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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 06:23 GMT
More poll questions than answers
By Brian Taylor
Political editor, BBC Scotland

Just what do the Scots want? Do they want independence? Do they want to end the Union? It depends, it would appear, upon how you pose the question.

Act of Union
It has been 300 years since the Act of Union was signed

Glance at the BBC/ORB poll published to coincide with the special Newsnight debate in Edinburgh to commemorate 300 years since Scottish politicians voted for the Union with England.

Voters were asked whether they wanted the Union to "continue as it is or see it come to an end".

They were further reminded that ending the Union would "mean that Scotland became an independent country".

The responses suggest that 56% of Scots would prefer the continuing Union, compared with 32% favouring its end.

In England, the figures were 73% supporting the Union with 16% urging an end. The Scottish figures are comparable with a YouGov poll in The Sunday Times which indicated that 53% of Scots thought the Union "worth maintaining" while 33% did not.

That would appear to be relatively clear. But look more closely at that and other polls.

Narrow majority

Look at YouGov in the Sunday Times last September.

Respondents then were asked: "If there was a referendum tomorrow on whether Scotland should become independent, how would you vote?"

There was an apparent narrow majority for independence, 44% to 42%.

Look at an ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph in November, suggesting 59% to 28% approval for "Scotland becoming an independent country".

Similar wording in an ICM poll for the Mail in January suggested 51% approval for Scotland becoming independent, with 36% disapproving.

English respondents also indicated support for Scottish independence, by 48% to 39%.

Flags outside Scottish Parliament
The issue of the Union is to the fore in a Scottish election year

How to explain these disparities? It would appear that, if you stress soothing longer-term concepts like "becoming independent", then there is potential support for independence.

Nationalists say that would be the wording in their planned referendum, highlighting the move to independence as a process.

By contrast, if you lay stress on immediate issues like ending or breaking the Union, then potential support apparently declines.

Unionist politicians say that is the reality of what independence would involve. Further, the Sunday Times poll suggests popular apprehension that there might be tax rises or spending cuts under independence.

Labour says that indicates their claim of a "black hole" in SNP economic plans is getting through to voters.

'Scare stories'

Nationalists say the Sunday Times poll suggests they can build support for independence by neutralising what they call "Labour scare stories".

The BBC poll, of course, features both elements of the Union question in that it talks of the Union coming to an end but also points out to respondents that such a development would equate to Scotland becoming independent. Other findings in the BBC poll are also intriguing.

It suggests support north and south of the Border for an English Parliament to tackle the West Lothian question.

It suggests that voters feel independence would make little difference to cultural identities.

Do all these polls matter?

Yes. We could, of course, resort to the customary cliché that the only poll which really counts is the one on the day.

But, as with voting intention, the various polls on independence point to the nature of the campaign itself, to the two visions of independence. Nationalists will assuage, will talk of independence as Scotland's manifest destiny, will seek to counter economic concerns.

Unionists will talk in blunt, apocalyptic terms about the destruction of existing ties, will forecast economic collapse.

You, the voters, will choose.

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The Act of Union Quiz
15 Jan 07 |  Scotland
Divisions rage despite the Union
26 Dec 06 |  Scotland
Union anniversary to be marked
09 Nov 06 |  Scotland
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10 Apr 06 |  Magazine

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