The referendum no one is talking about

While Westminster is fixated on the EU, Scotland is moving ever closer to independence.

While the Tories have been warring over whether to hold a national vote on EU membership, Alex Salmond has been quietly devising his strategy for a different referendum. As the SNP leader confirmed at his party's conference last weekend, the ballot paper will contain two questions. The first will be a straight yes/no question on Scottish independence, the second will be on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max" (devo max).

Aware that he may not be able to win a majority for independence, Salmond is attempting to ensure that the SNP ends up with a consolation prize. But no one should underestimate how radical a step fiscal autonomy would be. Scotland would win complete control over spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster in charge of foreign affairs and defence. In an ingenious move, Salmond is attempting to turn the SNP into the party of independence and the party of devolution. The distance between the two is smaller than some imagine. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, British military bases (although the Trident subs would go) and the pound until, in Salmond's words, "it was in Scotland's economic advantage to join the euro" (in other words, indefinitely).

However, there is every reason to believe that Scotland will vote for full independence in the second half of the five-year Holyrood parliament. The SNP has already amassed a £1m campaign war chest and the polls are moving its way. A ComRes survey published on 15 October showed that 49 per cent of Scots now favour independence, with just 37 per cent opposed. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie posed the question: "What if devo max got 99 per cent 'yes' and one per cent 'no' in the vote while the independence option got 51 per cent 'yes' and 49 per cent 'no'?" But Salmond has already confirmed that a slim majority for independence will trump a large majority for devo max. A brilliant politician and strategist, he will wait until discontent with the Westminster coalition is at its height before calling a referendum.

Labour and the Tories, leaderless as they are in Scotland, are not even close to devising a strategy to combat Salmond. After the SNP's remarkable victory in May, David Cameron vowed to defend the United Kingdom with "every fibre in my body". But we've seen little evidence of that so far. As for Ed Miliband, he has largely avoided the subject since forgetting the name of one his party's leadership candidates (Ken Macintosh), even though Scottish independence would automatically strip his party of 41 seats. For now, all the momentum is with Salmond and the SNP. This must change. And soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.