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Will support for Scottish independence go away? – UK in a changing Europe



Drawing on a recent article, Lindsay Paterson explores survey data on birth cohort and education to highlight that support for Scottish independence is associated with more liberal and educated voters, especially those born since the 1970s, making the trajectory of Scottish nationalism less clear than the wane in support for the SNP might suggest.

When Nicola Sturgeon resigned last March as leader of the Scottish National Party – and Scotland’s First Minister – the movement for Scottish independence faced an uncertain future. The popularity of the SNP declined gently. Yet polls show that support for independence was unaffected, at just under 50%, slightly higher than in the referendum on independence in 2014. Why?

Using high-quality social surveys, some tentative answers may be given. Independence has come to be associated with the future in demographic and ideological ways. It reflects Scottish nationalism’s rhetoric that Britain is stuck in the past. That is an ideological message that is now so entrenched among younger, educated voters that the transient fortune of individual politicians is unlikely to have much impact.

The main statistical source is the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. It is conducted by ScotCen, the Scottish arm of NatCen Social Research, and has run almost every year since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999, with annual sample sizes of around 1,100. Before 1999, there were Scottish election surveys at the time of the UK general elections in 1997, 1992 and 1979.

The most recent survey from which data are available is 2019 (because the series was suspended in 2020-21 during the Covid pandemic). Scottish opinion polls can bring the story up-to-date, and are collated by ScotCen on their website What Scotland Thinks. This whole series thus allows current attitudes to Scottish governance to be placed in a long perspective.

Overall support for independence was 8% in 1979, rose to 23% in 1992, and then fluctuated around 30% between 1997 and as late as 2013. During the summer leading to the 2014 referendum in September, it sharply rose to 45%, where it has mostly remained since, though it was also consistently above 50% in the 2020-21 Covid period. For most of this time, support was a few percentage points higher amongst men than women, but that gender difference vanished around the time of the referendum.

The first key point in explaining this trajectory of growing overall support is that support for independence has always been stronger in younger cohorts than in older. For example, in the surveys between 2014 and 2019, independence attracted around two thirds of people born after the mid-1980s, but under one quarter in cohorts born in the late-1940s or earlier. In the cohorts between these two, there was a steadily rising percentage from older to younger.

This pattern has persisted since 2019. In 12 opinion polls conducted between early April and early July 2023 – after Humza Yousaf had become the new leader of the SNP – the average support among people born in the 1950s or earlier was under one third, and for those born in the 1990s or later was two thirds.

This means that independence can be presented as forward-looking because it appears to belong to younger generations.

Added to this, support for independence has also become associated with higher levels of education, providing a link to a sense of aspiration and optimism.

In the initial years of the new Scottish Parliament, support for independence was notably lower among graduates than among those with minimal attainment. For example, in the surveys 1997-2003, the proportions were 33% among people with at most mid-secondary attainment, compared to 23% among graduates.

But at and after the 2014 referendum the difference vanished: both these education groups had around 35%support in the spring of 2014, and in 2019 the proportions were 54%among graduates and 50%among those with at most mid-secondary education. The pattern persisted in polls in spring 2023.

This too relates to birth cohort, because of educational expansion. In 1997-2003, one half of graduates had been born before the 1960s. By 2014-19, that had dropped to a quarter, and a half had been born since the 1970s. Independence support thus has come to be associated with youth and with advanced education.

There is an ideological basis, too. This is especially marked in relation to social liberalism. The surveys measure political beliefs on a scale running from liberal to conservative, constructed from such questions as views about civil liberties and law and order. Since the 2014 referendum, independence support has been highest among people in the most liberal third of the scale. Moreover, the liberal group defined in this way has come to be dominated by graduates: two thirds of all liberals were graduates in the years 2014-19.

In short, independence has come to be linked with young, liberal graduates. This makes the Scottish case quite unlike other movements of what has been called national populism. Elsewhere, support for these movements tends to be strongest among older people with minimal education and conservative views. A prime instance is the vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

Therefore, the trajectory of Scottish nationalism over the coming decade is not at all clear, despite the current travails of the SNP. If the Conservatives form the next UK government, the rhetoric of youthful Scottish radicalism will remain potent.

On the other hand, if Labour wins the upcoming UK general election, then it might manage to change the views of young liberals, persuading them that radical reform across the UK is feasible despite the nationalists’ claim to the contrary.

But at least equally likely is the opposite. Disillusion with a cautiously reformist Starmer government might entrench Scottish liberal opinion in its increasing scepticism of the UK state. The greatest threat to the Union might be yet to come.

By Lindsay Paterson, Emeritus Professor of Education Policy, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University.

This blog is based on an article ‘Independence is not going away: the importance of education and birth cohorts’, in Political Quarterly, available here (open access).

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