Measuring public attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future

AQMeN and ScotCen Social Research were awarded a grant by the ESRC to conduct a survey of Scottish attitudes to independence and devolution. The survey was a module of questions in the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in 2013 and 2014. Results provided objective evidence to inform the debate leading up to the independence referendum in autumn 2014.

Maximising the impact of research on the independence debate required a combination of timely evidence and the capacity to analyse and disseminate this to its fullest potential. This project informed debate in the lead-up to the referendum in autumn 2014 by enhancing analysis of and extending the data available on public attitudes to Scotland’s constitutional future.

This project was part of the ESRC-funded Centre on Constitutional Change


Findings were published in a special edition of the journal Scottish Affairs in February 2014. 

This was a special section relating to the referendum on Scottish independence held on 18 September 2014. The six papers in this issue are all concerned with the evolution of public opinion in Scotland since 1999 using evidence from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which has been conducted in nearly every year since the Scottish Parliament was established.

Findings were also published on the What Scotland Thinks blog.

Findings were presented at a number of public events:
Scottish Social Attitudes 2014. The independence referendum campaign: Help or hindrance? – 12th August 2014- View the presentation by Lindsay Paterson and Jan Eichhorn on the AQMeN YouTube channel
Launch event for the special edition of the journal Scottish Affairs – 26th March 2014
Scottish Social Attitudes 2013. The Referendum: What Scotland thinks…so far.
Through the public’s eye: Researching attitudes on Scotland’s constitutional future with the Scottish Social Attitudes survey – 19th June 2014

Media coverage:

There was extensive media coverage of the SSA results, notably at key points such as:
November 2013: the Festival of Social Science event attracted coverage in The Guardian and Mail on Sunday.
December 2013: publication of teaching materials for schools attracted coverage in Times Education Supplement Scotland.
January 2014: coverage in almost every daily media outlet in Scotland of the launch conference for SSA 2013.
August 2014: again, coverage in almost every daily media outlet in Scotland, and in many London media outlets, for the launch conference of SSA 2014.

Training in quantitative analysis

By providing training in the analysis of existing data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey , the project created new expertise in the design and analysis of social surveys. Trainees learnt how to design and analyse data in the time series, and how to contribute to public debate through the use of timely evidence on key issues in the year prior to the referendum. The results were published in the journal Scottish Affairs in February 2014.  You can find our guides on how to use Scottish and UK datasets here.


The SSA, and the programme of research training, writing, public speaking and media engagement associated with the present grant, provided the only in-depth and impartial source of evidence on what voters thought throughout the course of the campaign. This programme thereby (a) provided critical scrutiny of the assertions of both sides, and (b) gave both sides (and the media) some guidance as to what the issues have been about which voters felt the need to be informed.
There are numerous examples of impact from this project, one being the impact on the new researchers who were trained in statistical methods with the help of the grant. The SSA analysis, especially through John Curtice’s frequent public appearances at conferences and in the news media, shaped many aspects of the debate, notably on:
• the importance of maximal devolution in people’s constitutional preferences
• predicting that the February 2013 currency intervention would not prove beneficial to the No side
• that people like social risks such as pensions being funded out of a UK pool (this point picked up particularly in speeches and writing by Gordon Brown, MP)

Moreover, the analysis from SSA 2013 that economics continued to remain central to voters’ decisions, which in the survey was focused on questions about how people would vote if they would be £500 better off under independence or under the union, had a clear impact on the kinds of appeals the campaigns have been making (as demonstrated recently by the claim that independence is worth £1000 per person per year and the one that the Union is worth £1400), and on journalistic and public understanding of what matters in the referendum.
Rachel Ormston’s prior analysis of the gender differences in support for independence have been pivotal in concentrating public debate on this question; her work was updated at a public event in August 2014, and received extensive coverage in the print and broadcast media, including a high-profile live interview on the Radio 4 Today programme on the day of the conference. Jan Eichhorn’s analysis of the characteristics of people who have not yet decided how to vote in the referendum has been strongly influential on campaigning by both sides of the main debate.

Lindsay Paterson
Jan Eichhorn
Rachel Ormston