boggles. Who in God's name is the deputy editor of this oasis of impartiality - Nigel Farage?
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To turn to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey itself, the headline figures on independence (using the traditional multi-option question) are hopelessly tainted by numerous methodological problems, not least the pejorative wording about an independent Scotland being "separate from the UK". All it needed was the addition of the word "entirely" (as in "entirely separate from the UK") and it would have been Alan Cochrane's idea of polling heaven. Another flaw is the suggestion in one of the options that an independent Scotland might be outside the EU, whereas there is no balancing option to take account of the fact that Scotland may be forced out of the EU if it remains part of the UK - and possibly within quite a short timescale. There is also no Devo Max option offered, with respondents effectively forced to choose between independence, Devo-current, Devo-minus, and the outright abolition of the Scottish Parliament. Given that we know from the results of another question that the public would be likely to vote "Yes" in a referendum on Devo Max by a margin of almost 2-1, it's impossible to make sense of the headline results showing a significant plurality for Devo-current - after all, Devo Max is far closer to independence than it is to Devo-current. The contradiction can only really be put down to the misleading and near-obsolete wording of a question that ought to have been abandoned years ago. So all we can meaningfully take from the headline figures is the trend, namely a 6% increase in support for independence, a 6% decrease in support for devolution, and a 2% decrease in support for abolishing the Scottish Parliament.
It's obviously a good thing that the actual referendum question was posed this time around, but we can't really deduce very much from that result either, as there are no baseline figures from previous years to work with. We also know that the referendum question was only asked after the traditional multi-option question and a second tortuously-worded multi-option question about where governmental powers should lie. And while I don't want to be unkind to Professor John Curtice (he isn't Ian Dunt), you don't have to look far for the double standards when he analyses research that he was directly involved in. It's only a few months since he was scathing to the point of absurdity about a perfectly credible Panelbase poll showing a narrow lead for the pro-independence campaign, solely on the grounds that the referendum question was put to respondents third, rather than first. Well, he's openly admitting that his own SSAS poll posed the referendum question at least third, and quite possibly much later in the sequence - so where's his equivalent disclaimer that the results can't be taken seriously? It doesn't seem to be forthcoming so far.
Perhaps the most spectacular finding of the survey is that the anti-independence campaign's cynical attempts to sow doubts about an independent Scotland's future within the sterling zone have catastrophically failed - a full 57% of respondents expect that Scotland will still be using the pound a few years after independence, compared to just 21% who think it will be using the euro, and 16% who think it will be using its own currency.
Encouragingly, the figures on national identity show a modest move towards Scottishness...
More or wholly Scottish : 54% (+1)
More or wholly British : 10% (-1)
Equally Scottish and British : 29% (-1)
That's the good news, but the bad news is that this only very slightly checks a long-term trend away from Scottishness - until 2006, the figure for a wholly or predominantly Scottish identity was routinely well above 60%. It's not entirely clear why this apparent change has happened - as Scottish Skier always points out, national identity isn't normally a changeable thing like voting intention. It may simply be that people who would previously have said they were predominantly Scottish are now telling pollsters something different due to changing fashion, rather than any real change in how they actually feel. That theory is at least partly borne out by several other polls that have found that the "equally Scottish and British" group are by no means a no-go area for the pro-independence campaign, which you would certainly expect them to be if the 'best of both worlds' rhetoric had any real validity. It seems that at least some people are intelligent enough to realise that if it's possible to feel Scottish without needing a sovereign Scottish state, it must by definition be equally possible to feel British without needing a sovereign British state.
Of course, the other possible explanation for the change in the national identity figures is that some elderly "Scottish" people have died off since 2006 and been replaced by "British" young people. But regardless of Jan Eichhorn's wild theorising about the impact of Facebook, that is highly implausible - there is no credible evidence at all that young people are more likely than their elders to feel British, and if anything the reverse is more likely to be true.