"IN your opinion, how will independence affect the Scottish economy?”

This could be an exam question for university students, but it is also a question which polling companies use. Almost everyone reading this article would no doubt respond by agreeing that independence will be good for Scotland’s economy.

Sir John Curtice (below) has recently written about the extent to which convinced supporters and convinced opponents of independence have very different opinions about how independence will affect the economy.

At present, about 40% of the population are convinced opponents of independence, and almost all believe that independence will harm the economy. Another 35% are convinced supporters of independence, and they are nearly unanimous in their belief that independence will be good for the economy. The opinion polling also suggests that about two thirds of the remaining 25% of the population, who have no strong opinions about how independence will affect the economy, nonetheless support independence.

The National: John Curtice

We might explain these findings by supposing that people form beliefs about what will happen to the economy if Scotland becomes independent, and then use their beliefs to form their voting intentions.

That feels wrong. Few people should be better able to work out the effects of independence on the economy than professional economists. Yet, in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, many of them relied on narrow, technical arguments, which often seemed to be biased in favour of continuing the Union, to justify their beliefs. They had a rationale for their beliefs, but that did not make their beliefs rational.

It might be better to think about people forming beliefs about the desirability of independence, and then justifying those beliefs by developing ideas about how independence might affect the economy. Since it has not happened, we can all imagine whatever we like about what independence will bring. Our beliefs could easily be prejudiced – formed without evidence, or even in the face of evidence.

If you doubt that, ask yourself why opinion on independence is so evenly divided, and how the constitutional question has become so central in Scottish politics. Given that we really have no idea how it will work out, the strong beliefs expressed by three quarters of the population are essentially a matter of faith, and not based at all in reason.

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Professor Curtice’s opinion polling aims to capture attitudes and beliefs of a randomly selected, but broadly representative, sample of the population at the precise moment when the questions are answered, with the participants free to interpret the questions as they wish.

On hearing the phrase “the economy” most people will respond by thinking about what might happen to their jobs, to their household income, to the cost of living and to the public services which they use. Perhaps they might think of what will happen to organisations with which they have a close association, such as the local hospital or their children’s schools.

Using polling questions about the economy then becomes a way of asking indirectly about what people believe independence will mean for them. In some ways, that explains the association between voting intentions and beliefs about what will happen with independence. If people feel that independence will bring the prospect of a better life, then they will almost certainly support it.

That people seem to think of their lives so much in economic terms is a wee bit depressing. But perhaps we should think of this as telling us something about how we think that independence might affect us. We do not talk very much about independence as a means of strengthening families, or friendships, or wider social relationships.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, there were attempts to revive Scottish civic society. These produced very little. Even if independence eventually leads to substantial changes in society, there is no clear plan for that. Perhaps independence will lead to a second Enlightenment, with the country becoming once again a crucible of ideas. Or maybe there will be a great cultural outpouring. The point is that there is much more to life than the economy, but we often seem to think that it is all that matters in politics. In that respect at least, we have become Thatcherites.

We should of course expect national economic success to bring many social benefits. That might come through free music lessons for children, the flourishing of sports clubs or the expansion of the network of care and support for frail or disabled people. It could come through reduced working weeks, with working time becoming much more productive – and leisure more creative.

When people talk about the economy, they may well be focusing on the segment in which they are immersed, but they are thinking in terms of their quality of life. The economy is there to serve them. They need not have in mind key economic data, such as inflation and unemployment, but they will be keenly aware already of the cost of living,and how possible loss of economic opportunity might mean loss of wellbeing.

Uncertainty corrodes wellbeing. Independence will bring massive change. There will be people who recognise that Scotland could prosper on its own, who do not want to face the challenges which would come with setting up the new state. These persuadable opponents of independence, who need reassurance that their fears will be addressed, might be critical to the success of the next independence campaign.