It’s the issue that some commentators say has prevented the SNP from governing effectively. And it’s the issue activists claim Scotland’s Tories do not stop banging on about. That issue, of course, is Scottish independence.
But, really – who talks about it more? A New Statesman analysis of speeches and contributions made to the Scottish parliament has unearthed some key findings about which “side” really makes most mention of independence.
Since the establishment of Scotland’s parliament in 1999, there have been a minimum* of 9,658 mentions of Scottish independence, or keywords used in reference to independence. Given that Yes-supporting parliamentarians have accounted for 42.3 per cent of MSPs since the parliament’s creation, they have been responsible for a disproportionate number (50.4 per cent) of contributions on the subject.
When we break down the figures by parliamentary term, however, some nuances emerge. Every parliament bar the last has seen nationalist politicians reference the subject the most, even when nationalists haven’t been the majority voice.
And yet, in the most recent parliamentary term – that of 2016-21 – while pro-independence politicians have held nearly 54 per cent of seats, they have been responsible for only 47 per cent of mentions of independence. Why? Let’s dive further into the data.
The first mention of an independent Scotland came before the end of the first full day of the Holyrood parliament in 1999. It was mentioned by, perhaps unsurprisingly, the-then SNP leader, Alex Salmond. The second mention also came from an SNP MSP, Andrew Wilson, who spoke of independence to introduce the chamber to a rather niche group – or “movement”, he suggested – of “Episcopalians for Independence”.
But while the first few mentions of an independent Scotland came from the usual suspects – its advocates – the Tories and the Liberal Democrats were also disproportionately likely to speak on the issue. In the 1999-2003 parliament, Conservative MSPs made up just 14 per cent of the chamber, but were responsible for 16.3 per cent of mentions of independence. At the same time, Labour parliamentarians made up 43 per cent of the chamber, but accounted for just 36 per cent of mentions.
Labour’s relative avoidance of the issue of independence grew during the 2003 and 2007 parliaments, but has shrunk somewhat since 2011.
What can we infer from this? Scottish Labour has long been reluctant to talk up – or about – independence. The Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, have been at the heart of the action – as we see from the most recent data for 2016-21. That might be why the Tories sit today as the second-largest party, rather than Labour.
A landmark moment came in 2017 when Conservative MSPs, led by Ruth Davidson, were responsible for more mentions of independence (33 per cent of the total) than the governing SNP (30 per cent of the total). That was despite the Scottish Tories having fewer than half as many seats.
It is hard here to separate cause from effect. Are Labour reluctant to talk about independence because it is, for them, a toxic issue? Or are they suffering at the ballot box because they aren’t talking about it enough? You could make a plausible case for the former, but in either case not talking about independence doesn’t appear to be working. Elections are being fought on the issue and people are voting according to unionist and nationalist identities. There is no value in sitting quietly on the side-lines when all eyes are on the game.
Scottish parliament speeches were parsed to pull out words, phrases or commonly used sentences which in context are associated with the subject of independence for Scotland or a referendum on the matter. It may be that certain forms of word salad by certain MSPs have not made it to the data aggregate used for this analysis, and so we advise interpreting the figures mentioned as an estimated minimum number of mentions.