What Do People Know About Scottish Politics and the Independence Referendum?

Maybe people can agree on one thing about the Scottish independence referendum: we need a well informed electorate to make the Yes/ No choice. So, how well informed is the electorate?

Ailsa Henderson, Liam Delaney and Robert Liñeira address this question in two ways: first, by asking 2000 people about their perceived knowledge of politics (p9), going from a 0-10 scale, with 0-3 representing ‘very little’, 4-6 some, and 7-10 ‘a lot’. The proportion with a perceived ‘lot of knowledge’ was quite high in general (44%) but higher in relation to the issues raised (56%) and the consequences of independence (56%) and, perhaps surprisingly, the consequences of a No vote (59%). It rises to over 80% in each category if we include people who think they have some knowledge.

This perception contrasts somewhat with a separate measure. Henderson et al ask people ten true/false questions to test their knowledge of the Scottish Government’s White Paper. They found that the majority either gets the question wrong or say that they do not know the answer. The range is from 20-46% correct. I don’t suppose this is too surprising, for two reasons: it is a huge document that you wouldn’t expect many to read (even if many people now own it), and there is a little bit of confusion about the difference between the Scottish Government position and that of the Yes campaign (see, for example, its wording on NATO). So, if I had to place a lot of money on it, Million Pound Drop-style, I’d only bet on me getting at least 7 correct out of 10.  Perhaps more importantly, we are now only getting into the heart of the campaign and people are going to pick up the most salient Yes/ No positions more easily.

This new analysis beats my previous attempt, in January, to provide a rough-and-ready discussion, based on relevant questions from What Scotland Thinks. There are three main types:

  1. Surveys asking people how much they feel they know about the independence debate.
  2. Surveys asking people how much they know about Scottish politics in general.
  3. Surveys which seem to give people the chance to get it wrong about the current mix of devolved/ reserved powers (for example, I exclude this one because it doesn’t seem to give people the option to say health or education*):

Knowledge of the debate:

  • 56% feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly well informed’ about ‘issues being debated in the referendum campaign’ (Dec 2013)
  • About two-thirds ‘find it difficult to decide whether information provided in the debate is true or not’ (Dec 2013)
  • People don’t seem to know much about the campaigns or who their leaders are (Aug 2013 a, b, c)
  • 65% have heard of ‘devo max’ (Jan 2012)

Knowledge of Scottish Politics**

  • About a third have a lot of interest in politics, a third say ‘some’ and a third don’t care (1999-2012)
  • Less than 10% know that the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have 70 MSPs (about 15% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents) (it has 129 MSPs)  (2004-12)
  • Less than 20% know that the Scottish Government is not just another name for Scottish Parliament (about 30% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents) (2004-12)
  • About half pay a lot of attention to the ‘work of the Scottish Government’ (almost three-quarters if we include ‘some’) (2005-11)

Who is responsible for what?

  • About half think that the Scottish Government ‘decides money spent on health’ (I’d say this is wrong, but the focus on money clouds the waters) (2004-12)
  • 30% know that the Scottish Government does not decide unemployment benefit levels (about 60% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents – but bear in mind that this figure would be 50% if everyone guessed)

Here is a rough guide to reserved and devolved powers (from this book), which shows that there are many overlaps in policy responsibilities, but health and benefits aren’t good examples.

table 10.1 cairney mcgarvey scottish politics 2013

So, I would conclude, from often-limited evidence, that there is not widespread knowledge of the current devolution settlement or what the stakes are in the debate. People may know that it is a Yes/ No question, and sort-of what Yes and No means (e.g. I can’t see a poll asking if anyone has heard of the Scotland Act 2012). This is as much of a problem to either side of the debate. Most people know what they want but not what they have, so may not know how to get what they want.

The question is: what do you do about it? I think we all have to assume minimal knowledge when we engage with the public. It is too easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about people’s knowledge when our debates come largely from social media. Outside that bubble, people may not be engaged or particularly interested. Few people will read more than a few lines of the White Paper and almost no-one will read things like the Treasury papers. Instead, they will get their information 2nd or 3rd hand in a few sentences designed to simplify complex topics. So, we all have to accept either that we will produce those sentences or that someone will do it for us, likely producing a message that we did not produce. There is no code of conduct in this debate, so we can’t just put out a wealth of information and trust people to use it in the right spirit. If I was you, I’d imagine that I was passing on information through this guy:


*I have also excluded questions like these, which don’t reflect well on the Scottish population, and most of questions like these and these, which are unclear because blame could be a mix of devolved responsibility and UK funding

** The bright side is that there is some evidence of respondent knowledge going in the right direction since 2004. We might also be optimistic because there is generally room for doubt about how well these questions measure knowledge.

1 Comment

Filed under Scottish politics

One response to “What Do People Know About Scottish Politics and the Independence Referendum?

  1. Reblogged this on Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy and commented:

    Updated to reflect the publication of a new report by Ailsa Henderson, Liam Delaney and Robert Liñeira here – http://www.futureukandscotland.ac.uk/sites/default/files/papers/Risk%20and%20Constitutional%20Attitudes%20Full%20Survey%2014%20Aug.pdf

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