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Long Read: Scotland’s Four Tribes

Fraser McMillan & Jac Larner

Rather than confirming devolution within the United Kingdom as the country’s “settled will”, the 2014 independence referendum placed the constitutional question at the centre of Scottish politics – and it’s not going away any time soon. Somehow, the referendum’s losing side had contrived to win, as the plebiscite legitimised the option of independence and mobilised unprecedented numbers of people behind a previously niche cause. 

With the end of the 300 year-old union suddenly a mainstream concern and tangible possibility, the Scottish electorate hastily rearranged itself around the issue. In the years since the referendum, the Scottish National Party’s near-monopoly over Yes voters has delivered a series of thumping electoral victories at Westminster and Holyrood alike, largely at Scottish Labour’s expense. The Scottish Conservatives have also benefitted, their impeccable unionist credentials positioning them as the party best able to resist the SNP’s continued separatist aspirations. The party became the official opposition at Holyrood in 2016 and have since then consolidated their position as the second force in Scottish politics. 

The constitutional binary also shapes the way voters respond to all manner of other political issues – not least the recently-completed Brexit process. Just weeks after the last Scottish election in 2016, the UK as a whole voted to leave the European Union by a 52/48 margin, while Scottish voters rejected the proposition 62/38. As such, the historic “democratic deficit” which had ultimately entrenched support for devolution in the 1980s and 1990s reared its head again. Notably, the SNP refused to rule out a second independence referendum in its 2016 manifesto, namechecking Brexit as an example of a “material change in circumstances” which would justify a second bite of the cherry for separatists. The party has since agitated for another referendum and been rebuffed by successive UK governments. 

In Britain as a whole, the Brexit referendum created powerful, polarised identity groupings arranged around the “Leave” and “Remain” options. Voters identify with these labels more strongly than they do with political parties and they have been shown to drive so-called “affective polarisation”; that is, deep political divisions fuelled by mutual, personal suspicion and dislike. Thus, in the wake of the Brexit vote, a Scottish electorate already sharply divided over the membership of one political union was further carved up into four distinct constitutional tribes: No/Leave, No/Remain, Yes/Leave and Yes/Remain.  

This means polarisation and party competition in Scotland are a significantly more complicated proposition than other parts of Britain, and that’s before other factors like traditional left-right economic disagreements, social and cultural issues and religious divisions in west central Scotland are taken into account.  

In the coming months, we will use the 2021 Scottish Election Study to improve our understanding of the nature of identity-based affective polarisation and its consequences in Scotland. For now, we can look at SES data gathered at previous elections to shed light on who these different tribal groups are and what they might be inclined to do this coming May. In this post, the first in a series, we break down the groups and their voting behaviour in more detail. In subsequent posts we’ll examine the sociodemographic characteristics, ideologies and values of the tribes. 

Size Matters – Comparing the Tribes 

The four voter blocs are not equal in size, and some voted more uniformly than others at the most recent nationwide ballot, the 2019 UK general election. Figure 1 shows the size of each group as a share of the overall electorate. The largest group is No/Remain with around 37%. This represented the status quo until the UK left the EU last year. Unsurprisingly, given Scotland’s sizeable Remain majority at the 2016 EU referendum, the next biggest group is Yes/Remain with roughly 29% of the electorate.  

The third-largest group, comprising around 20% of the electorate, is No/Leave. These voters support the current status quo of a Scotland inside the UK but outside the EU. Finally, the smallest tribe is the Yes/Leave bloc, who make up approximately 14% of the electorate. These voters are distinct in that they support the maximum degree of political decentralisation. It would be a mistake to overlook this group, since they may have played a decisive role in the 2017 general election

Figure 1: The four tribes as a proportion of the electorate

It is important to note that these numbers may now be out of date. Support for Scottish independence steadily increased after the last general election and the Yes side has held a narrow advantage in most opinion polls since this time last year. Some combination of Brexit, Boris Johnson’s premiership and the perception that the Scottish Government have done a better job handling the pandemic has drawn a group of largely middle-class, pro-EU voters into the Yes camp. As such, as things stand in early 2021, we would expect the Yes/Remain tribe to be slightly bigger and the No/Remain tribe to be slightly smaller, making them roughly equal in size. This raises questions about whether “tribe” is the appropriate descriptor for these groups. That’s something we’ll return to in a later post. 

Tribal Competition – 2019 Vote Choice 

Figure 2: 2019 UK General Election vote by Tribe

In the meantime, let’s turn to vote choices within each group. Figure 2 shows how each tribe voted in 2019, while the colourful graphics below (known as Sankey diagrams or alluvials) show how voters moved within each group between the 2017 general election and 2019.  

Some of the tribes were clearly represented by particular parties during the campaign. The arch-unionist Conservatives set out to “Get Brexit Done”, while the SNP sold the prospect of a second independence referendum as a way to “escape from Brexit”. Unsurprisingly, a healthy majority of No/Leave voters and Yes/Remain voters respectively backed these parties. The SNP especially dominated their corresponding tribe, attracting 87% of voters in the Yes/Remain camp. This was also the least volatile group, with little movement between 2017 and 2019 – other than the SNP peeling off around half of Labour’s share within the tribe. 

Things get more complicated when we look at other parties and groups. The No/Remain camp was remarkably evenly split, with each of the four main parties achieving vote shares in the 20s. The only explicitly pro-EU and anti-independence party was the Liberal Democrats, who went into the campaign pledging to cancel Brexit outright. But this uncompromising message proved unpopular even among Remainers. While the party got a higher share of these voters than in 2017, making net gains from Labour and the Conservatives, they still won just 20% of their tribe in Scotland and performed worse than the other three parties. 

The No/Remain group’s other natural home should have been Labour, but they made net losses among this tribe. Leading up to the campaign, the party found itself between a rock and a hard place on Brexit and avoided backing either side, promising instead to hold a second referendum on the issue. While this strategy may have been the least-worst option overall, the diluted Brexit message made life very difficult in Scotland with at least two other centre-left parties competing for Remain voters. As with the other pro-Remain tribe, Labour lost a substantial chunk of their 2017 voters here to the SNP. It is no wonder the nationalists managed to take back six of Labour’s seven Scottish seats, and it speaks to the weakness of the pro-union, pro-Remain offering in 2019 that the separatist SNP and Brexiteer Tories combined carried nearly half of the No/Remain tribe. 

The final group, Yes/Leave, had no credible party-political surrogates to get behind, forcing all of these voters to trade off Brexit and independence positions. The SNP won nearly half of this group, which reflects the tendency of Scots to prioritise their Yes/No allegiance over Remain/Leave identity when they come into conflict. However, as illustrated by the Conservatives’ healthy second place among these voters, it is no more than a tendency. This tribe was also highly volatile, with a large number of 2017 SNP voters defecting to the Conservatives. Did some supporters of independence “lend” a vote to the Tories for the sake of securing Brexit? It will be interesting to see what these voters do now that the process is indeed “done”. 

What a Load of Tribe – Wrapping Up 

As stated above, cross-cutting constitutional questions and overlapping national and supranational identities make for a complicated picture. Scotland is not neatly divided into two competing camps – it is a patchwork with no clear majority in favour of any particular constitutional configuration. 

Next week, we’ll investigate who these voters are, exploring age, gender, socioeconomic and identity differences between the groups. After that, we’ll take a look at the different attitudes and beliefs held by members of each tribe, which should give us clues as to the nature of affective polarisation in Scotland. Finally, we’ll discuss the future – how cohesive are these groups and how might they vote in 2021? We’ll be back every Monday with a new post. 

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