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Better Apart: The Voters Behind the Polls

Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Hazel Laing.

The issue of national independence, at any time, is bound up with ideas of both personal and collective identity. Scotland’s case is no exception and, perhaps, presents a unique perspective on the question of nationality and national identity.

The question of Scottish independence is by no means a new one. The late 19th century saw the campaign for Scottish Home Rule begin. This was a campaign which led to devolution - the transfer of power - on two levels; administrative devolution in 1885 with the creation of the Scottish Office, and political devolution with the creation of the Scottish Parliament over a century later in 1999. 

The party at the forefront of the entire independence campaign is the SNP, the Scottish National Party. Founded in 1934, the SNP had its first MP elected to Westminster in 1945, but was politically marginal throughout the 20th century. It wasn’t until 2007 that the first SNP (minority) government was formed at Holyrood, before the party went on to form Scotland’s first majority government in 2011. With this majority, the party was enabled to hold its first independence referendum in 2014. This referendum was defeated 55.3% to 44.7%, resulting in the resignation of the then-First Minister and leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond

Nicola Sturgeon assumed Salmond’s position as party leader that year, leading the SNP into its third consecutive term as a minority government in 2016. Crucially, the party has had a clear message on the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU, pushing to have it kept in place. 2016’s UK-wide referendum saw Scotland, in contrast to the overall UK result, vote to remain - 62% to 38%. This has been perhaps the most significant ground for subsequent calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence, with Sturgeon commenting that ‘Scotland has spoken - and spoken decisively’ on the matter of EU membership. 

Which brings us to the present day. 

The 2019 general election saw a surge in support for the SNP, and the latest opinion poll conducted by Ipsos MORI has found that, of those ‘likely to vote in an independence referendum, 58% say they would vote Yes while 42% would vote No,’ (Though opinion polls, of course, must be taken with a pinch of salt.)

If the indications of an increase in support for independence are accurate, what kinds of voters are behind this shift in attitude?

To answer this question, it’s important to look at what circumstances have changed since 2014. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the dreaded word itself - Brexit. Following the overall Leave vote in 2016, the Conservatives have (eventually) led the UK out of the EU, dragging both Scotland and Northern Ireland along kicking and screaming. It can’t be denied that this has been a game-changer for Scotland. Has it been a deal-breaker for a certain demographic who, prior to the 2016 vote, was either opposed to or undecided on the question of independence? 

If Brexit is a major factor in the increased level of support for independence, does that mean that those responsible for the change were unaffected by the UK’s treatment of Scotland prior to the 2016 vote? 

It is likely that many of those who were pushed from an anti-independence stance to a pro-independence one by the UK’s exiting the EU have, to a large degree, focused on the many economic disadvantages that Brexit brings to Scotland. In an interview with The Parliament Magazine in July 2020, Michael Russell (Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affair) warned that the loss of free trade with the EU could lower GDP by 6.1% by 2030, while the UK’s proposed Free Trade Agreement with the US would only increase the UK’s GDP by up to 0.16%. He also stated that this potential agreement with the US would not be of any benefit to Scotland, and would not lead to any ‘significant increase in Scottish exports.’ 

So, many of those who are aware of the disadvantages that Brexit brings to Scotland’s economy will have, understandably, realised that circumstances at present are much different to circumstances in 2014 as a result. However, this certainly does not mean that circumstances were fantastic prior to the referendum. The 2014 results show that council areas of among the lowest economic standing in the country - Dundee City, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, for example - saw a majority ‘yes’ vote, while more affluent areas such as Edinburgh, Stirling and the Scottish Borders produced a greater percentage of ‘no’ votes. What becomes clear is that many voters in Scotland’s working class districts did not have to wait for Brexit for them to seek a split from Westminster. That sentiment had long since been bred in a number of these areas, exasperated especially by the treatment they received under the UK government - perhaps most notably under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. It would make sense, then, that a significant number of those responsible for the recent surge in support for independence are not those who have long since felt disillusioned with the authority of the UK, but rather those who had not felt the ill-effects of such poor treatment until the results of the Brexit referendum were announced. 

There is, of course, another way in which the political climate of today differs significantly from that of 2014. The COVID-19 pandemic has, in a sense, been a further force of division between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. In a survey of adults resident in Scotland conducted by Panelbase, 60% of participants rated the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic as ‘good’, while just 38% said the same for the UK government. From March onwards, the two governments’ approaches became increasingly removed from one another, especially following Sturgeon’s supplementing of the UK-wide scientific advisory group with a new group specifically for Scotland. Such a wide gap in satisfaction levels for the respective governments is sure to have many of those who might previously have backed the notion of being ‘better together’ putting this stance into question; are we truly better together? 

There are several other factors to take into account at this stage - Sturgeon’s popularity (especially in comparison to Salmond’s), for example, and the young people who have, since 2014, become eligible to vote. Yet, the identities of those behind the highest levels of change in opinion become most obvious through an examination of the most bitter points of contention in UK politics today. For those already frustrated with their treatment under Westminster, these points of contention will only reassure them of their stance in any upcoming referendum. It is upon those for whom recent politics has been a wake-up call of sorts that a large portion of the change lies. Those of a middle- or upper-class background, perhaps, or from areas that have been spared the brunt of mistreatment from Westminster for years. Now, as political tension between Scotland and its neighbour threatens to boil over, more and more of these voters appear to be moving from a pro-union to an anti-union stance. 

The voter identities that make up the ‘Yes’ side are diverse and wide-ranging. Yet, these are citizens who are willing to put a number of differences aside for the common - and increasingly popular - cause of independence. Whether this sense of unity is enough to bring a nation free of a 300-year-old union into being remains to be seen. 

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