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Tribes and Tribulations – Holyrood 2021 Explained, Part One

An early morning view of Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

Every day this week, beginning the 14th of June, we’ll be publishing an article exploring an aspect of the 2021 Scottish Election using our latest survey data. First up, we investigate how the four constitutional Tribes have changed and what this means for Scottish politics.

Before the election, we wrote extensively about the “Four Tribes” of Scottish politics – that is, the groups Scots can be placed in according to their preferences on independence and EU membership. Now that our 2021 election survey data is in, we can shed light on how these groupings have shifted in the half-decade since the referendums and what this means for the country’s constitutional future. While party vote shares in 2021 were virtually static vs. the 2016 election, voter attitudes, choices and strategies evolved substantially under the surface. Tribe membership and voting patterns are one of the most striking ways to observe this, and we can now explore the detail using the data from our two-wave survey panel of 4,674 Scottish voting-age citizens (16+).

We created the 2021 tribal groupings using pre-election survey questions on a) independence referendum Yes/No vote intention and b) whether the UK was right or wrong to leave the European Union. The share of the electorate falling into each category before the election, including those who were undecided about one or the other issue, is shown in the bar graph below (these figures are weighted to be nationally representative).

No/Remain voters used to be comfortably the largest grouping – perhaps unsurprisingly, given they were on the winning (Scottish) side on both occasions. But they have now been overtaken by both No/Leave and Yes/Remain, the latter of which now commands the largest share of support by some distance. Meanwhile, the smallest grouping, Yes/Leave, has virtually disappeared – it would now perhaps be more accurate to talk about Scotland’s three constitutional Tribes given how niche this strand of opinion is. Before the election I suggested that a pro-independence, anti-EU party might be viable in future given the lack of representation these voters have – but it rather seems that this market has disappeared.

It is also worth noting the size of the “Other” grouping, which we have previously left out of our analysis. This category represents those who are uncertain about either independence or Brexit or both, so it contains a wide variety of opinion on each matter. While in some ways it is remarkable that more than 80% of the electorate have clear views on both topics, those undecided about Europe or independence will be crucial to Scotland’s constitutional future and we’ll do a specific analysis of this group in future.

We now turn to longer-term, individual-level changes to help us understand how and why these shifts have taken place. We have information on how most survey respondents voted in the 2014 and 2016 referendums, so we were able to calculate the “referendum Tribe” for each person to compare how they originally voted with where they currently stand. Around 67% of the sample (a total of 2,990) voted in both referendums and can be placed into a distinct Tribe based on current preferences.

The flow diagram (or alluvial) below shows how these groups have evolved (unweighted data), and it tells a striking story – almost all of the movement has been from the No/Remain and Yes/Leave groupings and towards the No/Leave and Yes/Remain ones. Remarkably, near-equal numbers of voters fled the Yes/Leave and No/Remain camps in each direction. Many expected a significant number of No/Remain voters to switch to Yes in the wake of Brexit, and that has clearly materialised to some extent. But we find that nearly as many went in the other direction, changing their mind on Brexit instead. The exact mirror image of this dynamic occurred within the Yes/Leave group, with roughly a third of these voters switching to Remain, a third flipping on Scottish independence and a third staying put.

What we appear to be observing here is constitutional polarisation, with voters increasingly bringing their preferences on independence and EU membership into alignment. While we would never suggest there’s anything inherently contradictory about supporting or opposing Scotland’s membership of both unions simultaneously, the Brexit process and its interactions with the Scottish constitutional question have framed the choice as one between the new status quo of a UK outwith the EU or (practicalities aside) a Scotland inside it.

These are, of course, the positions represented respectively by each of the parties which control Scotland’s two levels of national government. Both Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP advance a nationalism which is entwined with the European question, one way or the other. The UK government relies heavily on the idea of a self-sufficient Buccaneering Brexit Britain freed from the shackles of Brussels, while its Scottish counterpart portrays this as an exercise in deluded navel-gazing which is anathema to Scotland’s apparently welcoming reputation and values. It should come as little surprise that these two options have squeezed the likely-never-to-be-restored status quo ante or the politically neglected idea of an independent Scottish state outwith Europe’s political and economic orbit.

As discussed previously, voters rely on shortcuts like “elite cues” – signals from politicians they like – when updating their attitudes. The No/Leave and Yes/Remain options have clear party tribunes and represent politically dominant British and Scottish identity narratives, providing very straightforward cues. These positions are also opposites of one another, which likely results in something of a feedback loop.

That said, although the No/Remain group is diminished in number, they still represent a formidable contingent of voters and have their own party political advocates in the form of Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Yet this lack of consensus on Europe among No-intentioned voters contributes to the pro-union side’s relative political weakness within Scotland’s devolved institutions. Brexit ensures that the already-divided No coalition remains internally fragmented, while Yes supporters are aligned near-uniformly behind the SNP, enabling the party to continue winning an overwhelming majority of the legislature’s 73 single-member constituencies. That, coupled with strategic regional list voting why pro-independence legislators enjoy a significant numerical edge at Holyrood despite near 50:50 Yes/No party vote totals.

These differences are illustrated below on a graph which shows 2021 constituency vote share totals by Tribe. The SNP are utterly dominant among Yes supporters, attracting roughly 90% of their votes. The remaining Yes/Leave voters are even more strongly supportive of the SNP than their pro-EU counterparts, subordinating their preferences on Europe to their independence stance (and perhaps assuming that an independent Scotland’s route into the EU would be far from straightforward in any case). The SNP also pick up a non-trivial share of support from No groups, particularly those in favour of EU membership.

The patterns among the No groups themselves, meanwhile, illustrate how difficult it is for these voters and parties to challenge the highly unified Yes-SNP coalition. While the Conservatives have a strong hold on No/Leave voters – which is even greater on the proportional list vote – nearly a quarter of these voters backed other parties at constituency level. This is also the case for No/Remain voters (the most fragmented group of all) a similar number of whom selected the Conservatives as a plurality (but not majority) voted Labour.

This reflects the high degree of constituency-level strategic voting by No supporters, which is something Yes voters simply don’t need to think about. Although the efficiency of the No coalition improved as these tactics increased in prevalence, cross-party coordination of this nature has limits – especially when the parties concerned are historical and contemporary opponents on virtually every other issue.

While unionist voters fought back in 2021, the last five years’ worth of Tribal shifts insulted nationalists from any impact. As long as Europe and party politics continue to divide No supporters, the SNP will keep thumping pro-union parties at the ballot box.

6 thoughts on “Tribes and Tribulations – Holyrood 2021 Explained, Part One”

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  2. Just confirming what we all knew, but ignored that a YES vote in 2014 would have taken us OUT of both the EU & UK, the NO votes were hijacked to allow another indy ref by the Yes side.

  3. The choice of constituency vote here is normally only made to elide Green support, given the PR ballot typically being a more accurate representation of what people support. Or is there some other reason here I’m not aware of?

    1. Hi James, constituency vote was used here because that’s the reason the divisions among pro-union voters and parties put them at a structural disadvantage. The purpose of this article was to illustrate that, rather than discuss the “true” partisan preferences of tribe members (we have a lot of data specifically relevant to that and we’ll definitely provide analysis in future outputs).

      We are a non-partisan academic project and I can assure you we have no reason to deliberately under- or overstate support for any party. We’ve discussed list vote shares, including the performance of the Scottish Greens, at length in other posts e.g.

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