The BBC have released details of a Scottish 'political priorities' poll they commissioned from Ipsos-Mori. It's disappointing to have to say this, but the way the results have been presented is very misleading. The finding that leaps out at me is that a whopping 32% of respondents give an independence referendum within the next five years a 10/10 rating - ie. they think it is "very important" that it should happen. The only policy positions that are rated "very important" by a slightly higher number of people are -
* Give the Scottish Parliament full control of income tax (34%)
* Give the Scottish Parliament full control of welfare benefits (35%)
* Give the Scottish Parliament the power to increase benefits and old age pensions (38%)
* Guarantee that old age pensions will rise over the next five years (37%)
* Stop energy companies from increasing prices for 20 months (41%)
* Increase the minimum wage for those aged 21 and over from £6.50 to £7.85 an hour (43%)
* Stop immigrants from the rest of the EU claiming benefits until they have been in the UK for at least four years (33%)
* Ensure authorities cannot access personal data unless an individual is suspected of taking part in an illegal activity (36%)
So of the eight policy positions that are even more wildly popular than an early independence referendum, three involve giving vastly more powers to the Scottish Parliament (and certainly more than are on offer from any of the London parties). That does not look to me like a self-government genie that has been forced back into its bottle.
There are no less than thirteen policy positions that are rated by fewer people as "very important" than a second independence referendum within the next five years. They are -
* Impose a limit on the number of people coming to live in the UK (29%)
* Hold a referendum to ask people whether they wish to stay in or leave the EU (27%)
* Increase the amount spent on the armed forces (20%)
* Give the Scottish Parliament control of all areas of policy apart from foreign affairs and defence (28%)
* Bring the railways into public ownership (23%)
* Increase spending on public services even if that means the deficit doesn't get eliminated by the end of the next parliament in 2020 (13%)
* Eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament in 2020 even if that means reduced spending on public services (4%)
* Reduce the amount the government borrows by cutting spending rather than by increasing taxes (10%)
* Put a cap on the total amount of welfare benefits paid to a household (19%)
* Increase the top rate of tax to 50p in the pound for those earning more than £150,000 a year (26%)
* Charge better-off older people for some things which are currently free to all older people (10%)
* Renew and upgrade Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent (8%)
* Reduce taxes even if that means cutting public services (3%)
There is also one policy that is rated very important by exactly the same proportion of respondents (32%) as an early second independence referendum - namely a mansion tax.
Of course it's not just the respondents that gave a 10/10 (very important) rating to the various policies who count. As we've discussed before in relation to ICM, polls that use a scale of 1-10 are extremely problematical, because in practice most people who want to give an "exact middle" rating will generally tend to give a 5 - even though technically that is on the lower end of the scale. Like ICM and Professor Curtice, Ipsos-Mori seem to have mistaken their respondents for statisticians, and are assuming that everyone realised that 6 is as close to the middle of the scale as 5. This, for example, is how they summarise the results on the referendum issue -
Hold another referendum on independence within the next five years :
7-10 (High priority) : 48%
5-6 (Medium priority) : 10%
1-4 (Low priority) : 42%
But if you group the results in the way that real people actually approach a 1-10 scale, this is how they look -
6-10 (High priority) : 51%
5 (Medium priority) : 7%
1-4 (Low priority) : 42%
There are a couple of other problems with the way the poll is being presented (particularly by the BBC, but to some extent also by Ipsos-Mori themselves). The first is that it isn't being sufficiently flagged up that the rider of "within the next five years" was added to the independence referendum issue, but only to a small minority of the other policy positions that were put to respondents. In other words, it had to clear a higher hurdle - we know from other polls that there are plenty of people out there who regard an independence referendum as a priority within ten years, but not within five. And yet in this poll those people will have been misleadingly grouped within the "low priority" category. In particular, it's impossible to make a fair comparison between the results relating to a second independence referendum and those relating to an EU referendum, because the "five years" rider was added to one but not to the other.
The other problem is that the BBC are only reporting the average rating that all respondents give to each policy position - which leaves a second independence referendum within five years with a rating of 5.6, lower than most other policies. But this only comes about because opinions on the subject are so polarised - no fewer than 31% of respondents give it a 1/10 rating (ie, "it should never happen"), thereby pulling the average way down. In a democracy, what really matters is whether a majority of people want something to happen - the strength of feeling among the minority who don't want it to happen is certainly of interest, but it doesn't negate the majority view.
What is less controversial about the reporting of the poll is that support for more powers for the Scottish Parliament is absolutely overwhelming, and goes way beyond the Smith Commission proposals. Even using Ipsos-Mori's dubious definition of what constitutes a high priority rating (anything between 7 and 10 on the 1-10 scale), a massive 57% of respondents give high priority to full-blown Devo Max, ie. the transfer of all powers apart from foreign affairs and defence. Needless to say there is even stronger support for specific powers to be devolved, rising to a peak of 69% of respondents who give high priority to Holyrood being given the power to increase benefits and old age pensions.
I'm sure a few eyebrows will be wryly raised at a BBC poll that omits a specific question on how high a priority the devolution of broadcasting is, although to be fair that issue is technically covered by the Devo Max question - ie. 57% of respondents implicitly give high priority to regulation of the BBC and other broadcasters being transferred to the Scottish Parliament.