One aspect of the recent Welsh Political Barometer poll which attracted lots of attention concerned support for independence in Wales. Many people were interested in the following results:
“And please imagine a scenario where the rest of the UK left the European Union but Wales could remain a member of the European Union if it became an independent country. If a referendum was then held in Wales about becoming an independent country and this was the question, how would you vote? Should Wales be an independent country?”
Would Not Vote/Don’t Know: 20%
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many supporters of Welsh independence have seized on these findings. With most previous polls apparently putting support for independence in Wales at below 10%, it was suggested that support for independence in Wales has surged. There is clear evidence from polls in Scotland that independence support has increased there since the EU referendum. Has something even more dramatic occurred in Wales?
Let’s first remind ourselves that most people (in Wales as elsewhere) are not political obsessives. Because of this, how at least some of them will respond to survey questions on the way Wales should be governed will be open to influence by at least two factors: survey question wording; and political context/timing. Let’s discuss each of these factors in turn.
Question Wording: There is no self-evidently correct way to ask about support for Welsh independence. In practice, two main broad types of survey question have been used:
- Many polls have used some sort of multi-option format. Here people are offered a series of broad alternatives for how Wales should be governed, normally ranging from no devolution at one end of the spectrum to independence at the other, with various intermediate options. As I have discussed before, the precise wording of these options can have a significant influence on the answers that are given.
- Somewhat less often, polls have offered respondents a simple, binary choice. Here, people are asked whether or not they support independence for Wales. This question format tends to elicit higher levels of support for independence; in particular, some who might choose a ‘more powers’ option under a multi-choice question opt for independence when offered only that on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Political Context/Timing: Because some people do not have absolutely fixed and definite constitutional preferences, how they answer survey questions can be shaped by the broader context at the time when a poll is conducted. I can perhaps best illustrate this via an example. Immediately after the 2014 Scottish referendum, BBC Wales ran a poll (conducted by ICM) to assess what Welsh people had made of the referendum. This poll included a multi-option constitutional preference question, results for which apparently placed support for Welsh independence at an all-time low of 3%. This finding generated enormous publicity and discussion – nearly all of it embarrassingly ridiculous. The vast majority of commentary wholly ignored three pertinent factors:
- First, the question asked was a multi-option question, with a particular wording that had tended to produce fairly low levels of support for independence;
- Second, the ‘all-time low support for independence’ result was actually within the ‘margin of error’ of the previous BBC/ICM poll on the matter;
- And third, and most pertinently here, the poll had been conducted straight after result of Scottish referendum where people had rejected independence. Given that Scotland had just voted against independence, it was hardly surprising that few people apparently thought of independence as feasible for Wales at the time! (The very same set of results also showed an unusually high level of support for more powers for the National Assembly – but this was much less well reported. And I probably don’t need to tell you, dear blog-reader, that when the next BBC/ICM poll, conducted a few months later, found support for Welsh independence back to its normal level this received very little coverage.)
Anyway – how is all this relevant to the recent Welsh Political Barometer results? In the following two ways.
First, the specific question about Welsh independence in the context of the rest of the UK leaving the EU is not one that had ever been asked before. (It had not been asked before because the context in which it would make sense had never arisen before!). It is, to coin a phrase, embarrassingly ridiculous to compare directly responses on this question with past responses to other, very different, survey questions.
Second, this was not the only independence-related question that we included in the Barometer poll. Our more direct question about independence, which had been asked previously, showed no rise in support for Welsh independence at all.
So are the results of this EU-related independence question in the Barometer poll wholly meaningless? No. The poll showed considerable support in Wales for continued EU membership. And for some respondents, at the time the poll was conducted, that support for EU membership appears to have been sufficiently strong that it would pull them towards supporting Welsh independence if it were the only way of remaining inside the EU. Whether such strength of sentiment on the EU will fade over time is something that we can’t currently know. Our results perhaps suggest some potential for supporters of Welsh independence to build upon. But the results also show, even in this most favourable context, that support for independence remains very much a minority position in Wales.
Overall my simple and unambiguous conclusion is this: there is currently no evidence of any general rise in support for Welsh independence since the EU referendum.