Shona Craven makes a very good point in her column in today’s National. If Yes voters are significantly more likely to respond to polling than No voters then the polls must be skewed in favour of Yes as a consequence. It is a rather obvious point… once it has been made.
But there are many other reasons why the independence movement should treat these polling results with extreme caution. For example, there is in polling the same problem as can beset a poorly framed referendum. Are people responding to the question asked? Or are they actually answering a different question altogether. By way of illustration, it has been suggested that a significant factor in the 2014 referendum was a dislike of Alex Salmond. Although there is, to my knowledge, no reliable evidence to support the notion that Salmond was particularly unpopular, the theory implies that respondents were not answering the question on the ballot paper about whether Scotland should be an independent country but were, instead responding to the question: Do you like Alex Salmond?
I have long suspected that many of those participating in the 21 polls (so far) indicating a lead for Yes are responding to unasked questions about Brexit and handling of the public health emergency. They are not answering a question about Scotland’s constitutional status. Although even they might think they are.
The point of this is that it makes the polls extra unreliable as indicators of firm support for independence. Even if the effect described above and that described in Shona Craven’s article ar small, they are cumulative.
I don’t know whether polling on the Scottish constitutional issue is especially susceptible to these effects or to what extent they are effects which can be compensated for with some statistical algorithm. But not knowing this only gives me more cause to be cautious about relying on polls.
We must always ask ourselves if what these polls are indicating is solid support for the restoration of Scotland’s independence. We must never simply assume that they do. Or is it at best the development of a statistically significant cohort of ‘soft Yes” voters? If it is not the former then should we really be celebrating them?
My own thoughts are that support for independence hasn’t shifted to any significant degree since 2014. That the present level is fully explained by factors other than support for independence. That Yes should be polling nearer to 60% or perhaps more given the near-ideal circumstances for persuading the ‘soft Noes’. And that we should therefore be worried rather than elated.
Allow me in closing to preempt the inevitable whining about my ‘negativity’ which totally fails to address any of the points made either in the article or in my comment. Being positive is fine. So long as you have good reason to be positive. We must constantly question our reasons for being positive just as we must constantly question all our prejudices and preconceptions. That is all I’m doing here. If we don’t persistently interrogate our attitudes and beliefs then how can we be sure they are valid even in terms of our own values far less in terms of their utility in assessing situations?
People want to believe that the polls are reason enough to be confident of success in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. They may not be. This may be an unfounded belief. Or a belief lack a solid foundation. What this implies is not negativity but a positive incentive to do better. If we even suspect that the current approach to the constitutional issue is not sufficiently effective in persuading people away from the Union and towards independence then it is incumbent on us to demand a rethink of that approach.