BBS EXCLUSIVE Poll Analysis: Survation 21st – 25th of June 2024 (Constitutional Questions)

Following on from yesterday’s part one analysis of the Ballot Box Scotland commissioned poll, which went through the usual voting intention plus some pet-topic questions on democratic reform, today we’ll be diving into some juicy constitutional questions. What happens if you put the constitutional debate to people in different ways? What if you give them a range of options? Are people even clear on what they are voting for? Let’s find out!

As a reminder, this poll was made possible through my fundraiser last month and the generous support of the Herald, with whom I have been co-publishing the findings. You can read further analysis from me in the Herald here. Survation ran this poll for us from the 21st to 25th of June. Tables are available here.

Reframing the Independence Question

(I promise not all intros to the questions are as long as this one – this one just has background it’s worth talking about.)

Folk who follow Scottish polling at least moderately closely will have undoubtedly seen the occasional poll that doesn’t ask the established 2014 Independence Referendum question: “Should Scotland be an Independent country? Yes/No”. Instead, something along the lines of “Should Scotland leave or remain part of the United Kingdom?” is asked, with the options presented to voters as Leave/Remain.

I’ve been notably and publicly cool on that approach, especially pushing back on the silly idea the 2016 EU Referendum set a “precedent” for such a framing. If 2014 didn’t set a precedent for 2016 to use Yes/No, 2016 can’t have set a precedent for all constitutional referendums to use Leave/Remain. Generally speaking, some on the Pro-Union side just like that framing because it feels nice for them to see a bigger lead for the Union when it’s used.

In one particularly impressive example of spin, a Pro-Union campaign organisation (perfectly legitimate organisation to be, I should add!) ran a poll asking both the standard Yes-No question and also a Leave-Remain one. This found a quite weighty difference between the two, with support for the Union option significantly higher, and thus for Independence lower, on the Leave-Remain version. This, they declared, showed that Yes-No was biased towards Independence, whilst Leave-Remain was a more neutral framing.

If you’ve got a quick analytical brain, you might immediately spot the glaring issue: how, exactly, does that prove Leave-Remain is a more “neutral” formulation? All we know is it was more favourable for the Pro-Union side. A Pro-Independence campaign organisation could have run exactly the same poll, asked exactly the same people, got exactly the same response, and just as defensibly come to exactly the opposite conclusion: since support for the Union was higher with Leave-Remain, that’s the version that’s biased towards the Union, and thus Yes-No is the neutral framing.

That’s all that exercise told us: you get a somewhat different result if you ask the question somewhat differently. Deciding the version that suits your side better is the neutral one and the alternative is biased would be transparent hackery at the best of times. To do so using the same Leave-Remain framing that the Brexit referendum used, and which has carved those terms indelibly into our brains, is actually so nonsensical as to be mildly offensive. C’mon, how daft do you think people are?

Here’s the thing though: I do think there’s a very strong case to say that we shouldn’t use Yes/No in any future referendum, but nor should we use Leave/Remain. I personally agree that as much as is possible, you want to aim for a neutral presentation. With Yes/No, Yes is obviously the more inherently positive word – “No Thanks” may have won the day in 2014, but I’m sure even those behind it can agree it wasn’t exactly a thrilling tagline. By the same token, Leave/Remain are so completely linked with Brexit that the mere words themselves have been permanently tinged by the association, and given how strongly Remain Scotland was, that’s going to be seen by many as the positive word.

I therefore asked what I thought was a more genuinely neutral framing. Rather than giving each campaign the ability – or need – to rely on a particular word that may or may not fairly encapsulate what they want to communicate, I simply asked: “Which of the following statements is closest your your view?” with the options being “Scotland should be part of the United Kingdom” versus “Scotland should be an Independent Country“.

I’m not saying this is a perfect framing – that would be up to the Electoral Commission to decide – but I reckon this has the advantage that you can’t really say either answer is more or less positive. Indeed, the only word you could pick out from each response that you could hang a campaign on would be “United” vs “Independent”. Both of those are words that have quite positive connotations in different circumstances, and both have the advantage of unarguably describing each camp’s respective goal.

I’d also add that for maximum comparative power, you’d probably want to poll both questions with separate response panels multiple times. As it stands, this is an interesting but not yet cast-iron alternative. Anyway, that long blurb over, here’s what it came out as:

Interestingly enough, this does indeed show a little bit of a difference compared to the Yes/No framing, giving the Union option an additional 3% lead over Independence. However, it’s still only a little bit higher than the levels of support established in 2014. Even an assumption that most Don’t Knows would lean towards the status quo would still see Yes in the low-40%’s. 

As much as I think we should and will use a different question, I also reckon the difference it’ll make to the final outcome would be even smaller than this. Throwing a slightly different question at people in a poll just isn’t the same as doing so following the months-long, intense campaign we’d have with any actual referendum. That will make it crystal clear to voters what each option means. In short, we should strive for the most neutral framing possible as a matter of fairness, but after the heat of a campaign it’s unlikely to swing it for either side.

The Constitutional Non-Binary

For most of the decade since the referendum, Scottish politics has felt pretty polarised into a binary Independence vs the Union dynamic. For the first time since 2014 I feel that’s played a very limited role in this election campaign, but for so long as it was the dominant factor, parties calling for more nuance really struggled to cut through.

Scotland’s constitutional divide clearly bolstered the position of both the SNP and Conservatives, the parties most associated with either option. That came at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems who struggled to be heard shouting “actually, lots more powers is a third, different option!” Maybe it is, but it turned out to be a lot fuzzier and less easy to sell.

We’ve also seen, especially in the past few years, a strengthening of outright anti-Devolution positions. There was a period for a long while where there wasn’t anyone really advocating for abolition, even if some members of the public supported doing so. That has changed, with some small-but-vocal groups online actively calling for Holyrood to be shuttered, and an “Abolish the Scottish Parliament” party standing to little success in 2021. As such, it felt worthwhile asking about that viewpoint too.

Free Choice between Options

I’d asked this in the previous BBS-commissioned poll, so changes are versus that poll in March 2022. The full question (duplicating questions asked at UK-level by Make Votes Matter) was: “Imagine that a future referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status offered multiple choices. Which of the following would you vote for?”

The options for this question were:

  • Independence
  • Current level of Devolution within the Union
  • Abolishing the Scottish Parliament
  • Further Devolution within the Union

Some really interesting findings here. First up, Independence is by far the single most popular option, with twice as much support as for the current level of Devolution. Indeed, almost as many people (a statistical tie) back abolishing the Scottish Parliament entirely as keeping it as-is. That means that placing absolutely dead last is the idea of further Devolution. That isn’t actually all that much of a surprise, as other polls asking a three-option version of this (without the abolish option) have also consistently found it to be the least favoured.

That’s perhaps a bit of a spanner in Labour’s works, as the party that has often found itself arguing that it believes in something “better” than either Independence or the Status Quo, sometimes with misty-eyed appeals to the concept of Federalism (more on that later…). I’ve always been frankly quite sceptical of that because it’s one thing for constitutionally-obsessed Scots to talk about Federalism, it’s another entirely to get people in England to want to change how they are governed for our benefit, but again, getting ahead of myself.

What really complicates things for Labour is that over three-quarters of the 48% who want more powers want Independence, whilst only a quarter of the 44% who selected an explicitly Pro-Union option want more powers. Squaring that circle could be very difficult for the party. 62% of its Westminster voters went for one of the Pro-Union options, but of that number only 20% backed more powers, so charging ahead with them could alienate a lot of support. At the same time, an equal 20% of the party’s voters said they preferred Independence in this question, so failing to deliver any more powers risks losing support with that group. 

Forced Choices

If we accept that based on the previous question there’s overwhelming support for the Scottish Parliament’s existence, at 65% to 16%, it’s reasonable to say that there’s no basis for actually including abolition in any future ballot. We could therefore then force the question back into a binary in the form: “If you had to choose between the following options for Scotland’s constitutional status, which would you pick?” This question was asked twice with Further Devolution pitted against the status quo on one hand, or Independence on the other.

The story here is that whilst Further Devolution is the least popular option by itself, it comes out on top against Current Devolution or, more comfortably, Independence. That shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise, as of course you’d expect people who want to abolish Holyrood to either keep it as-is or even give it more powers, rather than see Scotland become Independent. Likewise, hardly a shocker that your average Independence supporter would rather draw more powers away from Westminster, and if that was the only option on the table view it as better than nothing.

Nobody's Fussed about Federalism

Understanding of what Federalism means

Further Devolution isn’t the only game in town for extending Holyrood’s suite of powers within the Union. Both the Liberal Democrats (more strongly, in my view) and Labour (really mostly constrained to sections of Scottish Labour) theoretically support a Federal UK, which would deliver significant changes in how Scotland was governed. To start with, I wondered how well people even understood the concept, asking: “Some parties and organisations have suggested that further devolution should mean the United Kingdom is reformed to be a Federation like the United States, Australia or Germany. How clear are you about what that would mean for the UK and Scotland?”

As I have in a few points in this poll, I’ll admit to being a little bit surprised here. By a slender margin, more people say they are clear on what Federalism would mean than don’t, at 38% to 36% (rounding). The reason I’m surprised is because I’m a political nerd and I don’t have the faintest bloody idea, because absolutely nobody who would ever be in a position to enact it has ever bothered their backside to put forward a clear proposal!

What is Federalism, in a UK context? What further powers will it give Scotland that can’t be granted through Devolution? What does it mean for relations between the nations and the Federal UK Government? How will those be given institutional voice – for example, how will the Senate balance the need for enhanced representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, against the fact England has the overwhelming majority of the population? 

You may or may not remember that Gordon Brown published his long awaited paper on the Union at the end of 2022. If you do remember, you probably know what’s coming. If you did forget, don’t worry, that’s understandable, because after years of being breathlessly told about Brown’s plan to save the Union, the actual paper was the dampest squib in the history of damp squibs. It was published, and absolutely nobody has thought about it since that day.

It certainly didn’t outline a truly Federal structure for the UK, that’s for sure – it couldn’t even commit to the long-trailed “Senate” of the Nations and Regions, it being reported before publication that Starmer had insisted on watering that down to an “Assembly”. That Assembly would have the ability – but not the requirement – to block any legislation it felt went against Devolution. “We’ll maybe uphold Devolution, whilst preserving the ultimate sovereignty of the UK Parliament” is by definition not Federalism, which requires shared sovereignty.

If I sound a bit exasperated in this section, it’s because I am. Not with the voters, surprised as I am by their claims, but by the fact that a decade on from the Independence Referendum, Federalism remains a Mr Burns Mystery Box of an idea. Why? Because, as I hinted in an earlier question, only us weirdo Scots are always banging on about the constitution. The majority of people and politicians in England simply don’t have the same obsession, and you can’t reform the UK into a Federation without the say-so of one of its constituent nations. Yet, still it gets trotted out as an obvious and fantastic idea up here, without anyone being honest about that enormous hurdle.

Support for Federalism

My grumbling about the lack of detail about the concept aside, the obvious next step was to ask: “To what extend would you support or oppose a Federal UK?”

What really jumps out here is just how utterly apathetic people are about Federalism. A majority of 55% are either outright neutral or don’t know how they feel about the idea. Of people who do have a view on it, opposition outstrips support at 25% to 20%, and at 14% strong opposition is nearly three times as prevalent as the 5% who strongly support the idea. To a certain extent, this actually just further backs up the findings of the multi-option question earlier on. Fundamentally, Federalism is a “more powers” option, so why would it have vastly more support than simply offering “Further Devolution” did?

Just like with Further Devolution, it’s also striking how unpopular Federalism is with the Pro-Union side – diving into the tables, only 12% of people who said they’d vote No in the standard IndyRef question said they support a Federal UK, compared to 36% who oppose it. Ironically enough, most of the support for Federalism comes from people who said Yes to that question, split 33% supportive to 15% opposed.

First and Second Constitutional Preferences

For absolutely final question in the poll, respondents were asked: “Which of the following statements on Scotland’s constitutional statues comes closest to your view?”

  • I would prefer Scottish Independence, but would support a Federal UK otherwise
  • I would prefer the current level of Scottish Devolution, but would support a Federal UK otherwise
  • I would prefer to abolish the Scottish Parliament, but would support Devolution or a Federal UK otherwise
  • I would prefer a Federal UK, but would support the current level of Scottish Devolution otherwise
  • I would prefer a Federal UK, but would support Scottish Independence otherwise

Before getting into the actual options, it’s worth acknowledging that a third of respondents said they don’t know here. This is a slightly more complex way of framing things, and it’s understandable that having a poll slapped down in front of you then trying to pin down an exact preference pairing that reflects you could be tough. The options also effectively (bar Abolish) only move sort of one degree, as it were, to the other side of the primary preference. Odd as it may sound, there may perhaps be a few people who want Independence but would rather have the current level of Devolution rather than Federalism!

Anyway, similar to the other multi-choice framing, Independence is the most popular single option. A real spicy finding here with this framing is that (after rounding) there’s a straight tie at 34% between people who want Independence if Federalism isn’t on the table, and those whose top two preferences are both for a Pro-Union option. Spicy, but not that meaningful – remember, there’s a huge pile of don’t knows! Again though, see how the options for Federalism are bottom of the pile overall. Collectively they do get more than either of the two other Pro-Union options, but support is still pretty modest.

Overall, whilst the binary Yes-No to Independence question hasn’t dominated this election campaign the way it has every other election since 2014, that relative quiet disguises the fact it does still very much define how Scots feel about the constitution. Even as Labour, the self-declared “Party of Devolution”, prepares to take office at Westminster and hopes to do similar at Holyrood in 2026, it faces an uphill battle to convince voters that more powers short of Independence is a truly sustainable, long-term position. 

And with that, I can finally say that’s a wrap on this Ballot Box Scotland commissioned poll. I’d like to offer an enormous thank you both to the many, many supporters of this project who dipped your hands into their pockets to donate to my crowdfunder at the start of the campaign, and to the Herald for stepping in with the generous offer to split the cost of the poll for a shared exclusive.

There’s just one week left until the election, and I don’t have any more tricks up my sleeve for pre-election content. I’ll do my best to keep up with polls (there were two others published today with fieldwork overlapping with this one that I’ll need to write up) and I’ll do one final prediction piece just before polls open. Otherwise, it’s a case of making sure I have everything in order for count night.

As ever, I’d really like to emphasise that if you’ve enjoyed my work and can afford to do so, please do chip in to donate via the link below. Going through all this data was a lot of fun, but it means I’ve had two 16-hour working days in a row because I still have my day job to do, plus all the work I did on Tuesday night when I first got the data through.

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
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