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12 September 2023

Scottish independence is not going away

Long-term demographic change means support for separation will outlast the SNP’s travails.

By Lindsay Paterson

When Nicola Sturgeon resigned as Scotland’s first minister back in March, many commentators thought that was the end of Scottish independence. And the fortunes of the Scottish National Party have indeed declined since Humza Yousaf was elected as her successor. For the first time in more than a decade, the Scottish Labour Party has a chance of gaining several dozen seats from the SNP at next year’s UK general election. That could make the difference between a hung parliament and Keir Starmer having a stable majority.

But the SNP is not the independence movement. Opinion polls since the spring have also shown something that almost no one expected. Support for independence has remained strong, on average around 3.3 points higher than the 44.7 per cent achieved in the independence referendum of 2014.

To explain this, it helps to place recent events in a much longer perspective, dating back to the late-1970s. The evidence comes from the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 1999-2019, along with several predecessors, supplemented by opinion polls this year. The key to understanding public opinion turns out to be a mixture of three interconnected social changes: generational replacement, the expansion in higher education, and a shift in a socially liberal direction of support for independence. None of this has anything much to do with who leads the SNP.

Overall support for independence has grown steadily. It stood at 8 per cent in 1979, rose to 23 per cent in 1992, and then fluctuated around 30 per cent between 1997 and as late as 2013. It rose to over 50 per cent during the Covid period when Sturgeon was viewed by voters as more competent than Boris Johnson. For most of the past four decades, support among men was a few percentage points greater than among women, but that difference vanished in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum.

At each point in this history, young people have been more favourable to independence than older ones. But this is not an effect of age. For all cohorts born after the 1950s, support for independence has grown over time, even as they age. An example is people born in the 1960s. This was the generation who were young when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, and who thus developed their political ideas in the 1980s when Scottish support for the Conservative Party was falling. Twenty-seven per cent of this group supported independence in 1992, rising steadily to 44 per cent since 2014. 

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[See also: The Scottish state is broken]

The cohorts born before this one were the people who built the welfare state. Their support for independence has always been low – between a fifth and a quarter between 1992 and now. In contrast, among people who came to political consciousness around the time that the devolved Scottish parliament was created in 1999, 52 per cent supported independence in the 2014 referendum, and recent opinion polls suggest that this has grown to around 57 per cent, again a rise with age. Among people who were too young to vote in the 2014 referendum, support in opinion polls since March has been 66 per cent. 

The first reason why support for independence has slowly risen is that it is a by-product of generational change.

It’s also related to the dramatic expansion of higher education. Half of people born in the 1970s or later are graduates, around three times the rate for people born before the 1960s. Support for independence among graduates in these later cohorts has risen more rapidly than support among non-graduates. For example, only a quarter of graduates born in the 1980s supported independence around the time when the SNP came to power in 2007, but that doubled to one half in the period 2014-19. By contrast, the rise was gentler among people in that same cohort with at most mid-secondary education, from 40 per cent to one half.

So the surge in support for independence owes much to the growth of higher education

There is a further influence: political ideology. The effect of this is clearest in relation to values measured on a scale from socially liberal to conservative. Until about a decade ago, independence support was stronger among conservatives than among liberals. That has now reversed. In 2019, 60 per cent of people in the liberal half of the scale supported independence, in contrast to 45 per cent in the conservative half.

All this is why Scottish independence is not going away. Young, liberal graduates form the core of its support. 

Demographic replacement is slow, and easily ignored. But it already explains the gentle rise in support for independence since 2014, now that the temporary effect of the Covid disruption has faded. As young people reach voting age, and old people die, the rate of increase in support is about 0.4 per cent annually. In the nine years since the referendum, that amounts to about 3.6 percentage points, which would be enough to take the 44.7 of 2014 to 48.3 per cent, close to the average in recent polls. 

Another demographic shift has reinforced this trend. Whereas migrants to Scotland from the rest of the UK used to be more sceptical of independence than non-migrants, recent polls suggest the difference has almost vanished. Migrants from outside the UK have always been as likely to support independence as people born in Scotland.

The enduring support for independence is unlikely to have much effect without party-political coordination, and so the travails of the SNP do remain relevant. But political views that are so firmly based on demographic change and educational expansion are ultimately not dependent on the fortunes of particular politicians or parties. Supporters of the Union really must not be tempted into complacency.

This article draws on “Independence is not going away” from the journal “Political Quarterly”.

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