With local elections across the United Kingdom due to be held on 6 May, devolved and local political dynamics are increasingly garnering national attention. The UK’s devolved administrations in particular remain controversial, with the current state of the Union often being assessed as weaker now than at any point in living memory.
In the latest research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, we asked the British public about their views on the UK’s devolved nations holding independence referenda. Overall, our research highlights the contentious nature of such votes but also reveals that British respondents adopt different views on independence depending on which devolved nation is concerned.
Polarisation is most pronounced in the Scottish case. When asked whether they would support or oppose a referendum on Scottish independence being held in the next year, a third (36%) of British respondents expressed support, while a further third (33%) say they would oppose such a vote.
Moreover, support for Scottish independence as a cause closely mirrors support for a referendum on this issue, with 35% of the British public saying they support Scottish independence. At the same time, 32% of respondents across Great Britain say they are opposed to Scottish independence.
The contentious nature of a Scottish independence referendum is also reflected in the public’s expectations regarding the possible outcome of such a vote. A plurality (36%) of British respondents say they are unsure what the outcome of another referendum on Scottish independence would be. A similar proportion of the public (35%) believes the ‘pro-United Kingdom’ side would win, while the remaining 29% perceive the likelihood of the ‘pro-Independence’ side winning as higher.
Looking beyond Scotland, the British public is also split on whether or not they would support or oppose a Welsh referendum being held within the next year. While 29% of respondents would support such a referendum, 30% expressed opposition, and a further 29% say they would neither support nor oppose a vote on Welsh independence.
Were a referendum on Welsh independence to be held, a plurality of British respondents believe the ‘pro-United Kingdom’ side would win (44%), although a considerable 38% of respondents say they are unsure as to which side would prevail.
Regarding the situation in Northern Ireland, a plurality (34%) of the British public is supportive (34%) of a referendum being held in the next year in Northern Ireland regarding its status. 30% say they would neither support nor oppose a Northern Ireland referendum, and approximately a quarter (23%) of respondents would be opposed.
As with the Scottish case, support for Irish Unification as a cause mirrors support for a vote on Northern Ireland’s status, with 34% of the British public saying they support Irish Unification. Interestingly, opposition to Irish unification, at 13%, is considerably lower than opposition to a vote on Northern Ireland’s status (23%).
If a referendum on Northern Ireland’s status were to be held, a plurality of British respondents (40%) say they are unsure what the outcome of such a vote would be. At the same time, a similar proportion of the public (39%) believes Northern Ireland would choose to remain part of the United Kingdom, and a fifth of respondents (21%) think the side in favour of joining the Republic of Ireland would win.
The British public differ in their assessment of how likely or unlikely Scottish independence, Welsh independence, and Irish Unification are to occur. A plurality of respondents (40%) believe it is likely that Scottish independence will occur in the next five years—including 15% who think it is ‘very likely’—compared to 15% who find it ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely.’
By contrast, the prospect of Wales gaining independence within the next five years is deemed unlikely by a third of the British public (32%), rising to 51% when including those who say ‘more unlikely than likely.’
Views on the likelihood of Irish Unification are more diverse among the British public, although the proportion of respondents who believe unification is unlikely to occur in the next five years (25%) is slightly greater than the proportion of respondents who think it is likely (21%). A significant 17% say they ‘don’t know,’ while 35% are relatively split.
In line with these contrasting views on the prospects of Welsh and Scottish independence, as well as Irish Unification, our research highlights stark differences regarding the public’s attitudes towards the Union in general across Great Britain.
When asked to what extent, if at all, does the Union matter to them, a majority of 53% of Britons say the Union matters ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. On the other hand, 28% say the Union matters to them to ‘some’ extent, and 20% say it does not matter to them ‘at all.’
Moreover, a plurality of 45% of respondents across Great Britain think it would be a bad thing if the Union were to break up. Only 17% of respondents believe it would be a good thing (or neither a good nor bad thing) if the Union were to break up, whereas a further 21% say they don’t know.
Overall, these insights show that the British public differentiates between devolved nations in its views regarding referenda on regional independence. Moreover, our research highlights that attachment to the Union as a whole remains relatively strong across Great Britain.
To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
 In Scotland itself—where it is important to note that the subsample size is small (n = 130) and should be discussed with considerable caution—support for both independence as a cause (53%) and a referendum on this issue (50%) is significantly higher than in the rest of Great Britain. At the same time, however, opposition to independence (36%) and a referendum on independence (39%) is also more pronounced in Scotland. Again, we stress that this sub-sample size is small and is therefore not comparable to a substantive poll of Scotland alone.