How Much Does Scotland Care About Brexit?

Scotland voted very differently from the rest of Britain in the EU referendum: 62% of Scottish voters supported Remain compared with 48% across the UK as a whole. The result north of the border chimed with the avowedly pro-European stance adopted by the Scottish government throughout the referendum campaign, and suggested that the Scottish electorate held opinions towards Europe that were markedly different from those held by their counterparts across the rest of the UK. In response, the First Minister requested the authority to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence as a result of what she referred to as the ‘material change of circumstances’ brought about by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. But do attitudes really differ between Scotland and the rest of Britain on the issue of Europe? And, if so, do voters in Scotland feel strongly enough about staying in the EU that they would be willing to rethink their constitutional preference?

The first point to note is that, despite the divergent result of the referendum north and south of the border, levels of Euroscepticism in Scotland (that is, the proportion of the population who favour a looser relationship with the EU than is currently the case) do not differ greatly from those across the rest of Britain. According to comparable data from the British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys, levels of Euroscepticism in both Scotland and Britain as a whole were well above 50% in each of the three years prior to the referendum, with the most recent available reading suggesting that, by 2016, Euroscepticism in Scotland had increased to 66% (compared with 76% across Britain as a whole).

How do we square high levels of Euroscepticism in Scotland with the referendum result, which saw the majority of voters north of the border vote to remain in the EU in June 2016? The answer, to some extent at least, lies in the relative strength of the party cues received by voters in Scotland (where the politically dominant and staunchly pro-European SNP held 56 out of the 59 available seats at Westminster and a strong majority at Holyrood) and those received across the rest of Britain (where the Conservatives were publicly split on the issue and Labour struggled to get its official pro-Remain message across to the electorate).

The effect of party cues can be demonstrated using British Election Study data, which illustrates that many voters in Scotland (and in particular SNP supporters) chose to remain in the EU despite not being convinced that leaving would be particularly harmful for the economy, and even though they felt that Brexit might cause immigration to fall. Essentially, these data show us that those in Scotland with relatively Eurosceptic attitudes were more likely to vote Remain than their counterparts across the rest of Britain, and that this effect was particularly pronounced amongst those who supported the SNP.

Despite the result of the EU referendum, then, it appears that underlying Scottish attitudes towards Europe do not differ greatly from those observed elsewhere in Britain. However, now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, do voters in Scotland adopt a divergent stance on the shape that Brexit should take?

Of this, there is little evidence. According to data collected using the random probability-based NatCen and ScotCen Panels (further referenced in this report by Prof Curtice in the context of attitudes towards immigration), the majority of voters in Scotland wish to maintain free trade with the EU whilst ending freedom of movement – a position also held by the majority of voters elsewhere in Britain. The most recent wave of fieldwork undertaken in October 2017 suggests that support for retaining free trade stands at 90% in Scotland compared with 88% across Britain as a whole, while the equivalent figures for ending freedom of movement are 59% and 64% respectively.

Further, although voters in Scotland appear to be more likely than voters south of the border to accept freedom of movement in return for free trade (63% compared with 53%), a majority believe that post-Brexit rules on both trade and immigration should be the same in Scotland as they are across the rest of the UK. It appears therefore that the views of voters in Scotland on what Brexit should mean are closer to the conception of Brexit envisaged by Theresa May than that offered by Nicola Sturgeon.

All of this suggests that, despite the differential referendum result in Scotland, leaving the EU may not represent the constitutional game-changer that some expected. The prevalence of Euroscepticism in Scotland, coupled with attitudes towards the shape of Brexit that correspond more closely with those of Westminster than Holyrood, hint at an electorate that may not reflect the resolutely pro-European outlook of the SNP.

Even more crucially, it appears that the very people required to change their minds in order to push support for independence over the 50% mark – those who voted No in the 2014 independence referendum, and Remain in the EU referendum – may not be so attached to the EU as to be willing to break up the Union with the rest of the UK to retain Scotland’s EU membership. According to the latest Scottish Social Attitudes data, even amongst unionists who voted Remain there exists a high degree of relative Euroscepticism – despite not wanting to leave the EU outright, 66% of this group wished to see a reduction in the EU’s powers. This suggests this group values the Union with the UK more than they value their links to the EU.

Whilst the First Minister’s speech at Bute House in which she announced that she wanted the authority to hold a second independence referendum reiterated her stance that voters in Scotland deserved “the right to choose our own future”, Ms Sturgeon also offered a cautionary note, highlighting that when voters made their choice in June 2016 “independence was not on the ballot paper … we cannot simply assume that because someone voted to Remain in the EU that they would vote Yes for an independent Scotland”. It appears her caution was well-founded.

This post first appeared in the UK in a Changing Europe‘s report ‘Brexit and Public Opinion’.

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About the author

Ian Montagu is a doctoral student at the University of Strathclyde and was previously a Senior Researcher at ScotCen Social Research. Ian has a particular interest in political attitudes and social equality, and is currently researching associations between attitudes towards the European Union and other areas of public policy.