With Welsh independence polling higher than ever it is no longer a fringe movement
Roger Awan-Scully, Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University and Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom
The highest level of support yet recorded for Welsh independence is among the stand out findings from the latest Welsh Political Barometer poll.
As is usual, the latest Barometer poll asked several questions assessing public attitudes to how Wales should be governed. First, we asked two parallel questions that we have now run in several of our polls – simple yes/no questions about both Welsh independence and about the abolition of the Senedd.
On independence, we asked the following: “If there was a referendum tomorrow on Wales becoming an independent country and this was the question, how would you vote? Should Wales be an independent country?” These were the results we obtained (with, in brackets, changes since the last time we asked the same question, in the January Barometer poll):
Yes: 25% (+4)
No: 54% (-2)
Would not vote: 7% (-1)
Don’t Know: 13% (+1)
Refused: 1% (-2)
The changes since January are mostly small, and thus within the polling ‘margin of error’. However, the four point rise in support for independence is significant, and takes it to the highest level yet recorded on any Barometer poll. Independence remains a minority taste in Wales – but it appears to be one of a growing minority.
Alongside this question we asked a very similar one about abolition of the Senedd: “If there were a referendum tomorrow on abolishing the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) and this was the question, how would you vote? Should Wales abolish the Senedd (Welsh Parliament)?” The result for this question (with changes since January again in brackets) were:
Yes: 25% (+1)
No: 48% (+1)
Would not vote: 8% (no change)
Don’t Know: 16% (-1)
Refused: 3% (-1)
Unlike with independence, all changes here are clearly within the margin of sampling error.
This Barometer poll thus not only has support for independence at an all-time high, but is the first one ever to show support for this proposition equal with support levels for abolishing the Senedd. Both ideas remain in the minority. But, on this way of asking the question at least, those minorities appear now to be equally prominent within the Welsh electorate. However, this is the first poll to show such a pattern, and we must await further polls to confirm whether the findings of this one will be confirmed.
The new Barometer poll also repeated the now standard multiple-choice constitutional preference question that has been used in several previous Barometer polls as well as in many other studies. The findings here (with changes since January again in brackets) were:
No devolved government in Wales: 22% (+5)
Senedd with fewer powers: 5% (-3)
Leave things as they are now: 24% (no change)
Senedd with more powers: 20% (+2)
Independent Wales: 16% (+2)
Don’t Know: 12% (-4)
Refused: 2% (-1)
These results, demonstrate, if nothing else, the difficulties of asking about such matters and of assuming that results from one particular question constitute the definitive truth about where public attitudes stand. On this way of measuring things, support for the abolition of devolution has risen since the last poll (which it has not on the binary measure), and also remains clearly higher than support for the option at the other end of the spectrum – independence.
However, we should also note that the rise in support for abolition has come alongside a three-point fall in support for the ‘fewer powers’ option, while there is a collective four-point rise in the two options which involve enhanced autonomy for Wales. Alongside these changes has come a decline in the numbers saying Don’t Know: the prominence of devolved government in the Covid-19 crisis may at least have helped more people decide where they stand on such matters.
Finally, the latest Barometer poll tried a new question, which pitted the two options at either end of the spectrum – independence and abolition – against each other, and asked respondents which they would pick if they had to choose only between those two. Results from this question should probably not be taken too literally: there is little likelihood of a referendum any time soon where these would be the only two alternatives available to people in Wales. Moreover, we know from lots of research evidence that we should interpret with caution any questions that require respondents to make such large leaps of the imagination.
The reasoning for asking this question, though, was to try and push respondents – after they had answered both the binary questions on independence and abolition, plus the multiple-option question – to think about what is most important and fundamental to them. For the last two decades, all major studies have shown that the centre of political gravity in Wales is firmly located somewhere in the territory of ‘autonomy within the UK’. But which part of that is most important to people – the autonomy bit, or the being within the UK? We thought it was worth trying to push people a bit further on this, and see how they responded.
The results from this question were as follows:
No devolved government in Wales: 45%
Wales becoming independent: 33%
Don’t Know: 19%
With such a hypothetical question it is no surprise that there were so many people unable or unwilling to answer. Of those who did, there was a clear balance of opinion in favour of remaining in the UK. At the same time, that balance is somewhat less than overwhelming: some 42 percent of those giving a view, when presented with these alternatives, selected independence.
Among supporters of the different parties, Conservatives unsurprisingly opted overwhelmingly for no devolution, while Plaid supporters tended equally strongly to the opposition position. Interestingly, though, a clear plurality of Labour supporters (45 percent to 35 percent) chose independence over no devolution.
The Covid-19 crisis has helped thrust devolution, and the distinctiveness of the Welsh level of government, into public prominence. The findings from the latest Barometer poll suggest that this may be having some impact on public attitudes.
The centre of gravity in Wales remains one of support for autonomy within the UK. And independence certainly remains a minority position. But support for independence is no longer the preserve of a tiny group on the fringes of Welsh politics; it has clearly moved some way beyond that.
The poll, for ITV-Cymru Wales and Cardiff University, had a sample of 1,021 Welsh adults aged 18+ and was carried out online by YouGov from 29 May to 1 June 2020.