Challenges to the Union
- Constitutional Futures Initiative
- Publication Date
- Professor Ailsa Henderson FRSE
What public opinion tells us about Scottish constitutional attitudes.
The Union faces several challenges, some seemingly permanent, others more attitudinal. We have a considerable amount of public opinion data to help us understand these, including Scotland-specific data (e.g. Scottish Election Study, Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys) as well as GB- and UK-wide surveys. These help us to understand levels of support for (and predictors of) constitutional change and independence, attitudes to future referendums (including the right to call and timing) and more general attitudes to the union. Five examples of how public opinion data can help us to understand Scottish constitutional attitudes are below.
The impact of the 2014 independence referendum on party support
This graph from The Referendum That Changed a Nation (Henderson et al. 2022) uses publicly-available opinion polls to show that Labour support dropped significantly due to the referendum and has yet to recover. SNP support, by contrast, received a boost from the referendum that has still not deteriorated.
The impact of the 2014 independence referendum on perceived engagement
From the same book, the below graph uses Scottish Election Study data to show that growing proportions of the electorate believe that the referendum made Scotland more involved. And while in 2014, Yes voters were markedly more likely to believe this than were No voters, over time, No voters are now as convinced as Yes voters were in 2014 that the referendum changed Scotland. To the extent that there is a perception that the referendum has made Scotland more involved, it is largely because No voters, initially sceptical about the referendum, now believe it has had a positive impact on engagement.
Support for independence by age cohorts
Using SES data since 2007, we can track the attitudes to different age cohorts to independence. The results show that while in 2007 most age cohorts had similar attitudes to independence and were clustered together (between approximately 25 and 35%), the intervening years have seen a considerable spread in views, driven partially by the attitudes of the youngest members of the electorate. If we examine the period between 2011 and 2014, however, we can see a period effect of the referendum, in which each age cohort becomes more supportive over the long campaign, and the referendum itself prompts a change in views – older members become less supportive, younger members more so.
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The State of the Union Survey (from Cardiff-Edinburgh) asks respondents whether they want independence for their part of the UK, whether the union as it stands is a priority, or whether they don’t want independence, but if one or more other parts of the UK go their own way then ‘so be it.’ This question is used to identify ambivalent unionists (and in Northern Ireland, refers to reunification with Ireland rather than independence as such). If we look at those who have a view, and we add the independence supporters to the the ambivalent unionists, this represents more than 50% of the electorate in each part of the state, albeit with different proportions. There are more independence supporters in Scotland and fewer ambivalent unionists. In England, however, there are fewer independence supporters and more ambivalent unionists. In each part of the UK, the proportion who believe the union as currently constructed is a priority for them is a minority of the electorate.
Last, if we use these ‘ambivalent unionism’ response options and divide electorates into independence supporters, committed unionists and ambivalent unionists, we can identify the top three priorities for constitutional change across the UK. The UK’s relationship with the EU features for all groups and locations, but interesting differences exist. Scots and those in Northern Ireland rate their constitutional position as a priority regardless of their constitutional preferences. Committed unionists are more concerned with House of Lords reform. Ambivalent unionist and independence supporters, however, don’t list this in the top three, focusing instead on proportional representation and local government, while in England, they list constitutional reform for England. The results serve to highlight that the constitutional priorities of different political parties are not always shared across the state.
Professor Ailsa Henderson FRSE, Professor of Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
This article is part of the Constitutional Futures Initiative.
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