The 2019 Election: A Constitutional Cry or a Brexit Ballot?

The reverse suffered by the SNP in the election in June 2017 resulted in Nicola Sturgeon putting her plans to hold a second independence referendum on ice. In contrast, the recovery in the party’s position in the election last December encouraged the First Minister to claim that she now had a mandate to pursue another ballot. In the event, of course, coronavirus then intervened. Even so, as politicians in all parties begin to anticipate the Scottish Parliament election scheduled for next year – an event now set to be the next chapter in the constitutional saga – it is worth taking a look at what did account for the increase in nationalist support last year.

After all, both the 2017 and the 2019 election were called for the purpose of resolving Brexit, not settling Scotland’s constitutional status. We also know that south of the border Brexit has played a crucial role in shaping how people voted. In both elections, the Conservatives gained ground among those who voted Leave while they lost support among those who backed Remain. Conversely, if not so dramatically, Labour found it easier to prosper among Remain voters than Leave supporters. Meanwhile, previous research based on the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has indicated that Brexit played a more important role than people’s stance on the constitutional question in shaping who switched towards the Conservatives and who swung away from the SNP. In short, there is no reason why we should assume that the outcome of the 2019 election was simply driven by the independence question.

We first addressed this issue last December. However, at that time we had to rely on polls of how people said they would vote conducted shortly before polling day. Now, though, data based on how people in Scotland say they actually voted are available as part of interviewing undertaken for the British Election Study, the principal mechanism for the survey based approach to the academic study of elections in Britain. In recent years, the study has been commissioning YouGov to undertake very large occasional polls of 30,000 or so people across Great Britain. The most recent of these was undertaken shortly after the general election, and thanks to its large size, its sample includes as many as 3,223 people north of the border. Similar exercises were undertaken after the 2015 and 2017 election, which means that we can also use the study to see the pattern of voting has changed.

If a particular issue is responsible for the rise or fall in a party’s support, the extent of that rise or fall should vary depending on people’s stance on that issue. So, if the rise in support for the SNP in 2019 was an expression of people’s wish to see independence pursued we would expect the party’s support to have increased more among those who back independence than among those who did not. Similarly, if the drop in Conservative support was a reflection of the party’s stance on Brexit, the fall should have been bigger among those who opposed Brexit than it was among those who were in favour.


Source: 2015-19 British Election Panel Study, Waves 13 and 19


Table 1 breaks down the pattern of party support according to how people voted in the 2014 independence referendum. At both elections, the SNP clearly dominated among those who voted Yes, while the Conservatives were the single most popular party among those who voted No. The way that many though not all people voted reflected their position on the constitutional question. However, the increase in SNP support was, at ten points, actually more marked among those who voted No than it was among those who voted Yes (four points). This is not what one would anticipate if the SNP were gaining ground simply because of its demand for independence. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were struggling to maintain their support among those who voted No. Between them these two patterns mean that the link between people’s stance on the constitutional issue and how they voted in 2014 weakened somewhat in the 2019 election.


Source: 2015-19 British Election Panel Study, Waves 13 and 19


Table 2 undertakes the same analysis according to how people voted in the 2016 EU referendum. Here we discover that as well as being by far the most popular party among those who voted Yes to independence the SNP is also single most popular choice among those who voted to Remain in the EU, a position that south of the border is occupied by Labour. Meanwhile, the Conservative party is most popular among those who voted Leave, though the party’s standing among this group is well down on the three-quarters or so of Leave voters that backed the party south of the border.

However, in contrast to the picture we saw in respect of independence, the link between party support and their stance on Brexit strengthened somewhat in 2019. Support for the SNP increased rather more among those who voted Remain than it did among those who voted Leave, while Conservative support held up among Leave supporters while falling among Remain supporters.

In short, as in 2017, Brexit seems to have played a more important role than independence in accounting for the ups and down in party support – much as appeared to be the case in our earlier analysis based on pre-polling day polls. Between them the two elections have witnessed a substantial change in the character of SNP and Conservative support. Back in 2015, support for the SNP was almost as high among those who a year later voted Leave as it was among those who went on to support Remain. Now support for the party is almost twice as high among Leave voters as Remain supporters. Meanwhile whereas the Conservative party among Remain voters is at the same level now as it was in 2015, it is now nearly 30 points higher among the minority of voters in Scotland who voted Leave.

Previously we have noted how attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status have become increasingly intertwined with attitudes towards the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, with the rise in support for independence that has been in evidence in the polls during the last year occurring almost entirely among those who voted Remain. Now we have further evidence that this intertwining is also apparent in the pattern of party support in Scotland. Electorally, the SNP has become a pro-Remain as well as a pro-independence party, a pattern that may help explain why the party gained ground in December among those who voted No to independence six years ago. It is a development that seems unlikely to make it any easier for the unionist parties to topple the nationalists from their pedestal at Holyrood next year.

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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.