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Is there a mandate for IndyRef2? Evidence from the Scottish Election Study

On 14 June 2022 Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeonannounced the Scottish Government’s new series of white papers, titled “Independence in the modern world. Wealthier, happier, fairer: why not Scotland?”, that would, over a series of weeks (or months), lay out the case for a second independence referendum in Scotland to be held late 2023. By the morning of 15 June, the story covered the front pages of most national papers and dominated the discussion on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme. The presenters pushed a series of pro-unionist and pro-independence party spokespeople on two main questions: (1) Would Nicola Sturgeon formally request a Section 30 Order that would allow Scotland to hold a referendum with No. 10’s consent (and what would the SNP Government do if the order was refused); and (2) Did the SNP Government hold a “mandate” to pursue a second independence referendum in the first place.

While the Scottish Election Study can’t speak to the legality of a second independence referendum and the issues surrounding the Section 30 Order, we can address the question of whether the Scottish public thinks that the Government has a mandate to pursue a second independence referendum. 

Traditionally, parliamentary governments are seen to have a “mandate” to carry out their manifesto pledges when they have won a sizeable victory in the preceding election. Over time, however, what is considered to be necessary to claim a “mandate” has slipped somewhat as parties forming governments argue that simply “winning” and being able to form a government as the largest party, even if only by a relatively slim percentage of seats (or votes), grants a mandate from the public to pursue policies laid out in the party’s campaign manifesto. And, of course, in political systems that have opted to use complex electoral systems – such as Scotland’s Mixed-Member Proportional system(often referred to as the Additional Member System in Scotland) – what constitutes a mandate can be a more difficult question. Often we focus our attention on the percentage of seats a party has won, rather than vote shares. 

In the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 64 seats, or 49.6% of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. Crucially, the other pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens won 8 seats, or 6% of the overall seats. Following the election the two pro-independence parties agreed a power-sharing arrangement in which the Greens co-leaders took up ministerial roles in the Scottish Government. Combined, the pro-independence power-sharing government holds 72 seats, or 55.8% of the seats in the chamber. In short, the SNP fell just 1 seat short of an out-right majority in the Scottish Parliament and with the power-sharing agreement with the Greens the Government holds a bit over a majority. 

This is the source, in part, of the debate on the question of whether the SNP-led Government holds a “mandate” to pursue IndyRef2. There are many different thresholds we might think would have to be reached before a governing party can claim it has a mandate. It may simply be that what now constitutes a mandate is ‘in the eye of the government,’ or perhaps ‘in the eye of the opposition.’  But we also might think that it is in the eye of the electorate. As there is no objective, independent benchmark on which to base claims of a mandate, we can turn to what the public thinks.  

With this in mind, following the announced results in 2021, the Scottish Election Study asked respondents in its post-election survey if they thought the election result granted a mandate to pursue a second independence referendum. We decided, though, that we wanted to test the possibility that whether or not there was mandate was conditional on what aspect of the election result the public was focused – whether the SNP fell just short of a majority of seats, or whether the pro-independence parties combined won a majority of seats in Parliament. 

To this end, we included a short survey experiment in the questionnaire put to our respondents. We split the sample into thirds: one-third received a rather neutrally worded question, one-third were presented with a question noting the SNP fell a bit short of a majority of seats and one-third received a question noting that the pro-indy parties won a majority. The results appear below – we present these for all respondents receiving the question, then break down responses in columns by whether respondents said they would vote Yes, No or if they don’t know how they would vote in a second independence referendum (with the same question wording as in 2014). 

GROUP A (1/3 of sample): the neutral question 

“There is a lot of talk about whether there is a mandate for another independence referendum. Which of these comes closest to your view about whether the May 6th election delivered a mandate?”

 AllYes VotersNo VotersDon’t Know
Definitely did26%56%3%13%
Probably did29%33%21%49%
Probably didn’t20%9%29%28%
Definitely didn’t25%2%48%11%
N1,193465583106

GROUP B (1/3 of sample): the SNP fell short question

“The SNP won the election but didn’t get a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. There is a lot of talk about whether this means there is a mandate for another independence referendum. Which of these comes closest to your view about whether the May 6th election delivered a mandate?” 

 AllYes VotersNo VotersDon’t Know
Definitely did24%55%4%13%
Probably did29%35%18%50%
Probably didn’t20%7%26%32%
Definitely didn’t27%3%53%5%
N1,133434540111

GROUP C (1/3 of sample): the pro-independence majority question

“Pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. There is a lot of talk about whether this means there is a mandate for another independence referendum. Which of these comes closest to your view about whether the May 6th election delivered a mandate?” 

 AllYes VotersNo VotersDon’t Know
Definitely did26%59%2%10%
Probably did35%33%31%59%
Probably didn’t18%6%26%25%
Definitely didn’t20%1%42%7%
N1,11645851988

Across the board we see that following the 2021 election, majorities in all conditions thought there was a mandate for a second referendum, whether they received the neutral prompt (55%), the SNP fell short prompt (53%) and the pro-independence parties won a majority prompt (61%). 

Not surprisingly, people who said they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum resoundingly believed there was a clear mandate. But, somewhere between 7-11% of them had their doubts. Amongst No voters, those receiving the neutral prompt saw grounds for a mandate (24%); with the SNP fell short prompt, 22% said there was a mandate; and with the pro-independence parties won a majority prompt 33% – a full third – said there was a mandate for a second independence referendum. 

Perhaps the group to be most interested in, though, are those people who might be up for grabs in a future referendum campaign – those who say they do not know how they would vote. Whilst not as emphatic as Yes supporters, the Don’t Knows also clearly supported the idea of there being a mandate for a second independence referendum. Under the three conditions, 62% (neutral), 63% (SNP fell short) and 69% (pro-indy majority) affirmed that a mandate exists for a second independence referendum. 

If whether a government actually has a mandate depends on whether they do in the eye of the public – and not in the eye of the politicians arguing their position in the media – then it would seem that, on balance, the SNP Government can have some confidence that a mandate existed following the 2021 elections. Of course, given that it was just over a majority of the public that was positively disposed to say the SNP Government held a mandate after the election, what we don’t know (though we’ll be keen to find out in our future SCOOP surveys) is to what extent the SNP has held and can hold on to their mandate.  

The 2021 Scottish Election Study data and questionnaires are available here.

9 thoughts on “Is there a mandate for IndyRef2? Evidence from the Scottish Election Study”

  1. Of course there is a mandate for Indy 2-the opposition are inexplicably working against the basic principles of democracy.

    1. There were 1,326,194 votes for the Pro Independence parties …. 1,364,734 votes for pro union parties …. that’s the principle of democracy!

  2. It is misleading to aggregate ‘definitely’ and ‘probably’ responses, and describe that as an aggregate binary majority.

    You need better advice on handling stats.

  3. Jacqueline Jensen

    I strongly believe there is a mandate for a second independence referendum, the pre election manifesto was explicit.

  4. There has been a mandate since the 2019 UK General Election, anyone who states otherwise is an advocate of dictatorship…..

  5. If I remember correctly Boris delivered Brexit “will of the people” with 43%? SNP have a mandate with 47% its a different, modern, more democratic system than the Westminster bubble with the swords and the Lords and an 80 seat majority on 43%. 49.6% of the seats not including cooperation with greens. For the sake democracy a second referendum needs to happen.

    1. Of the 7 largest parties with a clear manifesto position

      50.4% of votes cast for pro-Independence parties
      49.6% weekend cast for pro-Union
      (of 98.5% of votes cast)

      There were 9 more parties & 16 Independents

      I plan to dig in to the other manifestos

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