Nicola Sturgeon has a fall-back plan. In her statement in June on how she proposed to set about trying to hold a second independence referendum in the face of opposition from Westminster, she indicated that, if she were unable to hold a legal referendum in October 2023, she would contest the next UK general election as if it were a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. If a majority of votes were cast for parties in favour of independence, she would regard that as a mandate to seek talks on independence.
Opposition parties have criticised this stance. They have suggested that there is a host of other issues on which voters might wish to vote, including not least the performance of the SNP in office. Yet in truth neither Ms Sturgeon nor the opposition parties can determine how voters will vote in the next Westminster ballot. It will be up to voters themselves to decide whether or not the constitutional question is the most important issue in the election or not.
What, however, is clear is that attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status divide the parties’ supporters now to a far greater extent than they did a decade ago. Indeed, the constitutional question seems to be as divisive an issue in Scotland as it is in Northern Ireland, where it has long appeared to be the case that questions of identity and constitutional status have mattered more to voters than arguments about how well Northern Ireland itself was being run – and where, for similar reasons to those in Scotland, the constitutional question has also become a stronger dividing line. Based on data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey and the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, together with British Social Attitudes itself, these are among the findings of a chapter on long-term trends in attitudes towards how the UK should be governed that is published today in the latest British Social Attitudes report.
Those in Scotland who regard themselves as Conservative supporters have always been close to unanimous in their opposition to independence. Back in 2011, when the SNP won an overall majority at Holyrood, just 5% of Conservatives said that Scotland should become an independent country. However, those who at that time backed the SNP were divided in their attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status. Only just over half (54%) said that Scotland should become an independent country, while 44% indicated that Scotland should remain in the UK with a devolved parliament. Much of the support for the SNP appeared to rest on the party’s perceived ability to stand up for Scotland’s interests and provide effective devolved government rather than because of its stance on independence.
But the character of SNP support now is very different. In the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey as many as 82% now say they back independence while 18% back staying in the UK. Although not quite the mirror image of the views of Conservative supporters, just 5% of whom back independence and 94% would prefer Scotland to remain in the UK, supporters of the two parties are now more polarised on the constitutional question. Party support and constitutional preference have come close to being synonymous.
Much the same trend is evident in Northern Ireland. There, supporters of the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have always been near unanimous in their support for remaining part of the Union. In 2010, no less than 93% of the party’s supporters expressed that view, while just 5% backed unification with the rest of Ireland or becoming an independent state.
However, a decade ago, supporters of the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, were much more divided in their views. Slightly less than half (48%) backed unification, while another 5% said that Northern Ireland should become an independent state. But over one in three (38%) stated that it should remain part of the UK. Some of the party’s support seemingly came from those who looked to the party to represent nationalist interests within the UK rather than because they wanted unification.
DUP supporters remain committed to the Union – 93% still say that is where Northern Ireland’s future should lie. However, as many as 70% of Sinn Fein supporters now back unification, while 9% would like an independent state. Just 10% say that Northern Ireland should remain in the UK. As in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s two largest parties have become much more polarised on the question of its constitutional future, a development that in both countries has occurred because of a growth in support for leaving the UK among supporters of the largest nationalist party.
Of course, one other feature that Scotland and Northern Ireland have in common is that they voted against leaving the EU. And in both countries Brexit appears to have played a key role in the process of polarisation. Back in 2016, those in Scotland who voted Remain (44%) and those who supported Leave (45%) expressed similar levels of support for independence. But among those who now say they would vote Remain (and 81% of SNP supporters fall within this camp), nearly two-thirds (65%) support independence, compared with just 22% of those who would back Leave.
In Northern Ireland in 2016, those who voted Remain (64%) were already somewhat less likely than those who supported Leave (83%) to back staying in the UK, though this still meant that a clear majority of both groups was in favour of the Union. However, while Leave supporters are undiminished in their support for the Union, now only a minority (37%) of those who identify as a Remainer want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK – and most Sinn Féin supporters (76%) fall within that camp (while just 5% are Leavers).
True, there are still parties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland that have some success in drawing support from across the constitutional divide. While 61% of Scottish Labour supporters would prefer Scotland to remain in the UK, a sizeable minority (38%) back independence. Meanwhile, in the case of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, neither staying in the UK (48%) nor unification/independence (38%) now represents the majority view. But in both countries Brexit has helped ensure that the constitutional issue has become a stark dividing line between what in recent years have been the principal political protagonists.
In suggesting that an election might come to represent a de facto referendum on independence, Nicola Sturgeon was, perhaps, doing no more than providing what already appears to be a not unreasonable characterisation of the current state of post-Brexit Scottish politics.
‘Constitutional Reform: Controversy or Consensus on How the UK should be Governed?’ by John Curtice and Alex Scholes, published as part of British Social Attitudes: the 39th report, is available here.
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.