So Just How United Are SNP Supporters on Europe?

One of the most striking features of polls of voting intentions in the European Union referendum is that people in Scotland are much more likely to say they will vote to Remain than are their counterparts in England & Wales. Whereas polls across Britain as a whole suggest the referendum race is tight, in Scotland they point to a clear lead for Remain. Once the Don’t Knows are left to one side, polls north of the border suggest that at least three-fifths of Scots will vote to remain in the EU, while some have put the figure as high as three-quarters.

This represents a very different picture from the last referendum on Britain’s membership, held in 1975. On that occasion 69% of voters in England voted Yes to staying in the ‘Common Market’, with 31% voting against. In Scotland, in contrast, the victory for the Yes side was much narrower; 58% voted to stay, 42% against. Indeed, Shetland and the Western Isles were the only two local authority areas in Great Britain to record a majority vote to leave.

One feature of that previous campaign was that the SNP, which at the time was enjoying its first significant wave of electoral popularity (it had won 30% of the vote in the October 1974 general election), campaigned in favour of a No vote. Its position then was a far cry from the attitude adopted by the party today, whose vision of Scottish independence for the last 25 years or so has been one of ‘Independence in Europe’. Far from being considered an imposition on Scotland’s sovereignty, membership of the EU is regarded nowadays by the party as enhancing the credibility of the case for independence.  The extent of the party’s current commitment to EU membership was reflected in a recent vote in the Scottish Parliament in which 61 of the party’s 63 MSPs voted in favour of remaining in the EU –  the two MSPS who did not do so were simply not in the chamber to vote one way or the other.

But does that mean that nationalist voters are all set to show a similar unanimity? The answer to that question seems to be, ‘No.’. If we look at the five most recent polls of EU referendum voting intentions, all of them undertaken at or around the time of May’s Scottish Parliament elections, we find that nationalist supporters are no more united on the issue than Scots as a whole.

On average in these five polls, two thirds (67%) of all respondents said they would vote for Remain, one-third (33%) for Leave (leaving aside Don’t Knows). The figures for those who said they voted for the SNP a year ago (that is, in the 2015 UK general election) are almost identical. Support for Remain stood at 66%, while 34% said they would vote to Leave. Far from providing a more or less united block of voters for Remain, SNP supporters are a mirror image of Scotland as a whole – more in favour of Remain than Leave but still heavily divided. Despite their party’s stance on the issue, it looks as though for some nationalists at least, membership of the European Union is regarded an undesirable limitation upon the country’s sovereignty.

Indeed, SNP supporters are at least as divided about the referendum as their Labour counterparts, maybe even more so. For, at 73%, support for Remain in these polls amongst Labour supporters was a little higher than it was amongst SNP voters, and, conversely, support for Leave was a little lower. These figures are in fact very similar to those for Labour supporters in polls taken across Great Britain as a whole.

That said, there is little doubt that it is the Conservative party whose support is the most divided. While 56% of Conservative voters say they want to remain, 44% would prefer to leave. These figures imply the referendum is proving just as divisive for the party north of the border as it is in the rest of the UK. The only difference is that the balance of support amongst the party’s supporters north of the border is apparently in favour of Remain, whereas across Britain as a whole most polling suggests more Conservatives are inclined to vote to Leave than back Remain. This contrast may, perhaps, reflect the absence of any senior Conservative north of the border coming out in favour of Leave, albeit that some of the key Leave campaigners, most notably Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith, have Scottish roots.

Doubtless, if Scotland does vote more markedly in favour of Remain than England and Wales, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, (who will be batting for Remain in this Thursday’s ITV EU referendum debate) will be tempted to hail the result as evidence that voters share the SNP’s belief that Scotland’s place is in Europe. But, in truth, it is one that many a SNP voter does not share. This referendum is proving to be as divisive for the SNP as it is for every other party in Britain – apart from UKIP.

POSTSCRIPT. Just in case you were wondering, below we show how well the polls did in anticipating the outcome of the Scottish Parliament election on May 5th. There were just two polls that were conducted sufficiently close to polling day for it to be reasonable to assess their accuracy by comparing their figures with the final result. One of these polls was conducted by phone by Survation, the other by YouGov, undertaken via the internet.


Two points stand out.  First, the polls were right to suggest that the SNP would do notably less well on the list vote than on the constituency ballot, in contrast to the position in previous elections (and, it must be admitted, some scepticism in this blog about how far that would be the case). That said, Survation’s decision to change the wording of its list vote question in its final poll to one that seemed less likely to ascertain (mistakenly) people’s second preferences (a change that saw Green support fall by four points) seems to have been a wise one. In the end the Greens’ performance was at the lower end of what many polls had been anticipating during the campaign.

Second, although the polls proved to be correct in indicating that the Tories might overtake Labour on the list vote, in the event the two ‘final’ polls underestimated Conservative support on the final ballot. Indeed, no poll during the campaign suggested the Conservatives might win as much as the 23% they eventually secured. Estimating Conservative support accurately apparently still remains something of a challenge for the polling industry.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.