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How important is economics in the debate on Scottish independence?

Voters’ perceptions of the economic outcomes of independence played an important role in the result of Scotland’s referendum in 2014. Following Brexit, the debate is no longer just about Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, but also the European Union.

Scottish voters’ evaluations of the economic consequences of independence played a central role in the choice that they made in the 2014 referendum (Curtice, 2021).

In their final poll conducted before the vote, YouGov found that no less than 98% of those who said the country would be worse off if Scotland became independent were backing ‘No’ in response to the question that the referendum asked: ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’. On the other hand, 97% of those who felt the country would be better off intended to vote ‘Yes’.

Similarly, Opinium reported that 99% of those who thought that independence would benefit the economy were backing leaving the rest of the UK, while 98% of those who felt the economy would be damaged were intending to vote to remain within the Union.

The fact that those who thought Scotland would be worse off (47%) outnumbered those who believed it would be better off (35%), and that more people felt that the economy would be damaged (45%) than believed it would benefit (37%) undoubtedly put the ‘No’ side at a decided – and perhaps even decisive – advantage. This was borne out when the Scottish electorate voted 55% to 45% in favour of remaining in the Union.

In contrast to the outcome of the referendum seven and a half years ago, Scotland now –  according to the polls at least – is evenly divided in its attitude towards independence (see Figure 1). On average, the last half dozen polls (undertaken between late October 2021 and mid-January 2022) put votes in favour in independence at 50% and against independence at 50%. Indeed, support for the two sides has been oscillating around the 50:50 mark for the last three years.

Figure 1: Independence referendum vote intention since the EU referendum

Source: What Scotland thinks. Note: Based on polls that asked how people would vote in response to the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. Those saying ‘Don’t Know’ or ‘Would not vote’ excluded.

Does this signal that there has been a change in how Scots view the economic consequences of independence?

Only a few polls have more recently asked the same question about the economics of independence as they asked before the 2014 referendum. But those that have done so suggest that there has only been a marginal shift in voters’ outlook.

YouGov reported in January 2020 that 34% now believe that Scotland would be better off if it were independent (down three points on 2014), while 42% felt it would be worse off (a drop of five points). Similarly, Opinium reported in September 2021 that 35% (down two points) now thought that independence would benefit the economy, while 40% (a drop of five points) believed it would be damaged.

In short, at most there has been a slightly bigger drop in the proportion of voters who now have a negative assessment of the economic consequences of independence than there has in the proportion who take a positive view. The biggest difference is the growth of those who say that independence would not make much difference (or say they don’t know).

That said, there are other recent polls suggesting that voters are rather more optimistic about the economic consequences of Scottish independence than these results imply.

In September 2020, JL Partners suggested that those who agreed (40%) that ‘Scotland's economy would be stronger as an independent country’ matched the 39% who disagreed. The previous month, Panelbase found that as many as 48% agreed that ‘independence would be good for Scotland’s economy’, while only 38% disagreed. Meanwhile, in October 2020, Survation reported that 45% agreed that ‘independence would be good for the Scottish economy in the long run’, while 34% disagreed.

But how questions are asked in polls matters. It should be noted that each of these questions invites people to indicate whether they agree or disagree with a pro-independence proposition. One of the potential pitfalls with this approach is that people are more willing to agree than they are to disagree with more or less any proposition (Krosnick, 1999).

Indeed, one indication of this tendency lies in the fact that when JL Partners presented the same respondents in September 2020 with the pro-Union proposition that ‘Scotland's economy would be stronger in the United Kingdom’, there were clearly more (45%) who said they agreed than stated that they disagreed (34%).

What other issues will inform voters’ decisions?

Still, we should remember that the choice that would be put before voters if Scotland were to have a second independence referendum would not simply be whether they are for or against independence. They would be asked to compare the anticipated consequences of independence with those of being part of the UK.

While, on balance, voters may still be inclined to be pessimistic about the consequences of independence, they may not be that optimistic about Scotland’s economic prospects as part of the UK either. Indeed, while in their September 2020 poll, JL Partners found that voters were inclined to the believe that if the country became independent, Scotland’s economy would go down rather than up over the next ten years (by 39% to 34%), they also took the view – by 41% to 22% - that the same would happen if Scotland remained in the UK.

As a result, we should perhaps not be surprised that when voters are invited directly to compare the economic prospects of independence and being part of the UK, more than one poll has found voters to be more or less evenly divided.

In JL Partners’ September 2020 poll, 43% said that Scotland’s economy would be better if it were an independent country, while 43% indicated that it would be better of Scotland were part of the UK. Similarly, Hanbury Strategy found in February 2021 that while 35% thought that the economy and taxes would be better as part of the UK, 35% stated that they would be better in an independent Scotland. Perhaps of equal note is that as many as 30% said that it would not make much difference or that they did not know which would be better.

The referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016 has added another dimension to a possible referendum on Scottish independence. The choice is no longer simply between independence and the Union.

Rather, given the continued opposition of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to Brexit, we can anticipate that any second referendum would be framed as a choice between an independent Scotland that would seek to rejoin the EU and a Scotland that was part of the UK but still outside the EU.

There is little doubt that whatever their views about the economics of independence, voters in Scotland are pessimistic about the consequences of leaving the EU (see Curtice and Montagu, 2020). For example, in March 2021, YouGov found that 52% believed that Brexit had already had a negative impact on Scotland’s economy, while just 5% said that it had had a positive impact.

Even among those who had voted ‘No’ in 2014, 43% said that it had had a negative impact. Meanwhile, only 22% told Panelbase in January 2021 that they thought Scotland would be financially better off as a result of Brexit, while twice as many said that the nation would be worse off. Again, the latter figure included 42% of those who voted for Scotland to remain part of the UK in 2014.

As a result of this pessimism about Brexit, when voters are asked to compare the likely consequences of Scottish independence with those of Brexit, independence does not always emerge as the less attractive prospect. In October 2019, Panelbase found that 45% thought that Scotland would be better off economically as an independent country within the EU, while just 35% thought it would be better off as part of the UK outside the EU.

The following month, another Panelbase poll found that 45% thought that independence would ‘offer a greater opportunity’ to the Scottish economy than Brexit, while only 24% took the opposite view. Moreover, when asked which option would pose the greater threat, slightly more said Brexit (39%) than independence (37%). At the same time, when in October 2020, Survation asked whether ‘independence would be more damaging to the Scottish economy than Brexit’, slightly more said that they disagreed (39%) than indicated that they agreed (37%).


Overall, then, the evidence suggests that there may still be slightly more who are doubtful than hopeful about the economic consequences of Scottish independence. But this is not necessarily robust against an invitation to compare the economic consequences of independence with the prospects for Scotland’s economy as part of the UK, and especially when respondents are reminded that being part of the UK means remaining outside the EU.

At the same time, we should remember the observation that many voters currently say either that they do not know what independence might bring or that they are inclined to think that it will not make much difference.

This is potentially a crucial group. Contrary to what one might anticipate, these voters are not evenly divided between those who support independence and those who back the Union. Rather, according to Opinium, they are nearly two to one in favour of Scotland becoming independent – just as they were in 2014.

For some voters, the feeling that independence will not make much difference either way may well be enough for them to back independence – much as it was enough for some people to vote in favour of leaving the EU in 2016 (Curtice, 2017).

If a second referendum on Scottish independence were called, unionists would need to win the economic argument in the eyes of voters. For nationalists, on the other hand, a draw might well be enough.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • John Curtice
Author: John Curtice (Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde, and Senior Research Fellow, ScotCen Social Research and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’)
Editors' note: This article is part of our series on Scottish independence - read more about the economic issues and the aims of this series here.
Picture by Vijit Bagh on Pexels
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