A May opinion poll conducted for Dundee University's Five Million Questions project prompted a headline in the Herald, published the day before the European election, claimed that: "Seven out of ten Scots 'back Ukip policy on immigration'".
Michael Marra, the director of Five Million Questions, said:
"This data shows that Ukip's comparatively poor performance in Scotland is not due to a lack of support for their policies among large sections of Scottish voters.
"The idea that Ukip's popularity in much of the rest of the UK represents a fundamental divergence in British social attitudes appears to be based on little evidence. This is especially important at the moment given the context of the referendum. There is a striking level of support for Ukip policies among Scottish Conservative and SNP voters. It appears from this data that the principle difference is in party affiliation rather than social attitude."
The data is worrying. But it does not support the conclusions claimed for it, including the conclusion claimed by project director Michael Marra.
The survey was carried out by pollster Survation. Eleven questions were put over the period 9-13 May to a sample of 1003 people resident in Scotland. Respondents were also asked how likely they would be to vote in the next election, and were asked which candidates they would be most likely to vote for in Holyrood and Westminster elections (but not a European election) if held tomorrow. They were also asked how they would be likely to vote in the independence referendum. And they were asked how they voted in the 2011 Holyrood election. The results were published on 15 May.
Since the survey was confined to Scotland, it is not capable of supporting any comparison between social attitudes in Scotland and England.
Data relating to respondents' party allegiance is very weak. Respondents were asked how they voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections, but were not asked anything else about their party links or voting history.
Michael Marra's comments seem to have been based on a comparison between his interpretation of the survey data and his perception of attitudes in England, combined with some assumptions about party allegiance in Scotland.
3.5% of the Scottish electorate voted for UKIP
Taking into account a weighting factor based on the likelihood that respondents would vote, the survey showed a 2.6% vote for UKIP in a Westminster election, if held on the day after the survey. As it turned out, 3.5% of the Scottish electorate voted for UKIP in the European election held 10 days after the survey.
The timing of the survey was right for an investigation into the attitudes that Scots would be bringing to the European election on 22 May, but was wrong for an investigation into underlying social attitudes in Scotland. The pre-election period was marked by intense media coverage of UKIP and by a great deal of commentary that tended to some degree to support or legitimise views put forward by UKIP.
Of the eleven questions, all but the first one (a question on whether a constitutional convention should be established in the event of a 'no' vote) proposed measures for change in the direction of more reactionary policy. They were not balanced by questions proposing change from the status quo in the direction of more progressive policy. Given the hardship created by austerity measures and the widespread discontent with the status quo, this kind of questioning was very likely to produce a bias in favour of a shift to the right.
The questions that are said to reflect UKIP policy include some very reactionary and inhumane policies, but nevertheless do not cover the whole of UKIP's policy. And they do not reflect the outlook projected by the public statements of UKIP spokespeople.
One of the questions asked whether respondents supported or opposed stricter controls on immigration. To many people, this is likely to seem like a proposal to do the border control job properly. Support for such a policy by no means implies support for the draconian measures proposed by UKIP, such as a 5 year ban on new immigration or a requirement for EU citizens already settled in Britain to re-apply for the right to remain. Nor does it imply support for the racist hostility towards immigrants displayed by various UKIP spokespeople, including Nigel Farage.
The Labour and Coalition governments introduced increasingly strict immigration laws. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties would probably continue to do so if returned to office after the next election. These policies have created the climate for UKIP to grow. But MPs who voted for them are not supporters of UKIP policy. Neither are survey respondents who opted for stricter immigration controls.
On this single question, the survey showed 68.4% support for stricter controls on immigration. That is no basis at all for the Herald's headline claim that "seven out of ten Scots 'back Ukip policy on immigration'".
Immigrants or people?
Many people may hold nuanced or even contradictory views on immigration. Any exploration of these views requires a range of questions, including questions rooted in people's own experience and relating to real immigrants, not just to abstract immigration. It also requires an exploration of the part played by ethnicity in people's perception of immigration. Do you think your area has been improved by the presence of Polish shops? Would you support new laws that would make it harder for Polish people to come to live in Scotland? Would you be worried if a Romanian family moved in next door? A Roma family? Would you be pleased if an Asian couple moved in next door? etc etc
One of the questions asked whether respondents supported or opposed the abolition of inheritance tax. This is a UKIP policy. But a lot of people feel a general hostility towards taxation. People outside the organised left and the labour movement might well be careless about distinguishing between regressive and progressive taxation. Even for poor people, inheritance can seem like a possible lottery win. Support for the abolition of inheritance tax doesn't necessarily imply support for UKIP taxation policies. What if respondents had been asked: Do you support or oppose changes to the taxation system to make rich people contribute more, and poor people pay less?
Another question asked whether respondents would support or oppose leaving the EU. But there were no questions that might have indicated whether people supporting the move did so for left or right reasons.
A question on enrolling unemployed welfare claimants onto community schemes or retraining workfare programmes fails to specify whether or not enrolment would be compulsory.
The sample of people surveyed was quite small - 1003 people ("over 1000", according to the Herald). The results are subject to a margin of error. Pollster Survation says that "in a question where 50% (the worst-case scenario where margin of error is concerned ) gave a particular answer, with a sample of 1003 it is 95% certain that the 'true' value will fall within the range of 3.1% from the sample result." Social scientists will probably not raise their eyebrows at this claim, but caution is nevertheless required. The error margin is not set by a mathematical law, not unless some assumptions are made about the statistical distribution of attitudes in the population as a whole. The quirkier the questions and the circumstances of the survey, the more difficult it is to rely on the notional margin of error.
A UKIP propaganda trick
Michael Marra, the director of Five Million Questions, claims that the survey points to wide support in Scotland for UKIP policies, and says that the failure of Scots to vote for UKIP in larger numbers is just a result of "party allegiance." It could just as easily be a result of people's dislike of UKIP policies - such as overt racism, or a sharp reduction in immigration - that the survey did not explore. Michael Marra's comments turned the survey into a UKIP propaganda trick. Five Million Questions is funded by the University of Dundee and claims that "the objective neutrality of academia is ideally placed as a forum for illuminating discussion." Some "objective neutrality."
Setting these bizarre comments aside, there is plenty in the survey data to be concerned about.
Just 9.5% of people polled said that they were opposed to stricter controls on immigration. 22% said they were either neutral or didn't know. This is worrying for those of us who would like Scotland to move towards open borders.
31.7% of respondents said they were opposed to denying new immigrants access to state education, social housing or the NHS (except emergency medical care) for 5 years after their arrival. It's impossible to guess how many might have taken this position if they had been invited to support access to services, rather the oppose the denial of access. And it is impossible to guess how people would have responded if asked for their views in the context of a less reactionary set of questions. Or if the question had been put in a more concrete way, such as: Do you think that the children of Polish citizens who have been living in Scotland for less than 5 years should be barred from state schools?
But the data is in any case worrying for those of us who believe that Scotland should guarantee equal rights and opportunities to all who live here.
We know that our view is a minority one, kept in the margins by politicians who need scapegoats and media who follow their lead. It is not likely to become a majority view unless it is clear to everyone that it is linked to a wider programme for social justice. To make that happen, we need our minority to be a lot louder.
The independence debate is putting politics in the foreground, but it doesn't always do it right. Too much of the debate has focussed on whether Scotland is richer or poorer than England, as if our wealth was collective. Not enough attention is given to which political framework would best empower ordinary people to make sure that the wealth is shared out decently.
If that is how people talk about our constitutional debate, it should be no surprise if they also assess immigration from the standpoint of an accountant employed by a Scottish business. Will immigrants make 'Scotland' (whoever that means) richer or poorer? Who cares, if the wealth will go to Scotland's rich? We need instead to look at ways that solidarity with immigrants can make all of us stronger, and better able to claim our share.
How many racists are there in Scotland?
Back to the title question. How many racists are there in Scotland? I don't know. The social attitudes survey provides few clues, because it carefully filleted the racism out of the UKIP policies that it put to respondents.
Scottish politicians from all parties have so far refused to take part in the Westminster game of stimulating racist attitudes and then chasing the racist vote. They have deprived racism of some of its oxygen, but not all of it. The reactionary attitudes on display in the Five Million Questions survey are an indication that this isn't enough. Racism and reaction have to be fought actively.
Scottish Attitudes Poll (May 2014) in Brief
- In the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum should a new constitutional convention be established (which includes all political parties and Scottish civil society groups) to devise a plan for more powers for Holyrood?
Yes: 63.7%; No: 13.5%; Don't Know: 22.9%
- Would you support or oppose stricter controls on immigration?
Support: 68.4%; Oppose: 9.5%; Neutral or Don't Know: 22%
- Do you support or oppose leaving the European Union?
Support: 24.7%; Oppose: 37.4%; Neutral or Don't Know: 37.9%
- Do you support or oppose abolishing inheritance tax?
Support: 44.5%; Oppose: 13.8%; Neutral or Don't Know: 41.8%
- Do you support or oppose cutting international aid budgets?
Support: 50.1%; Oppose: 19.6%; Neutral or Don't Know: 30.2%
- Do you support or oppose ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights?
Support: 33.6%; Oppose: 25.8%; Neutral or Don't Know: 40.5%
- Do you support or oppose making benefits only available to those who have lived here for more than five years?
Support: 62.3%; Oppose: 14.8%; Neutral or Don't Know: 22.9%
- Do you support or oppose prioritising social housing for those whose parents and grandparents have lived locally?
Support: 48.1%; Oppose: 12.4%; Neutral or Don't Know: 39.5%
- Do you support or oppose enrolling unemployed welfare claimants onto community schemes or retraining workfare programmes?
Support: 60.5%; Oppose: 11%; Neutral or Don't Know: 28.5%
- Do you support or oppose requiring proof of private health insurance as a pre-condition for immigrants and tourists to enter the UK?
Support: 56.5%; Oppose: 14.8%; Neutral or Don't Know: 28.6%
- Do you support or oppose denying new immigrants access to state education, social housing or the NHS (except emergency medical care) for 5 years after their arrival?
Support: 41.6%; Oppose: 31.7%; Neutral or Don't Know: 26.7%
Percentages have been rounded to 0.1% and in some cases may not total exactly 100%
Full results of the survey, including a breakdown by age, region and voting intention, are published by Survation.