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Some thoughts on Welsh Independence polling

Results from the most recent opinion poll about Welsh independence arrived just when I was packing for my holidays. Hence my uncharacteristic silence thus far about the findings. But it has been useful to have time to examine the results before commenting.

The poll was commissioned by Plaid Cymru, but conducted by YouGov according to their standard methods. (YouGov, as most readers of this blog will be aware, also conduct the Welsh Political Barometer polls). The findings engendered plenty of comment, particularly from independence supporters, with some suggesting that poll showed rising support for their cause. Perhaps inevitably, there was also some push-back from opponents; the First Minister was quoted as saying that there was ‘no appetite’ for independence in Wales.

A few thoughts on this – which I suspect will please almost no-one with strong views on the matter.

First, and at the risk of rehearsing some overly basic points, we should remember that there are limitations to all polling and surveys. Poll findings are, innately, no more than a set of answers to questions. How meaningful those collective answers are depends on two major factors. One is the quality of the sample: are you talking to the right people? Even the best polling agencies produce data that are subject to sampling error; the results are, at most, estimates of where opinion lies in the relevant population as a whole. The other factor is the question. Lots can go wrong here. Questions may be biased (deliberately or otherwise), prompting people to respond in a particular direction. They may be confusing or ambiguous, leaving respondents unclear as to how to respond appropriately. Or questions may simply ask people about things of which they have little awareness or no clear view.

A second preliminary observation, partly following on from the first, is that there is no obviously right way to ask about public views on independence. Two broad approaches have generally been taken in most previous work:

  • The first is to include independence as one option among several in a question that asks respondents how they would prefer to see Wales being governed. Past discussion on the blog (for instance, here) has covered the two main forms of this ‘constitutional preference’ question
  • The second is a form of question that directly asks people whether or not they support independence.

Past evidence indicates that the latter form of question attracts higher levels of reported support for independence. And thus, those deriding the idea often cite evidence from multi-option questions – with one particular BBC Wales poll, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, attracting particular attention even though its reported 3 percent support for independence was very much an ‘outlier’ finding. (The May 2019 Welsh Political Barometer poll, for comparison, found 11 percent support for independence on a multi-option question). Conversely, supporters of independence tend to highlight evidence from binary question forms – and often to present that evidence in ways that maximises the apparent level of independence support. Such is politics.

The recent Plaid poll used a standard question preamble: “If there was a referendum held tomorrow on Wales becoming an independent country and this was the question, how would you vote?”. There is nothing obviously biased or otherwise strange about this question form (though there is always a little unreality about such questions when people mostly know full well that there isn’t going to be such a referendum the following day).

The main question, to which people were being asked to respond, was: “Should Wales be an independent country?” This wording might be seen as somewhat slanted: given the very well-established acquiesence bias in survey responses, one would normally look to balance a question like this along the lines of ‘should it, or should it not…’. However, that would also have made this question more unwieldy. Furthermore, the Plaid question wording is virtually identical to that used in the Scottish independence referendum (except, obviously, replacing the word ‘Scotland’ with ‘Wales’) and consequently in much of the opinion polling about independence in Scotland over recent years. Without some sort of split-sample design (where we ask one, randomly-selected half of a sample one version of a question, and the other half a different version, and compare the results) it is impossible to be certain, but the Plaid question wording is plausibly is a little more ‘indy-friendly’ than, for instance, the wording used in the Sky Data December 2018 Welsh poll (“If there were a referendum tomorrow on the issue of Wales becoming an independent country, how would you vote?”). But both are, I think, plausible and defensible question wordings.

The overall result for this question was, as many will already have seen, the following:

Yes: 24%

No: 52%

Would Not Vote: 6%

Don’t Know: 14%

Refused to answer: 3%

It is notable that a poll which causes optimism among independence supporters still sees them outnumbered by more than two to one. Unsurprisingly, independence was rejected overwhelmingly by 2017 Conservative voters, and 2016 Leave voters. Greater minorities of Labour and 2016 Remain voters, however, were favourable. More or less half of Plaid sub-sample chose yes, but this was small sub-sample, so particular caution is warranted here. Among age groups, support levels for independence were fairly consistent, except for it being notably lower among those aged 65 and older. Support for independence is also greater amongst men, but so is opposition; women, as is typically the case across many types of polling question, were more likely to reserve judgement.

Do these figures demonstrate an increase in support for independence in Wales? That is very difficult to judge. I am not aware of any previous poll that has asked this particular question form before in Wales. Back in December last year Sky Data found 17% indicating that they would in favour of independence with 67% against. But that was a different question, as well as a different polling agency. One cannot be confident that the differences between Sky’s earlier figures and this more recent data from YouGov represents a genuine change in opinion, rather than simply being an artefact of differences in who conducted the surveys and what they asked. (Two polls for Yes Cymru, using yet another different question form, and conducted by YouGov respectively in 2017 and 2019, have indicated some increase in support for independence).

The Plaid poll also asked a second question about independence:

“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?”

Respondents were then again invited to respond to the question, “Should Wales be an independent country?”

There are a few things to say about this second question. The first is that it is very hypothetical: it asks respondents to make a substantial leap of the imagination, into a future scenario which – even in these extraordinary political times – is very difficult to envisage actually transpiring. Such questions should always be interpreted with considerable caution. As Anthony Wells of YouGov has observed previously, “people are not necessarily very good judges of how they would respond in hypothetical situations”. The one posed in the Plaid poll requires considerable mental gymnastics from respondents, most of whom will – quite reasonably – normally spend far less time thinking about such matters than many readers of this blog might do.

A second point is that while the results from this question do show a higher level again of support for independence, even now it continues to be very much a minority position. The overall results were:

Yes: 33%

No: 48%

Don’t Know: 17%

Refused to answer: 3%

Wholly unsurprisingly, a question which raises the possibility of remaining in the EU attracts a narrow majority of 2016 Remain voters to support Welsh independence. There are also bare majorities in favour among the (small) sub-samples of 2017 Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat voters, and a plurality of 2017 Labour voters. But 2017 Conservative voters and 2016 Leave supporters (groups between whom there is a fair overlap) continue to be staunchly against independence even in this scenario.

A final point to make on this question is that it would, of course, be quite possible to construct a hypothetical scenario in which support for independence came out rather lower than in a standard ‘how would you vote in a referendum?’ All one would need to do is phrase a question that emphasised the potential risks or downsides of independence. Two can play at that game.

Something is happening on the independence issue in Wales. It has moved up the agenda in recent months. There is more discussion about it in various fora; recent marches in support of the idea have been conspicuously well-attended; and even Carwyn Jones has declared himself ‘indy-curious’. Independence has moved from being a mainstream issue within Plaid Cymru, and the active concern of a small number of other people, towards possibly becoming a regular and central part of political debate across Wales in general.

But the debate in Wales remains a long way from that in Scotland. Not only is support for independence in Wales still much lower. The entire character of the debate is in a different – and, to be blunt, much less mature – place. To talk about independence seriously doesn’t mean simply discussing whether or not you think Wales should be independent in principle. It also means widespread and thorough discussions about what an independent Wales might look like. What sort of political institutions and structures would it have? How would the constitution be constructed? And what might we seek to do with independence if it occurred? A serious debate about independence also means thinking through realistic scenarios regarding the political process. How might independence be achieved? In all these respects, Wales still has a long way to go.

Comments

  • Richard Jenkins

    This is clear and concise. A quality sadly lacking in most reports. However I believe it would be extremely helpful to understand clearly what those identifying as English think? That’s the elephant in the room! Seemingly not asked because the question is viewed by some as being slightly racist. However, if we ever are to gain independence we must understand what the thinking of this huge percentage of immigrants to Cymru (24%?) think in order to find the correct argument to win them around to the thought that, independence is normal for the country they are living in? Otherwise, frankly we are forever destined to fail. Westminster with collusion of the current Unionist Government are already, at best, failing or even encouraging the social engineering that could, easily, completely change the demographic of Cymru.

  • Chris Boots

    I’m English-born with a Welsh-born father and English mother who met and married in Wales. I spent the first 42 years of my life in England before moving to Wales 17 years ago. Richard Jenkins might find my thoughts useful.

    I identify more as British than English or Welsh and see Independence as partitioning my country. I certainly don’t see myself as an immigrant.

    I’d want to know a lot more about what sort of country Wales would become and what sort of relationship it would have with England before deciding how to vote in any referendum. At the moment I’d fight tooth and nail against independence and seriously consider moving back to England if it looked likely.

  • John R Walker

    I’m still waiting for a Welsh indy poll that asks a sensible question like:

    There are £13.7 billion reasons why Wales is financially unviable as an independent nation – do you still want independence for Wales?

    https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1542474/full_gerw_print.pdf

    This deficit has hovered around the £12-16bn mark in recent years while Plaid, and others, have been posturing about ‘independence’ but, it seems, the real eliffant in the room is seldom mentioned… Nor is the sky-high percentage of GDP in Wales spent by the public sector which makes the economy completely unsustainable without radical revision – that’s on page 63 in Fig. 4.27 when IMHO it should be near the front. This much has been obvious for years but, it seems, the polls keep asking ‘mushrooms’ for their opinion on matters they don’t seem to know very much about. Unfortunately ‘mushrooms’ are also able to vote! So the polls may not be that far out…

  • John Ellis

    As a complete non-expert in the science (or, perhaps, the art!) of polling, for what it’s worth I agree completely with this assessment. Once you see a traditional Welsh Labour politician such as Carwyn Jones – apparently unsolicited – begin to muse about independence, with reserve and scepticism for sure, but without any suggestion of tribal negativity, you sense that something’s changed. Because that would have been inconceivable even twenty years ago, and much less forty years ago, when the hostility with which Welsh Labour viewed Plaid Cymru and their agenda was invariably visceral. But I’d suggest that any change in Welsh political perceptions may be fuelled more by disillusion with the sour disintegration of UK politics than with any specific surge in the sense of Welsh national identity.

    I’m English – perhaps more accurately Mancunian, because the English south has always seemed much more alien to me than Wales ever has! – but I spent my 20s and 30s living and working in Wales and I’ve returned here in my old age; I’m 74 now. Richard Jenkins asks, very reasonably, in his earlier post on this thread, ‘what those identifying as English think?’ As an Englishman living here, I’m by no means hostile in principle to the notion of an independent Wales – all the more so since the UK seems to have moved over the last four years into an era in which what is presented as ‘British nationalism’ but which strikes me as primarily an English nationalism has become much more mainstream. Nevertheless I do seriously wonder whether most Welsh people would, right now, really want to see an independent Wales.

    I recall reading an article, a year ot two back, in which someone who knew Italy very well was considering the history of the evolution of a united Italy. The writer argued that if you could reel back to 1835 and ask an average Italian how he or she defined themselves, you wouldn’t hear them say ‘I’m an Italian’, because that notion simply wouldn’t occur to them. They’d say ‘I’m Piedmontese’, ‘Parmesan’, ‘Venetian’, ‘Milanese’, ‘Neapolitan’ or ‘Sicilian’.. If you pushed them to be a bit more universal, they’d say ‘Well, I’m Catholic’, because the church was as close to something more universal as they could imagine. In the days before Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour presented them with a wider vision, the notion of being primarily ‘Italian’ simply wouldn’t occur to them.

    When I read that article, it immediately reminded me of Wales. Right now I live in Denbighshire, and my local-born neighbours unambiguously identify as Welsh. But ‘Welsh’ for them signifies the locality which they know; Cardiff, Swansea, Pembrokeshire, even Ceredigion are in effect virtually another country to them, and they feel more affinity to towns across the border like Chester or Shrewsbury than they do to other parts of Wales, which they may well never have visited and probably never will.

    And exactly the same was the case when I lived in Swansea or the Gwent valleys and in Radnorshire – people there felt no particular identity with parts of Wales far away from where they lived. In this respect Wales isn’t that unlike the Italy of 1835, and as yet no Gairibaldis, Mazzinis or Cavours have emerged with a vision to enthuse a vision of the nation. Scots are way ahead of the Welsh in this respect, but then by the time the union between England and Scotland was forged in the century after 1603 Scotland had already evolved many of it own national institutions, notably in education and the law. Wales never really achieved anything like that until the last half-century.

    And I think the story of an independent Ireland might be exemplary for Wales. An English suspicion of – perhaps even hatred of – the dogged resistance of Irish folk to the protestantization of the rest of the British Isles in a time when religion mattered way more than it does in our day may well have created a determination in Ireland to ‘throw off the English yoke’, come what may and whatever the consequences. But in hard reality the result was a long-time marginal and impoverished state which, for sheer lack of money, had perforce to rely on the Roman Catholic church to run its health, social welfare and much of its education services for a good half-century because it simply couldn’t afford to do otherwise.

    Ireland came through in the end, to judge from what I see in my visits there; people in the Irish Republic these days live as well as we do here in the UK. But it took them a long time to get there, and I wonder if ordinary Welsh folk would be willing to risk enduring a similar half-century of tightened belts and limited public services while an independent Wales slowly built up its national prosperity and infrastructure to become a new maxi-Luxembourg or mini-Denmark? Somehow I doubt it.

    Every time Plaid Cymru changes its leader, the new incumbent seems to be driven to stoke up the independence drum-beat. I can understand why, because from the beginning that’s been the party’s core foundational principle. But it leaves me wondering whether a better tactic might not be – at least for now – to accept the constitutional status quo while steadily pressing for the devolution of more powers to Wales, which does seem to be something which the average Welsh voter has thus far been willing to accept. And to focus attention not on independence, but more on governing well.in the context of the powers already devolved to the Welsh government. I don’t get a sense that Welsh voters on the whole have a great deal of confidence in the Assembly or in its government, but then I don’t reckon that they’ve currently got all that much confidence in Westminster either. If they do come to the point when they feel that Cardiff Bay governs more confidently, sensibly and sensitively than Westminster does, the notion of independence might become more appealing.

  • howell morgan

    After speaking to distant relative who is more English than Dafydd Iwan is Welsh we will get our independence once the English people are given a vote on whether THEY wish to remain in the UK.After the disgraceful performances by SNP and PC in Westminster the end of the UK is nigh. The problem is that the English aint going to fund our current lifestyle as the Barnett formula for public services/pensions etc etc,and BBC Wales/S4C can start directly charging welsh people for its very poor services.I may not live to see but if you continually provoke the tiger in the cage then look out when it gets fre!!!

  • Matt

    English immigrant here, although actually I’m one of the rare few in the world who doesn’t think of nationality as a primary part of my identity. Over the past few years my views on Welsh independence have moved from “no of course not” to “probably not but give me the details”. This has been driven less by specifically Welsh politics than a sense that given the chaos at Westminster the bar any alternative political arrangement would have to pass to be better seems lower than it once did.
    What could indie supporters do to win me over? First present a detailed picture of what independence looks like and how we get there, second reassure me on the economics and that my standard of living won’t fall and third bury deep any perception that Welsh independence is in any sense anti-English and a growth in support could lead to hostility towards me and people like me.

  • Leo Jones

    Two comments on this.
    1- Should Wales be an independent country does not mean ‘a sovereign country outside the UK’ to all people who hear that question. Many of us are very aware that historically Wales was seen as less of a nation than Scotland or England and so vociferously insist we are a proper country. I suspect that at least a few of the people saying Yes to the question above are asserting Wales’ equaliy with England and not a wish to leave the UK.
    2- I became sceptical of polls when I lived with an Australian during the Australian republican referendum. When she voted I asked her what her views were. She told me she voted for an Australian President. I nodded and asked her how she felt the Queen would feel no longer being Queen of Australia. She looked at me strangely and asked what I meant. I explained that if Australia gained a President, they would replace the Queen. She was appalled, she did not want to replace the Queen, she had thought a President would be like the USA one and replace the Prime Minister.

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