Do 59% back Scotland staying in the UK?

In a comment article, Pamela Nash (chief executive of Scotland in Union) claimed that:

This is despite there being consistent evidence that I am representing the majority of people in Scotland; a huge 59 per cent would vote to remain in the UK, according to a new poll.

This article examines this claim, and question wording concerning Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom.

‘Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom…’

The figure comes from a Survation internet panel conducted on 12–16th September 2019, funded by Scotland in Union. It is not explicitly acknowledged in Nash’s article that the question Survation asked is different to the one put to Scots in 2014:

If there was a referendum tomorrow with the question ‘Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?’, how would you vote?

In the sample of 1,003 Scottish adults aged 16 or over, 54% responded ‘Remain’ and 37% said ‘Leave’. Removing those undecided and refused people gives the 59% figure Nash cites.

This is the third time that Survation have asked this quasi-2016 formulation. The central estimates for ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ are stable from November 2018 to September 2019:

It does not appear

In the latest reading, the estimated Remain lead is nearly the same in September 2019 (17 points) as in November 2018 (18 points). This stability undermines the article’s headline that independence supporters are ‘turning’.

Repeating the question

When the 2014 question is repeated, latest polls suggest the split in opinion is much closer. Panelbase (for The Sunday Times) conducted their poll on 18–20th June, estimating 48% backed No and 46% chose No.

A Lord Ashcroft-badged poll¹— which did not include 16 and 17-year-old Scots in the sample — estimated a small Yes lead (Yes on 46%, No on 43%) at the start of August.

YouGov (for The Times) conducted a poll on 30th August — 3rd September, estimating a thin No lead: 44% to 43%. These close surveys raise the question: who is changing their view?

As Prof John Curtice (University of Strathclyde) states:

All of this increase in support for Yes registered by the polls has occurred among those who voted Remain. On average, the five polls find that 57% of Remain voters would now back Yes, compared with 50% in the second half of last year.

This net pattern contradicts what Nash asserts: the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union appears to be inducing No voters who backed Remain in 2016 to reconsider their 2014 choice.

What to look out for

In 2014, the Scottish referendum question was:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Scots could vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The question is simple, but potentially imbalanced. People are asked to consider one possibility, without the other.

The proposed question was initially ‘do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?’, which has clear issues of acquiescence bias.

When looking at Scottish independence polling, you should consider:

  • Is the 2014 question being asked again, or is different wording being used? Different question wordings can yield different results. We should compare consistent questions over time.
  • Who is included in the sample? Polls in Great Britain typically ask resident adults aged 18 or over. For the Scottish independence referendum, 16 and 17-year-old people could also vote.

The Survation question for Scotland in Union may inadvertently cause cognitive issues, due to its similar formulation to the 2016 EU referendum question.

The Electoral Commission will review the question, even if the same wording is put forward by the Scottish government.

¹Lord Ashcroft Polling is not a polling company, but uses members of the British Polling Council for its fieldwork.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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