A battle of sovereignties?

Constitutional Futures Initiative
Publication Date

Since Brexit 2016, we have entered a battle of sovereignties – Scottish and British – between two apparently antithetical conceptions of sovereignty, reflected in political struggles between nationalists and unionists. But can we be sure that this is a binary divide? Or do we nowadays live in a post-sovereignty world? The question of sovereignty has never been resolved in Scotland. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the Westminster Parliament is absolutely sovereign and supreme. On the other are those who insist that it is a union of nations, bound by the terms of union and periodically renegotiated.

Brexit has destabilised the devolution compromise and posed questions about sovereignty that long lay dormant but were rekindled first by devolution. The UK Government has been pursuing a strict ‘sovereigntist’ line, seeking to remove any real or symbolic constraints from Europe, even at considerable economic cost. The Scottish Government, for its part, has continued to pursue Scottish sovereignty in the form of independent statehood, but in the context of a supranational Europe, and recognising continued interdependency with the United Kingdom.

What do voters make of the notion of sovereignty? In the British Election Survey of 2019, and again in Scottish Social Attitudes survey in 2021, we asked two questions using scales running from ‘strongly agree/agree/neither/disagree/strongly disagree’. The first was about Scottish self-determination:

‘People in Scotland should have the ultimate right to decide for themselves how they should be governed.

And the second:

‘Because a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum, people in Scotland should accept that decision.

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Previous surveys on constitutional options have asked respondents about their preferences for independence or union, and found a substantial number in the middle. This is not the same as our question, which is about the right to decide. This allows us to identify the subject of self-determination. The object of self-determination, whether a sovereign state or some other formula, is dealt with in a second list of questions.

Those who ‘agreed’, strongly or otherwise, with the first proposition, as well as those who ‘disagreed’, strongly or otherwise, with the second we defined as strong Scottish sovereigntists, aligned with the current position of the Scottish Government. They represented about 30% of the sample. At the other pole about 10% rejected Scottish sovereignty on both dimensions, and are unambiguous British unionists, aligned with the position of the current UK Government. A further 21% were ‘semi-sovereigntists’, that is, while in favour of Scottish self-determination, they ceded legitimacy to the UK on the Brexit issue.

Sovereignty 2
disagreeneitheragree% total
disagree15310% unionists28
Sovereignty 1neither27814
agree30% sovereigntists21% semi-sovereigntists58
% total461536N=1359
How the sample partitions

While Scottish sovereigntists are much more inclined to have the Scottish Government/Parliament make decisions for Scotland and unionists are more inclined to the UK Government/Parliament, many voters do not see union or independence as strict binary choices, each leading to a consistent set of preferences around issues of self-determination and control of policy fields. There is support both for devolution-max (control of all taxation and welfare) and independence-lite (sharing armed forces and the currency after independence). 

% agreeing thatallScottish sovereigntistsSemi-sovereigntistsBritish unionists
Only SP has right to decide ScIndyRef249784216
All taxes decided by SG57864619
All welfare benefits by SG62895419
SG all farming decisions62894822
Immigration same as rUK52316683
UKG spend in Scotland59436378
UKP laws for Scotland34163868

Thus, among Scottish sovereigntists:

  • As many as 54% accept sharing a currency with the remaining UK (rUK) after independence (46% want a Scottish currency);
  • 41% accept sharing armed forces with rUK (58% want Scotland to have its own armed forces);
  • 43% accept UK spending in Scotland in areas usually decided by Scottish Government (such as schools, roads and hospitals).
  • On immigration, 31% (almost a third) think the rules should be same in Scotland as rUK in context of independence.

Among British unionists, we also find unexpected crossovers:

  • On taxes, only 36% think the UK should decide all taxes; on welfare benefits, only 30% of unionists think that all benefits should be decided by UK government.
  • On who should have right to decide on a second Independence referendum, only a bare majority (54%) by the UK parliament alone.
  • On the UK parliament making laws for Scotland, one-third of unionists think it should not – ostensibly a sovereigntist position.

What we take from these findings is that even among Scottish sovereigntists and British unionists, the two polar positions on the subject of self-determination, there is considerable nuance and complexity about the object, such that the sovereigntists are willing to accept sharing with the UK, even post-independence, while unionists accede that many decisions should be the responsibility of Scottish Government. There is still a large measure of support for options that ‘mix and match’ elements of Scottish sovereignty and British union in different ways.

Further reading:

D. McCrone and M. Keating, ‘Questions of sovereignty: redefining politics in Scotland?’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 92(1), 2021, pp.14–22.

D. McCrone and M. Keating ‘Exploring Sovereignty in Scotland’, The Political Quarterly, 2022, DOI: 10.1111/1467-923X.13214

Professor David McCrone FRSE FBA, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh and Professor Michael Keating FRSE FBA, Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen.

This article is part of the Constitutional Futures Initiative.

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