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  1. Politics
2 July 2021

How Scotland is becoming newly polarised over the Europe question

As the political prospects for a combination of Scottish UK and EU membership disappear, more unionists are backing Brexit and more Remainers are backing Scottish independence.

By Rory Scothorne

The Scottish Election Study (SES) has tracked the survey responses of thousands of individual voters through years of political turmoil, and the team of political scientists behind the survey are beginning to produce their findings from the 2021 devolved election. Nobody will be surprised by some of the big-picture issues – Scottish politics is, of course, dominated by the collision between constitutional questions and the party system – yet the ways in which those things collide is far more intriguing. Before the election, the SES identified four “tribes” in Scottish politics, defined by their position on independence and on Brexit too: No-Remain, Yes-Remain, No-Leave and Yes-Leave. In the 2019 UK general election, No-Remain was comfortably the largest tribe, with 37 per cent to Yes-Remain’s 29 per cent, followed by No-Leave and a small but not insignificant Yes-Leave contingent.

Gordon Brown has staked the future of unionism on his own idea of the No-Remain tribe, defining them as “Middle Scotland” – liberal, politically moderate, unsatisfied with the status quo after Brexit but sceptical about independence. In the 2021 Scottish election, however, the tribal landscape was clearly transformed. The SES’s Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at Edinburgh University, tells me that one of the most surprising findings so far has been “the extent of the drop in No-Remain”, which has fallen to under 20 per cent of the electorate. Yes-Remain has surged to almost 35 per cent, but No-Leave has also increased its share to slightly under a quarter.

The dominant narrative of this shift since 2016 has been that “No” voters are switching to “Yes” over their concerns about Brexit, yet Henderson suggests that something else is going on too. No/Remain is being “hollowed out” by “Conservative voters swinging their Brexit preferences into line with their partisan preferences”. As the political prospects – and advocates – for a combination of UK and EU membership disappear, unionists are shifting towards “Leave” just as Remainers are moving towards “Yes”.

With both Labour and the Liberal Democrats largely accepting Brexit at the UK level – though they’ve been more hesitant in Scotland – their ability to sustain the No-Remain tribe is dwindling. Paul Mason recently argued that Scottish independence should be accepted by English progressives alongside a “strongly Eurocentric vision” that includes a return to the single market, but that Brexit itself had to be portrayed as a “dead” issue by Labour, which he described as a “tragic necessity.” In other words, Labour’s problem is that “middle Scotland” is at odds with middle England on Brexit, and the loss of the former vote may be the cost of the party’s recovery with the latter.

The other surprising finding, according to Henderson, is “the sheer extent to which the SNP dominated voters’ thinking on the pro-Union-party side”. Survey respondents are offered space to comment in their own words on why they voted the way they did. While supporters of pro-independence parties often stressed their identification with the SNP or the Greens on vague policy terms, as well as Nicola Sturgeon, independence and the Scottish government’s performance, pro-Union voters overwhelmingly emphasised their opposition to the SNP – and barely had anything positive to say about the parties they actually voted for. As Henderson suggests, this is a serious problem for unionism – “you can’t campaign every election on ‘we’re not the SNP’”. Where there were small positives, they mostly concerned Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, the Liberal Democrats’ emphasis on improved mental health services, or the Conservatives’ image as “guardians of the constitution”. But these are all overshadowed by the negative reasons given for all the unionist parties’ support. 

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Yet if electoral politics is a problem for unionism, there are more encouraging findings too. While the Yes and No sides are strikingly polarised, prospective No voters are still significantly more committed to their position than Yes voters: 36.8 per cent of those surveyed say “Definitely No”, compared to 28.7 per cent “Definitely Yes”, an asymmetry also found among recent converts. The SES’s Rob Johns, professor of politics at Essex University, suggests that this could be due to two things – first, that the younger voters who make up much of the Yes support tend to be relatively uncertain in their views; and second, that there are several options between the status quo and independence that could satisfy prospective Yes supporters. One possible strategy for unionist parties, then, might be to focus far more carefully on younger voters and a plausible offer – with support at Westminster – of substantial constitutional reform.  

If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t fit the electoral needs of parties still focused on the turmoil of English political realignment, then the only option left is to hold out for the nationalist coalition to crumble. The SES has some bad news on this count, however. Alba’s failure to break through as a nationalist alternative to the SNP appears to be related to the deep unpopularity of Alex Salmond among pro-independence voters. Yet it’s clear that without Salmond’s leadership, the various nationalist groupuscules opposed to Nicola Sturgeon’s gradualism would have struggled to unite and gain media traction. 

[see also: Is Scotland’s electoral system broken?]

The Greens, currently negotiating a formal deal to support the SNP in government, have successfully developed a distinctive identity for themselves, boasting high levels of positive identification among their voters. Green supporters are nevertheless slightly more impressed with Sturgeon than the party’s own co-leader Patrick Harvie. But should Sturgeon’s star fall before the next election there may be an opportunity for the Greens to make greater inroads into SNP support. 

The SNP has also tightened its grip on the popular vision of independence. What was once the fourth “tribe” – Yes-Leave – largely disappeared around the 2021 election, the reasons for which are still unclear as the data get processed. Henderson suggests that it may be about a similar “hollowing out” as No-Remain: disillusion with Brexit could be pushing people into Yes-Remain, especially in the absence of any mainstream political representation for their views. If the interplay of independence and party loyalty is rearranging Scots’ attitudes towards Europe, it is doing so in a way that benefits the SNP’s control of the pro-independence narrative, as well as the Conservatives’ pole position among the unionist parties. 

Two referendums, offering binary options, seem to have built a new kind of polarisation into Scottish politics in which “No” means “Leave” and “Yes’” means ‘Remain’. There is a third Scotland too, where No-Remain still holds out, although it is dwindling. Henderson stresses that this is all happening under conditions of “incredible dealignment”, especially within the unionist camp, as tactical voting and opposition to the SNP overrides long-term loyalties. Scottish politics is in a state of both deep-seated upheaval and polarised certainty. Most voters seem to be very sure of what they want, or at least what they don’t want. But the country as a whole hasn’t a clue.

[see also: Why the battle over Scottish independence is heading for the courts]

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