More devolution for Scotland within the UK?
While support for leaving the Union may only be a minority position at present, and as we saw earlier (Figure 7.1) a majority (58 per cent) favour some form of devolved government, this does not necessarily mean the Scottish public are happy with the current devolution settlement. After all, Scottish Social Attitudes has persistently found that far fewer people (in 2011, 38 per cent) feel that the Scottish Government has most influence over the way that Scotland is run than feel it should have most influence (in 2011, 78 per cent) (Ormston and Reid, 2012).6 This contrast would certainly suggest that a move towards more powerful devolved institutions would be in step with the broad thrust of public opinion.
Views in Scotland on who "ought to make most of the important decisions for Scotland" in various policy areas provide more precise evidence for that assertion. As Table 7.5 shows, in 2010 two-thirds of Scottish Social Attitudes respondents said that the Scottish Parliament ought to have that role so far as the health service is concerned, while almost as many said the same about schools. These of course are both areas where primary responsibility already lies with the Scottish Parliament. However, as many said the same of welfare benefits, and nearly three in five said so for taxes, both of which are still largely the preserve of Westminster. The one policy area where a majority of people in Scotland feel that decisions should be made by the UK government is defence and foreign affairs, where only around three in ten reckon the Scottish Parliament should make the decisions.
Responsibility for defence and foreign affairs is, of course, arguably the essence of being an independent state. This last finding is thus in line with our earlier evidence on the level of support for independence, at around three in ten. But otherwise, it would seem that the instinctive reaction of the majority of people in Scotland is that decisions about the country's domestic affairs, including the financially crucial areas of taxation and welfare benefits, should be made in Edinburgh. It is often argued that these two areas - and especially welfare benefits - should remain primarily a UK-wide responsibility because the resources for insuring individuals and communities against the risks (such as unemployment) to which they are subject are best pooled across the country as a whole. At the same time, opponents of devolving benefits argue that a common welfare system is crucial to ensuring that all UK citizens enjoy exactly the same social rights (see, for example, Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2009). However, it seems that these arguments cut little ice with the Scottish public.
A critical reader of these findings might wonder whether references in our questions to "taxation" and "welfare benefits" are rather abstract. Perhaps some survey respondents do not fully appreciate the implications of the proposition that decisions about these areas should primarily be made by the Scottish Parliament rather than the UK government. Maybe if we referred explicitly to specific, high profile taxes and benefits, the pattern of response might look different. These considerations prompted us to ask on our 2011 survey who should make most of the important decisions for Scotland about "the basic rate of income tax" and "the old age pension paid out by government".7 However, in practice the answers proved to be little different from those shown in Table 7.5. Sixty-eight per cent say the Scottish Parliament should make decisions about the basic rate of income tax, while 65 per cent say the same of the old age pension. Just 29 and 33 per cent respectively nominate the UK government.8 So it appears that - whatever way the question is asked - there is majority support in Scotland for devolving responsibility for the bulk of the country's domestic affairs, including the key areas of taxes and benefits, to the devolved institutions.
However, this does not mean that some form of 'devolution max' is necessarily the option for Scotland's future that is most preferred by a majority living north of the border. This becomes apparent in the pattern of responses to a question on Scotland's constitutional future that has been asked on Scottish Social Attitudes in the last two years. Unlike the question summarised in Table 7.1, this more recent question includes an option intended to refer to 'devolution max'. The question reads as follows:
Which of the statements on this card comes closest to your view about who should make government decisions for Scotland?
The Scottish Parliament should make all the decisions for Scotland
The UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else
The UK government should make decisions about taxes, benefits and defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide the rest
The UK government should make all decisions for Scotland
The first statement is intended to imply independence (without referring explicitly to that word). The second is intended to describe 'devolution max', while the third and fourth statements refer to the status quo and no devolution at all respectively.
As Table 7.6 shows, in fact the principle of 'home rule' or 'devolution max' appears to be the first preference of only around three in ten people in Scotland and is apparently only a little more popular than the status quo. Meanwhile, in our most recent survey at least, it appears to be less popular than independence which, when described as it is here, attracts rather more support than it did at the question reported in Figure 7.1 (albeit still only from a minority).9 Evidently there is something of a puzzle to be unravelled here.
The solution is, in fact, relatively simple. Most people who believe that Scotland should be independent also believe taxation and welfare benefits should be decided by the Scottish Parliament.10 But so too do over half of those who oppose independence.11 Thus the responses reported in Table 7.5 give the impression that 'devolution max' has majority support not because it is necessarily the single most popular option, but rather because it is the one option around which both 'nationalists' and many 'unionists' can seemingly potentially coalesce. It is perhaps not so surprising after all that the SNP have been willing to keep open the possibility that a 'second question' on more devolution might appear on the ballot paper, while both the UK government and some Labour politicians have indicated a willingness to contemplate further devolution too.
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- Such a commitment had also been included in the SNP's 2007 election manifesto. However, as a minority government between 2007 and 2011, the SNP lacked the votes in the Scottish Parliament needed to pass legislation authorising a ballot.
- In the case of the first two items the unweighted and weighted sample size in 1997 is 676. In the case of the remaining items the unweighted size is 657 and the weighted 659. The unweighted sample size for all items in 2011 is 1156 and the weighted 1167.
- Support for independence has been modelled using binary logistic regression in which the dependent variable is support for independence (either inside or outside the European Union) versus any other response. Confidence in independence has been modelled using ordinal logistic regression in which the dependent variable is a five-point scale ranging from "very confident" to "very worried".
- In contrast to binary logistic regression, the ordinal logistic procedure in SPSS does not provide a stepwise facility. This means we do not know the order in which the variables would be entered using such an approach. However, an alternative analysis of the data on confidence in independence using stepwise binary logistic regression revealed that the order in which the variables were entered using that approach was much the same as the order of the Wald scores reported by the ordinal regression.
- Bases for Table 7.3 are as follows:
- The full question wording was as follows:
Which of the following do you think has most influence over the way Scotland is run?
And which do you think ought to have most influence over the way Scotland is run?
[the Scottish Government, the UK government at Westminster, local councils in Scotland, the European Union]
- Note that, unlike the questions reported in Table 7.5, these questions did not offer the answer options "local councils in Scotland" or "European Union". As so few respondents chose these options when they were offered, their exclusion will have made little or no material difference to the pattern of response.
- We should note though that the balance in favour of decisions being made in Edinburgh rather than London is in both cases somewhat less than for the already devolved area of university tuition fees, where no less than 86 per cent think decisions should be taken by the Scottish Parliament and only 10 per cent say responsibility should lie with Westminster.
- Note that in contrast to the question reported at Figure 7.1, independence is not referred to here as involving 'separation' from the rest of the UK. In general, survey questions that include 'separation' in their description of independence have tended to elicit lower levels of support than those that do not.
- In the case of welfare benefits, the relevant figure in 2010 was 82 per cent while in the cass of taxes it was 83 per cent.
- The relevant 2010 figures are 61 per cent for welfare benefits and 54 per cent for taxes.
- Debarring Scottish MPs from voting on English laws would not necessarily prove unpopular with the general public north of the border either. When the question presented in Table 7.8 was last asked by Scottish Social Attitudes, in 2009, 47 per cent agreed that Scottish MPs should not vote on English laws, while only 22 per cent disagreed.
- In 2004-2006 the second option read "that makes decisions about the region's economy, planning and housing". The 2003 survey carried both versions of this option and demonstrated that the difference of wording did not make a material difference to the pattern of response. In Figure 7.2 the figures shown for 2003 are those for the two versions combined.
- It has also been suggested that the creation of directly elected mayors in the major cities of England might provide a focus for greater devolution in a manner that, along with the creation of the Greater London Assembly, it has already done. However, as the Constitutional reform chapter shows, public opinion towards directly elected mayors is somewhat equivocal and, in practice, when 10 of England's largest provincial cities were asked in May 2012 to vote in a referendum on whether they should have such a mayor, only one voted in favour.
- This increase would appear to be attributable to the increased concern about Scotland's share of public spending, albeit not wholly so. Those who think that Scotland secures more than its fair share are markedly more likely to support Scottish independence (33 per cent) than are those who do not think it secures more than its fair share (19 per cent). The increase in support for Scottish independence between 2007 and 2011 among those who say that Scotland secures more than its fair share is, at five points, a little less than the seven point increase in the population as a whole. At the same time, the equivalent figure among those who feel Scotland does not secure more than its fair share is, at two points, well below the general increase of seven. Some of that overall increase of seven points must therefore have arisen because of the rise between 2007 and 2011 in the proportion who think that Scotland secures more than its fair share.
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