The Edinburgh Agreement signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron has paved the way for a referendum on Scottish independence in the next two years. The first minister acknowledged the challenges facing the nationalists, but said: “given the proper opportunity, we will be able to convince a majority of our fellow citizens that [independence] is the right future for Scotland.” Our latest Scottish Public Opinion Monitor for The Times highlights the considerable challenges facing those campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014.

At the beginning of 2012, support for independence was increasing and had reached 39%, suggesting that Scots were warming to the idea. However, our latest poll shows that only 30% of Scots would vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum, down five points since June and nine points since January. Indeed, the level of support for independence has returned to its historical average over the past 35 years.

So, where do the key challenges for the ‘Yes’ campaign lie in persuading Scots to back their vision? 

There are a number of key groups who are firmly opposed to independence. Women, older people and those living in Scotland’s more affluent areas have shown consistently low levels of support. The launch of the ‘Women for Independence’ group is a recognition that polls show female support for independence lagging far behind men and is an attempt to address that issue. Our poll in January found that, as well the economy, women were more likely to say that health and education were the most important issues for them during the independence debate. This suggests that nationalists will need to convince women that these key services will be protected and properly funded in an independent Scotland.

Our research also suggests that older people and those living in more affluent areas have yet to be convinced by the economic argument for independence. Our poll in January found that these groups were particularly pessimistic about the prospects for their personal finances, job security and Scotland’s economy in the event of an independent Scotland.

As well as addressing these fundamental economic issues, the additional challenge for the ‘Yes’ campaign is that older people and those living in more affluent areas tend to vote in much greater numbers than other groups and will hold significant sway over the result.                                                                                 

Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that interest in the independence debate has waned. In June, 77% of Scots said they were certain to vote in the referendum in 2014; this has fallen to 66% now.

This may be down to the nature of the debate so far, which has focussed on process issues such as the number of questions, timing of the referendum and the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. Now that these issues have largely been resolved, the focus of the debate can shift to the issues that matter to most voters, particularly the economy, and whether the ‘Yes’ campaign can persuade voters that Scotland will be better off with independence.

Christopher McLean is a research executive at the Ipsos MORI office in Scotland

Tags: Alex Salmond, Christopher McLean, David Cameron, Ipsos MORI, Scottish independence