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Risk and Reward – Why do People Support or Oppose Scottish Independence?

Guest blog post by James David Griffiths, University of Manchester, Cardiff University and Welsh Election Study

Scottish independence is at something of a stalemate. The SNP has promised to introduce a bill for a second independence referendum, but Boris Johnson’s Conservative Westminster government continues to rebuff requests to transfer the necessary legislative powers north of the border. Among the electorate, independence continues to be the primary issue dividing Scottish politics, but support (excluding don’t knows) has fluctuated between around 43 percent and 55 percent since the 2014 independence referendum.

What are the motivations for supporting or opposing Scottish independence? Researchers found that perceptions of the economic consequences of independence, opinions on who benefits most from the union, as well as national identities and concerns over currency had an influence on attitudes towards independence in 2014.

However, the political situation has changed drastically since then. The United Kingdom has left the European Union and the world has suffered through the COVID-19 pandemic. Both issues have had clear connections to devolved politics – as a threat and a magnifying glass respectively. Attitudes towards Scottish independence and Brexit are increasingly inter-linked, and there is some evidence that the same is true of evaluations of the pandemic. Given the changing context, I explore the reasons behind independence preferences in 2021.

For this, I use data from the 2021 Scottish Election Study panel survey. Respondents were first asked their independence preference using the question from the 2014 referendum (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”). The results are shown in Table 1. Those who said “Yes” and “No” were then asked a separate follow-up open-text question on why they gave their answer. I cleaned these responses (fixed spelling errors, remove capitalisation, wrote-out acronyms, removed connecting words) and excluded the word ‘Scotland’, as that overwhelms all other words in both cases. I discuss the results below. 86.85

PreferenceShareTwo-option Share
Yes40.1946.28
No46.6653.72
Would not vote3.63
Don’t know9.51
Table 1 – Responses to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Scottish Election Study 2021 (post-election wave), n=3,397, population weights applied

Yes Supporters – Not Europe, but Westminster and Autonomy

Figure 1 shows that one word dominates among supporters of Scottish independence: Westminster. Opposition to Westminster was a key component of the Yes campaign, and it seems clear that independence supporters are continuing this in 2021. Responses include “Getting away from the rule of Westminster” and “End Westminster rule.” These results may even underestimate the sentiment towards Westminster, as many people use the “UK government” instead – as shown by the popularity of United, Kingdom, and government. Thus, opposition to the centre of the domestic union appears the clearest motivator for supporting independence.

Figure 1 – Wordcloud of most common words used when giving reasons for supporting Yes in a future Scottish independence referendum
Scottish Election Study 2021, n=1,316

While obviously linked to Westminster, Yes supporters are less likely to mention the Conservatives directly. In total, there are only 177 mentions of something to do with the Conservatives (Tory, Tories, Conservative, Boris Johnson, Conservatives). This is something of a surprise given that the Yes campaign focused their opposition to both Westminster and the Conservatives.

What about Europe? Europe was used as a tool to convince voters to oppose independence in 2014, and since the 2016 Brexit referendum the two have become aligned. Despite the recent link, the EU is mentioned far less often than other issues. Even when combining multiple words for Europe (Brexit, re-join, EU, Europe), it is mentioned 175 times by Yes supporters compared to 275 times for Westminster alone. Consequently, preferences on Europe may align now, but it does not seem to be a driving influence for most Yes voters.

Figure 2 – Top 15 most common groups of words used when giving reasons for supporting Yes in a future Scottish independence referendum
Scottish Election Study 2021, n=1,316

Instead, issues of autonomy or representation appear more often (Figure 2), linking back to long-term discussions about Scotland’s “democratic deficit”. There are direct references with words like “decisions” (“To make our own decisions”) and “control” (“control over Scottish affairs”), and this sentiment also appears when individuals talk about government (“Scotland should get the Government it votes for”).

Even mentions of the “country” often include references to autonomy. In some instances, individuals reference their national identity explicitly (“I’m Scottish”), but in many others they relate to autonomy (“We can run our own country far better than England can”). As a result, dislike of the current power structure and a desire for a stronger Scottish voice appear to be the most prevalent reasons for supporting independence.

Finally, there are many references to England, but these still mostly relate to issues of representation (“… doesn’t matter what Scotland wants whatever England votes for will prevail”) or perceived ideological differences (“England and Scotland have different ideologies”). Scottish nationalism sometimes gets accused of being “anti-English”, and it is true that some individuals express clear Anglophobia (“hate England”), but this is certainly not the dominant trend.

No Voters – An Instrumental Union, Attachment, and Fear for the Economy

Moving to No backers, what are the main reasons for opposing independence? Previous research has found that there are three central themes among pro-union elites post-Brexit. In order of their salience: the UK as an economic union that Scotland would struggle without; a social welfare union that connects those across Britain; and the supposed inclusiveness of British identity. Here, I explore whether these motivations are echoed among No voters.

Overall, the dominant words are “United” and “Kingdom” (Figure 3). However, like political elites who offer different defences for the union, No voters mention the UK in different ways. Some invoke the UK in instrumental terms (“Scotland is better served in the United Kingdom”), while others focus on their attachment (“like being part of United Kingdom”).

Figure 3 – Wordcloud of the most common words used when giving reasons for supporting No in a future Scottish independence referendum
Source: Scottish Election Study 2021, N: 1,316

The same is true of the next most common words (Figure 4). For example, No voters use “country” to invoke both the instrumental advantages of the union (“It is wrong and ruin the country”) or their attachment to it as a nation (“We are one country”). The instrumental advantages of the union are also clear in the popularity of the word “better,” particularly as many invoke the No campaign’s slogan “better together.”

Figure 4 – Top 15 most common groups of words used when giving reasons for supporting No in a future Scottish independence referendum
Source: Scottish Election Study 2021, n=1,316

However, individuals often use different words to describe the same theme. Nowhere is this clearer than with attitudes towards the economy among No voters. Indeed, several words that relate to the economy receive over 10 mentions (Table 1). When combining these words, there are 702 mentions of something to do with the economy. Both sides argued that Scotland’s economy would be financially better off if their side was victorious in the 2014 referendum, but it appears that these arguments resonate most among No voters.

WordCountWordCount
Economy111Poor17
Economic100Resources17
Afford76Trade14
Financially65Debt14
Economically61Finance14
Money56Pay12
Financial55Bankrupt12
Currency39Cost11
Economics18Oil10
Table 2 – Words concerning the economy with 10+ mentions among No supporters
Scottish Election Study 2021

Finally, as with Yes backers, party politics feature in the reasons provided by some No supporters, but they appear less frequently than other issues. In total, there are 157 mentions of either the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon. These relate to trust in the SNP (“I dont trust the SNP”) and evaluations of their competence (“dont think SNP would cope”). In some cases, they link this distrust to their economic concerns (“Nicola Sturgeon and her not truthful about money”). Thus, dislike of political parties are clearly important to some on either side of the independence issue, but they are not the driving motivation for many.

At an Impasse? The Constitutional Camps are Talking Past Each Other

Overall, individuals on either side of the independence issue have different priorities. Issues with Westminster and a desire for greater Scottish autonomy lie behind the reasons for Yes support. In contrast, both attachment and the instrumental and economic benefits of the union are the most popular motivations expressed by No voters.

Neither group appears to place great emphasis on the issues that are salient to the other. This may make it difficult for them to communicate across the divide, which is an issue when independence is the primary cleavage in Scottish politics.

These results have implications for how activists might approach the “neverendum” campaign. For independence opponents, the task is complicated by the actions of the UK government. Since 2016, the UK Conservatives have shifted towards a form of “hyper unionism” – focussed the apparent benefits of the union while also assuming the sovereignty and supremacy of Westminster. This approach is not likely to improve the union’s appeal to current Yes supporters considering they both dislike Westminster and desire further autonomy for Scotland.

For independence backers, the task seems clearer – convincing undecided and soft No voters that independence is less of a risk. This is not new, as the Yes campaign attempted to limit the perceived economic risks of independence in 2014. However, these results suggest that there is more work to be done.

One avenue may be to stress the limits of Brexit. While Europe is not directly mentioned as often as other issues for current Yes voters, there is some evidence that Brexit is making voters reconsider the perceived riskiness of independence. This is not without some political risk, as a non-trivial minority of existing independence supporters oppose re-joining the EU, and the mechanics of trade in a post-Brexit world complicate questions around an independent Scotland’s economy and borders. However, Brexit may represent a vehicle for convincing some No voters of the perceived instrumental benefits (and lower economic risk) of Scottish independence.

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