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Ye May Gang Far and Fare Waur – Brexit and Immigration Attitudes in Scotland

This morning the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Angus Robertson, blamed Brexit and the UK government for the labour shortages currently causing a supply chain crisis across the British economy. There is nothing especially remarkable about this statement: the Scottish National Party’s views on immigration and European Union membership are well-known, as is their proclivity for pointing the finger at Boris Johnson’s administration.

In response to this, however, a political reporter at The Scotsman pondered whether or not it was “a vote-winning stance” and speculated that Scottish Leave voters would be unhappy about it. It’s a good question, and one worth asking since political partisans tend to labour under “false consensus”; the mistaken belief that their positions are more popular than they are in reality. Could the SNP and the wider independence movement be walking into a political trap on this issue?

While it is also not the Scottish Election Study’s job to pass judgement on the merits of Robertson’s claim, at first glance it is a reasonable position for the SNP veteran to take in purely political terms. The party are one of the few nationalist outfits in the world to favour increased immigration, but there are good reasons for this, particularly in a post-Brexit context.

Firstly, as implied by Matchett, Scotland is more exposed to visa and border control issues than other parts of the UK since growth – even maintenance – of the country’s population is entirely dependent on incoming migrants.

Secondly, as myself and fellow SES researcher Prof. Rob Johns and recently argued in a piece for Progressive Review, the modern incarnation of the Scottish nationalist movement arose out of opposition to right-wing policies being “imposed” on Scotland by Conservative governments and continues to be defined in this way.

Thirdly, nearly two thirds of Scots who voted in the 2016 EU referendum supported Remain. At the time, this group split more evenly across the Yes/No divide on Scottish independence but now, as discussed at length in previous SES blogs, Yes-supporting voters are overwhelmingly pro-EU and No voters are close to evenly split on the issue. To boot, Yes voters of both persuasions on Brexit vote almost exclusively for the SNP on the constituency half of the Holyrood ballot.

The share of each constitutional groupings within the electorate is shown again in the figure below. To recap, the Yes/Remain tribe is now comfortably the largest, representing more than one-in-three voters. The Yes/Leave part of the electorate, meanwhile, has almost evaporated since 2016, likely because of the Scottish Government’s signals on the EU issue. Among 2021 SNP constituency voters, only 13.4% believe it was right to leave the EU and just 7.7% indicated they would vote No in another independence referendum. Meanwhile, 79.7% believe it was wrong to leave the EU and 82.7% would vote Yes (the remainder in each case are unsure). This partially answers Matchett’s question on its own – Robertson and the SNP have little to worry about because there is such a high degree of alignment between supporting independence, voting SNP and opposing Brexit.

In this environment, as a “civic nationalist” left-of-centre party, it would be strange to see the SNP argue that Brexit and the UK government aren’t to blame for the current crisis. It is hard to imagine what a more Eurosceptic, immigration-agnostic Scottish Government would even look like. However, on the specific question of immigration Scottish voter attitudes are somewhat more mixed. Scotland is often portrayed, particularly by nationalists, as a “more welcoming” place for inabootcomers of all nationalities, and this is probably exaggerated. As Curtice and Montagu conclude in a 2018 NatCen report, Scottish views about the cultural and economic effects of immigration do not differ dramatically from those held in other parts of the UK.

In the 2021 SES we asked respondents a variety of questions about their attitudes to immigration. One of these was their level of agreement, on a five-point scale, with the statement “The number of immigrants from foreign countries coming to live in Scotland should be increased”. We observe that attitudes are ambivalent or mixed, leaning negative. Combining “Strongly Agree”/”Agree” and “Strongly Disagree/Disagree”, just 21.6% indicate agreement and 36.9% indicate disagreement, while 41.5% are on the fence. These figures are consistent with the pattern found when a similar question was asked by YouGov in 2017, suggesting that attitudes have not shifted much in the intervening years.

So Scots, generally speaking, are not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of more immigration, despite the country’s apparent reputation. That said, there are substantial differences on this question across the constitutional groupings. The figure below shows how Yes and No supporters fall on the whole scale for on the same question. The numbers for Yes supporters are almost the mirror image of those for the whole electorate – they lean in favour of immigration, albeit not massively. No supporters, on the other hand, are much less equivocal, with just 12.7% overall agreeing that immigration should be increased and more than half disagreeing. While this is good news from an SNP perspective, it is notable that No supporters are much more anti-immigration than Yes voters are pro-immigration.

The next figure shows the mean on this scale, between 0 and 4, for each constitutional tribe. Notably, only the Yes/Remain grouping is more in favour of immigration in the abstract than not, and even then only narrowly. Some members of this tribe may be surprised to learn that many their constitutional co-partisans are less than keen on welcoming more “New Scots”.

On the other hand, SES data suggest that Scots hold relatively positive views about the economic and cultural impacts of immigration. On the same five-point agree-disagree scale as before, SES respondents were asked about the extent to which they believe immigration “is good for Scotland’s economy” and “undermines Scotland’s cultural life”. The means from this scale are shown below for each tribe, with values to the right indicating a positive attitude to immigration and values to the left indicating negative attitudes (the scale on the cultural question was flipped for this purpose).

Attitudes to economic and cultural impacts differ little within each group (the correlation coefficient across the whole sample is very high at 0.71). And, consistent across both figures, immigration attitudes appear to be associated with both Brexit preference and constitutional preference, with Brexit taking precedence i.e. Yes/Remain are most positive, then No/Remain, then Yes/Leave, then No/Leave. On net, all of the groups except No/Leave view immigration as more positive than negative. Yes/Remainers are particularly enthusiastic, falling above a 3 from 0-4 on both counts. Scots, broadly, appear quite comfortable with immigration in the abstract – it’s just that they are somewhat more lukewarm when rubber meets road.

Overall, then, given the priority Scots give to their constitutional preferences when voting, it seems unlikely that strong support for immigration will hurt the SNP. These attitudes could potentially come to threaten the Scottish Government as well as Scotland’s long-term demographic survival… if the country ever controlled the relevant levers of power. Right now, the SNP can talk up the benefits of immigration and signal their socially liberal bona fides to their large number of cosmopolitan voters. But they lack much of an ability to put their money where their mouth is, insulating them from the possible consequences of enacting such a policy among less enthusiastic supporters.

Paradoxically, despite the contrasts drawn between Brexit and Scottish independence by pro-immigration Yes campaigners and Scottish Government officials, separation from the rest of the UK might reveal that Scotland is not, after all, a uniquely welcoming part of the British isles.