National Identity and Support for Independence

Just how far can voting Yes for independence be seen as an expression of Scottish nationalism or national identity? There are two key issues. First is whether increasing support for independence or for SNP is underlined by a concomitant rise in a stronger sense of being Scottish (and thereby a weaker sense of being British);second is whether the sense of being Scottish acts as a marker for people’s readiness to vote for independence or for the SNP Using British Social Attitudes (BSA) data, Curtice et al. (2013) find no evidence that Scottish identity is felt more strongly as a result of political devolution in 1999 or indeed that there was a rise in Scottish identity in the period immediately prior to the 2014 independence referendum. Rather, it is between 1979 and 1997 that the significant shifts in Scottish and British identification in Scotland took place. When provided with a ‘forced’ choice between Scottish and British identity, the number of people choosing British identity fell from just under 40 % in 1979 to 12 % in 2000, whereas the number of people choosing Scottish identity rose from 58 % in 1979 to 80 % in 2000. There has been little change in this pattern since 2000; if anything, the evidence shows a slight decline in the proportion choosing Scottish identity. Measures of Scottish identity using the Moreno scale support these data from the forced choice question. It is clear that Scottishness is considerably stronger than Britishness in Scotland; but whilst the percentage of people reporting themselves as ‘Scottish not British’ rose to a peak of 37 % in 2001, it has since declined to 23 % in 2012. The percentage of people reporting as ‘Scottish more than British’ also declined in the same period, from 40 % in 1992 to 30 % in 2012. The BSA data take us up as far as 2013, but certainly up to this point there is little survey evidence for a rise in exclusively Scottish identity in the years immediately before the 2014 referendum. Using the same data but up to 2014, Bond (2015) confirms these trends and agrees that there is no evidence that people’s sense of British identity declined after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Moreover, 2014 marks the first time that being ‘equally Scottish and British’ was the modal category; also for the first time since 1992, prioritising Scottish identity was not the most popular choice.

The second key question, then, is how these patterns in national identification are aligned with support for independence and other constitutional preferences, as well as with support for different political parties. Bond (2015) finds a clear association between national identity and support for independence: those who define themselves as exclusively Scottish are by far the most likely to vote for independence. There is also the suggestion of an increased politicisation of Scottish identity between 2012 and 2014. In 2012, 49 % of those who defined themselves as ‘Scottish not British’ supported independence. Importantly, this tells us that there are indeed a large number of exclusive Scottish identifiers (51 %) who do not support independence. In the 2014 wave, however, the share of exclusive Scottish identifiers supporting independence had risen to 68 % (Bond 2015: 5). It is also in the period since 2010 that independence became the most popular constitutional preference, ahead of support for the current devolved settlement, amongst people defining themselves as either exclusively Scottish or as more Scottish than British. Breaking this down by age, we find that young Scottish people aged eighteen to twenty-four are more likely than older age groups to not include ‘British’ as part of their chosen identity (see the 2013 wave of the Scottish Social Attitudes). Overall, the survey evidence for the fifteen-year period since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament shows little shift in patterns of national identification; but it also appears that for young Scottish-born people growing up within post-devolution Scotland, the chances of identifying with Britain and Britishness are poor.

Alongside the question of independence, we may also examine how national identity choices are related to party identification. As Bond’s (2015) analysis also highlights, being exclusively Scottish, at 43 % in 2014, is the most common choice amongst those who identify with the SNP But this also means that most SNP identifiers do retain some degree of association with Britishness. In addition, the proportion of exclusively Scottish SNP identifiers was lower in 2014 than it was in the period between 2000 and 2010. Equally, just over half of those identifying with the Conservative Party view themselves as equally Scottish and British, suggesting that the party does still retain some support amongst Scottish identifiers. It is with regard to Labour Party identifiers, however, that the evidence is most compelling; whereas in 2000 71 % of Labour identifiers prioritised a Scottish identity, this figure was only 54 % in 2012 and 48 % in 2014, when it fell below 50 % for the first time. Significantly, in 2000, during the first term of the New Labour government and Scottish Parliament, 38 % of Labour identifiers defined themselves as exclusively Scottish, but by 2014 this had fallen to 19 %. As Bond concludes, comparison of the figures for 2014 with those from the years immediately preceding does suggest a closer alignment between national identities and nationalist political attitudes and in ways that were not evident across previous decades. But with respect to movement amongst Scottish Labour supporters, the evidence is strongly suggestive of a Labour Party which is alienating its support base.

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