Scottish or British? Does national identity matter?

It may seem an obvious thing to say, but it is broadly true that the more Scottish you feel, the more likely you are to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum.

According to the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, about 6 in 10 of those who say they are ‘Scottish not British’ want the Scottish Parliament to make all decisions about Scotland. That still means, of course, that 40% of them do not, though most of those want devolution-max. Those who say they are ‘more Scottish than British’ split evenly between ‘independence’ and ‘devolution-max’ (just under 40% for each). Only 1 in 5 of them favour the status quo.

Thereafter support for independence falls away. Those who say they are ‘equally Scottish and British’ split one-third for devolution-max, one-third for the status quo, and just over 20% for independence. Meanwhile, those who claim to be ‘mainly or only British’ (only 1 in 10 of people living in Scotland) tend to favour the status quo (36%), though 30% support devolution-max. Only 1 in 6 of them favour independence.

However there is a potential problem with the 5-point scale (called ‘Moreno’ after the researcher who first used it in Scotland) on which these figures are based. Like it or not, it forces people to choose between Scottish and British. But what if you think of yourself as both ‘strongly Scottish’ and ‘strongly British’, which about 40% of people living in Scotland do?

Amongst this group independence is not the most popular option. Only a quarter support it.  The largest proportion of such people – 35% – favour devolution-max, followed by the status quo (30%). In contrast, those who describe themselves as strongly Scottish and weakly British are much more likely to favour independence (64%).

In other words, while there is a relationship between national identity and constitutional preference, it is by no means straightforward. Most people in Scotland say they are ‘strongly Scottish’, and on its own that inclines them to back independence. But if people feel ‘strongly British’ as well, then it is ‘devolution max’ that emerges as the single most popular option.

Those who favour devolution-max are faced with a dilemma. In a straight yes/no vote, what do you do? If you want a more powerful parliament but not an independent one, do you vote ‘no’ in the hope that the unionist parties devolve more powers over taxation and welfare to the Scottish parliament? Or do you vote ‘yes’ because you judge that the ‘independence’ on offer is closer to what you want as a maximalist?

This dilemma together with their mixed loyalties means devolution max supporters constitute a key target group for both camps.  The outcome could well turn on how they split. If just 30% of them vote ‘yes’, and we assume that the one-third ‘yes’ vote remains stable, then the race begins to look much closer than it currently seems.  Never say never in politics.

Key findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey are available to see on this site.

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About the author

David McCrone is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Edinburgh University, and has worked closely with the ScotCen team on Scottish Social Attitudes surveys since they began. He regularly writes on matters of national identity.