The Changing Role of Identity and Values in Scotland’s Politics

We are now just over a week away from a Scottish Parliament election that could be considered the most important since the advent of devolution in 1999. Should the pro-independence parties be as successful as the polls predict, they have pledged to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence that could have major constitutional implications for the future of the UK.

This will be the latest development in what has been a remarkable decade in Scottish politics, punctuated as it has been by the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 EU ballot. In an analysis paper published today on WhatScotlandThinks we use data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey to examine how the role of identity and values has changed in Scottish politics over the past decade, and what this means for the pattern of support both for independence and the major political parties.

On Scottish independence – two key questions are addressed by the paper. First – to what extent is support for independence rooted in people’s sense of identity, and has this changed at all during the course of the last decade? Second – does the fact that independence is now more popular among Remainers than Leavers mean that it is also more popular among social liberals than authoritarians , and that this division now matters more than the left-right divide?

It would come as little surprise to anyone that support for Scottish independence is linked to a greater sense of Scottish identity. Those who feel themselves to be more Scottish than British are more likely to think that Scotland should be independent than their counterparts. However, this link between identity and support for independence has grown stronger over the last decade.

The Changing Role of Identity and Values in Scotland’s Politics









Table 1 shows the proportion who support Scottish independence (either separate from the UK and EU or separate from the UK but part of the EU) among those who identify as ‘Scottish not British’ and those who say they are ‘More British than Scottish/British not Scottish’.

The table reveals that the increase in support for independence that occurred after the referendum was accompanied by a strengthening of the relationship between identity and constitutional preference. Between 2010 and 2019, the gap in support for independence between those identifying as ‘Scottish not British’ and those identifying as ‘More British than Scottish’ or ‘British/not Scottish’ widened from 37 percentage points to 54. Since the independence referendum, there has consistently been a gap of over 50 percentage points between these two groups in support for independence.

But what about the relationship between support for independence and the social values people hold? How much truth is there in the remarks made by Nicola Sturgeon that the nationalist movement in Scotland has a ‘civic, open, inclusive view of the world…it’s about being outward looking and internationalist, not inward looking and insular’?

The Changing Role of Identity and Values in Scotland’s Politics

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey asks a suite of questions designed to assess where someone stands on a liberal-authoritarian scale, with liberals tending to value social diversity and personal autonomy and authoritarians valuing social/cultural homogeneity as a way of preserving social order. Table 2 shows the level of support for independence among the one-third most liberal and the one-third most authoritarian.

Before 2014 there was little sign of a relationship between liberalism and support for independence. However, since the EU referendum in 2016 there has been a consistent gap, with liberals more likely than their counterparts to support independence. The most recent data for 2019 shows a 24-percentage point gap, with 65% of liberals supporting independence compared with 41% of authoritarians.

Further analysis in the paper shows that the widening of this gap is a result of the fact that Remainers are more likely to be socially liberal and are now also more likely to support independence.

In contrast, support for independence and position on a left-right scale has remained relatively stable over the preceding decade. Scottish independence has consistently been more popular among left-wingers than those on the right, but the gap between the two widened only slightly between 2010 and 2019 from 16 percentage-points to 22.

But has the character of party-political support also changed over the last decade? Our analysis paper reveals two key findings. First, SNP supporters have become more likely to support Scottish independence and the aforementioned liberal-authoritarian scale has gained greater prominence in explaining differences in party support.

Table 3 shows the level of support for the SNP among supporters and opponents of Scottish independence between 2010 and 2017:

The Changing Role of Identity and Values in Scotland’s Politics

In 2010 there was a 43 percentage-point gap between supporters and opponents of independence in their level of support for the SNP. By 2017 this gap had widened to 57 percentage-points. This widening, together with the increase in support for independence since 2010, means that the proportion of SNP support coming from supporters rather than opponents of independence increased markedly, from 55% in 2010 to 81% in 2017.

Meanwhile, support for political parties in Scotland has also become more divided along the liberal-authoritarian spectrum. In 2010 liberals (20%) were as likely as were authoritarians (20%) to vote SNP, whereas by 2017 the former were significantly more likely (51%) to do so than the latter (30%). In contrast, support for the Scottish Conservatives among authoritarians doubled over the same period from 17% in 2010 to 34% in 2017, whereas it simply remained steady among liberals. Brexit has not only resulted in a more liberal independence movement but has also sharpened the divisions in the pattern of party support in Scotland.

Both national identity and social values shape the political outlook of people in Scotland markedly more than they once did. As a result, there are now sharper divisions in the nature of support both for independence and the political parties. This not only potentially leaves less space for such considerations as perceived competence in government or the popularity of party leaders to matter when people vote on May 6, but also suggests that, irrespective of the outcome, the task of bringing back together what now looks like a politically divided country will not be an easy one.

Alex Scholes

About the author

Alex Scholes is a Researcher in the Social Attitudes team at ScotCen Social Research, with a particular interest in political attitudes. He works on a range of projects including the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which tracks changing public attitudes in Scotland to a range of different political and social issues.