Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Digested Read

Questions of Sovereignty: Redefining Politics in Scotland?

David Mccrone


Charlie Seaman

| 6 mins read

The question of sovereignty has not been resolved in Scotland. On the one hand, there is the Westminster doctrine, that the Crown-in-Parliament is sovereign and subject to no higher or lower authority. On the other is the view that the United Kingdom is a union of nations created by successive instruments, which did not extinguish those nations’ historic rights.

Since the 1970s, surveys about Scots’ constitutional preferences have consistently shown majority support for some form of self-government, with the largest number supporting devolution within the UK. But two critical events have changed this picture and created a new division around the issue of sovereignty. One was the arrival of the SNP in government from 2007 and the consequent movement towards the independence referendum of 2014. The other was the growth of the movement to withdraw from the European Union, culminating in the Brexit referendum of 2016.

Characterising sovereigntists and unionists

Sovereigntists are those who think that ultimate authority belongs to the people of Scotland. Unionists are those who believe that it lies with the UK as a whole. Demographically, sovereigntists are likely to be better educated, belong to higher social classes, and to be younger than unionist voters.

When surveyed, sovereigntists agree with the proposition that ‘People in Scotland should have the ultimate right to decide for themselves how they should be governed’ and disagree with the proposition that ‘Because a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, people in Scotland should accept that decision’. Unionists take the opposite position on both questions, while a third category, semi-sovereigntists, support Scottish self-government but accept that Scotland is bound by the Brexit referendum result.

Sovereigntists are far more likely to vote SNP, to vote yes in past and future Scottish independence referendums, and to be dissatisfied with UK democracy, Westminster government and the result of the Brexit referendum. Unionists, on the other hand, are their mirror-image: Conservative voters and supporters, dissatisfied with Scottish democracy and Holyrood government, and satisfied with the Brexit referendum outcome. Views on Brexit are now closely aligned with those on Scottish self-determination.

Labour in Scotland

To what extent can Labour’s attrition in Scotland be explained by the constitutional attitudes of its voters?

Between 2015 and 2019, Labour retained only half its sovereigntist vote, the rest going to the SNP. While it retained most of its vote between 2017 and 2019, it never recovered those who had voted SNP. What of Labour unionists? Once more, there is Labour attrition taking 2015 as the base, this time towards the Tories: as many as 60 per cent of those who voted Labour in 2015 switched to the Conservatives in 2019. Furthermore, between 2015 and 2017, more of Labour’s unionist vote in 2015 went Tory (49 per cent) than it was able to retain (45 per cent). Labour has had some success in retaining its semi-sovereigntist vote share, whilst still losing around one quarter to the Conservatives by 2019. It is therefore this middle constitutional ground which is most contested in current Scottish politics.

Sovereignty today  

The creation of a Scottish Parliament over twenty years ago was designed to create a constitutional halfway house, and on that basis we might have expected far fewer sovereigntists today. The devolution of powers was meant to reflect the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people and to marginalise both the SNP and hitherto anti-devolution Conservatives. It has not worked out that way. Issues of sovereignty and legitimacy now dominate the political agenda, reflected in the fact that the key battles are now between sovereigntists and unionists, crystallised and catalysed by the SNP and Tories, both of whom have come in from the cold.

Longstanding issues of trust and blame became the ideological basis for a different kind of political question: ‘who are you [at Westminster] to tell us what to do?’. This focussed on the UK government’s refusal to countenance a second independence referendum and its insistence that because the UK had voted for Brexit, that provided a sufficient mandate. This helped to highlight the underlying feature of postwar politics in Scotland, that most of the time it got a Westminster government it had not elected.

Is the struggle real?

Is a struggle between sovereigntists and unionists the inevitable new politics? Not necessarily. Just as the presumed ‘settled will’ had helped to create and shape a Scottish Parliament and government in 1999, the new ‘will’ is not necessarily settled either.

‘Shared sovereignty’ -- an accommodation which recognises the right of self-government or managing EU relations post-Brexit, as in Northern Ireland -- is not off the table, whether in the UK or in the EU.  Devolution raised the issue as to which institution, Westminster or Holyrood, has the most influence over how Scotland is governed. Who people think ought to have the most influence is now the central focus of politics in Scotland.

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  • David McCrone

    David Mccrone

    David McCrone is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and co-founder of the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Governance in 1999.

    Articles by David Mccrone