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The option not on the table: Attitudes to more devolution

Author: John Curtice

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Summary

The Scottish referendum in 2014 will ask people one question – whether they think Scotland should be an independent country. Yet many surveys and polls suggest that another option – significantly extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament – might be better able than independence to attract support from a majority of Scots. This briefing paper examines public attitudes to further devolution. We assess its popularity among different groups in Scotland and look at what powers people would like to see devolved. We explore what people expect the practical consequences of more devolution to be. And we look at how prepared Scotland is to accept the potential political consequences of ‘devo max’ – including a shift away from the block grant and further policy divergence between Scotland and England.

Introduction

When Scots go to the polls in September 2014, they will be asked only one question – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. Yet ever since the Scottish Government began its National Conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future in 2007, there has been growing evidence that a third option - involving significantly further devolution of powers to Holyrood - might be more popular than either the status quo or independence. In response to this, all three principal Unionist parties have now either put forward proposals for extending devolution or committed to proposing a new plan for devolution. Variously dubbed ‘devo max’, ‘devo more’ or ‘devo plus’, the schemes proposed to date have primarily focused on further devolution of taxes.

All have stopped short of proposing significant devolution of welfare benefits, on the grounds that a UKwide benefits system is a key part of sharing ‘risks and resources’ across the UK  (Scottish Labour Party) and is essential to ensuring common ‘living standards and entitlements’ (Scottish Liberal Democrats).

In this paper, we leave aside questions of what might be technically or legally possible in terms of further devolution, and instead look at what the public thinks. For any scheme of further devolution to be successful and enduring, it has not only to be legally feasible, but also to meet the aspirations and expectations of the people of Scotland.

Our data comes primarily from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA). Run since 1999 by ScotCen Social Research, an independent, not-for-profit research organisation, SSA is a high quality survey, conducted face to face (with a self-completion section) using probability sampling methods. We also use data from recent opinion polls, particularly those that asked how people might have voted were there an option to vote for or against ‘devo max’ on the referendum ballot paper.