Demographics of Independence

Common Weal has just published a 2021 edition of our Demographics of Independence series. In these Craig has been gathering all of the publicly-available data on public attitudes to Scottish independence since 2014 and doing a data analysis on them. The report has a very readable analysis of the findings, but what does it mean for campaigning?

First, it is worth emphasising that this is based on publicly-available quantitative data on independence and so has very little qualitative to tell us (roughly, quantitative tells us ‘how many people think it?’ while qualitative suggests ‘why do they think it?’). Second, for the same reason this is not the kind of opinion poll that professional strategists use because these are commissioned for general readers and a strategist would commission based on a more granular analysis of the respondents. (To illustrate this last point, a poll as you would get in a newspaper will break down respondents by categories like age, sex, class and geographical location while a poll commissioned to inform strategy would be likely to include more information like income, employment sector, ‘risk appetite’, home ownership status and so on – it gives a much more rounded picture for trying to infer why respondents are responding in the way they are).

The headline figures you’ll broadly know, although we all forget trends. Basically support for independence stayed at its referendum levels for a couple of years, had a very brief spike in Brexit week but then fell well back to pre-referendum levels, briefly spiking when Boris Johnson wins a full term in government and only reaching a sustained increase over indyre levels for about a year during Covid and then quickly dropping back to pre-referendum levels again.

If we look at this and try to draw correlations we find that support for independence peaks whenever things are going badly at the UK level. This would be a dispiriting finding for the independence movement if true, suggesting we’ve had little impact on voting intentions on the basis of anything we do and that the polls ping around, up and down, based purely on the vagaries of what Boris Johnson and the Tories do at any given time.

But causation isn’t causality so let’s delve below the headline figures to some of the demographics to see if there is more we can find. Sadly, here too we find further evidence for the ‘passive movement’ thesis. When you look at the detail of how different groups are behaving the overriding conclusion is that there is simply not enough consistency of movement to be able to claim there is a clear, notable trend which can be traced across different groups. This implies that it isn’t arguments about independence which are causing volatility (if the movement was successfully persuading people you’d imagine the effects would be traced more consistently across different demographics with an upwards trend) but rather issues impacting on one specific group or another, or ‘events’. More than that, there are examples of different groups moving in different directions at the same time and then reversing backwards again (though the key peaks see greater numbers moving ‘together’).

And this isn’t a massive element in the overall picture – most people are pretty static in their support one way or another and it is a smaller volatile group which is shifting – something like five per cent of people back and forwards. There are some positive trends – perhaps the most positive of all is in relation to women where there is a more consistent pattern of gradual increase in support (it’s not actually gradually, it’s risen and fallen in fits and starts but each fall has generally been a little smaller than each rise). And if the picture for women overall is positive, the story for women under 34 is particularly strong. Broadly the same is true for anyone who is not born in Scotland – since indyref there is a fairly consistent rise in their support for independence (even if it remains a minority view for now).

So is there a group which is most associated with the spike, a group that we might lazily say are causing the various periods of support? Yes and no. There are a number of groups which seem to be responding to the short-term ups and downs (just to a lesser degree). But there is one group which seems to swing back and forth particularly prominently – and its the wealthier professional class. The categorisation ABC1 is the group where, when the UK does something badly, people switch to independence. This is anything from mid-level administration to very senior professionals and managers (and the sheer scale of this group is exactly why strategists try to get more information to enable it to be broken down into more specific subelements).

What conclusion do we draw from this? Was the Growth Commission right – it’s the professional and manager class and the wealthy that will win independence for us? Well, it didn’t work if so because despite Boris Johnson and Brexit and all the rest, this group’s voting intention is pretty well back where it was in September 2014. This is a key lesson; this group (half the population remember) is not swinging towards us and staying there, it is swinging and swinging back again. And the reason for their swing seems to have little to do with independence as opposed to how they perceive the UK Government to be doing. It is a group which is particularly confident that it knows ‘what’s what’ but perhaps paradoxically is inconsistent. This is not entirely without precedent; this group contains what in the past used to be considered the Daily Mail-reading swing voter that New Labour targeted with such enthusiasm. But one of the lessons of New Labour was that this group is fickle and will abandon you with little notice. And while it is important again to caveat heavily that this data can support only so much analysis, it looks like it is at least as susceptible to anti-independence talking points as to any indy arguments. Can we really rely on this group?

So who else might we look at? There is one group which has moved away from supporting independence quite decisively but which used to be strongly in support – men aged between 35 and 55 and particularly if they voted Leave at Brexit. In fact the independence movement really has done much to repel Leave voters and fundamentally has not gained the consistent support of new Remain voters to counteract this. Is the movement interested in votes or only in certain kinds of votes? That is not purely a weighted question – few if any would say ‘well if white supremacy gains us votes…’ so almost everyone would accept that there are votes you just don’t court. But are men and Leave voters in that category? This is a sizeable proportion of Scotland’s population so even small shifts hit the cause hard and that accounts for most of why the baseline support  for independence (filtering out the spikes) has been below 2014 levels for much of the period since mid-2016 (and is back there now). It seems cavalier to suggest this vote can be ignored and (for now at least) simply wrong to assume it is ‘bound’ to return.

The other group the independence movement (or at least its leaders) seem to have a blindspot about are people on low incomes. C2DEs (the other half of the social grade split) are now quite a few percentage points below the support they showed for independence in 2014. And if we’ve lost a worrying number of this group to No there is an even bigger risk of losing them to non-participation. Turnout matters, and where the Growth Commission approach has managed to do nothing to consolidate support among high income groups it is impossible to imagine that its austerity politics has done anything to motivate turnout from low-income households.

Independence is simply not ‘winning itself’ – half a million people have died since 2014 who will mostly be older. ‘Demographic replacement theory’ (more conservative old people dying and more liberal young people replacing them) is largely a myth or every country would be moving to the left continuously. On the whole humans get more risk averse as they age and hence more small-c conservative so the logic doesn’t stack up. Not only is there no  evidence we’re persuading people there’s pretty consistent evidence we’re not, that changes in voting patterns are mainly down to Boris Johnson. That is a big worry.

But the positive in all this is that it remains there to be won. Big social groups like younger women, middle aged men, low income households and non-Scots-born people all appear susceptible to independence to degrees which would produce a substantial majority. It’s just that the independence message simply doesn’t seem to be reaching them. There are serious questions (particularly with some of these groups) about whether independence leaders are even trying.

Politicians crowing about success and taking credit for upward swings which appear to have little to do with anything they are doing (but going quiet when, quite quickly, the pattern reverses) is of zero value to the cause of independence. It may sound stupid to state this but unless we try to persuade people that independence is a good idea there seems little prospect of winning.

What is worrying is that this statement may sound stupid – but that it needs to be stated anyway.

Robin McAlpine

6 thoughts on “Demographics of Independence”

  1. “Politicians crowing about success and taking credit for upward swings which appear to have little to do with anything they are doing (but going quiet when, quite quickly, the pattern reverses) is of zero value to the cause of independence. It may sound stupid to state this but unless we try to persuade people that independence is a good idea there seems little prospect of winning.

    What is worrying is that this statement may sound stupid – but that it needs to be stated anyway.”

    This sums up the matter nicely. If the leadership ie the FM and her party, do not campaign for independence in a notable way, why should anyone believe the case for independence is worth their attention or effort? No matter how much effort the YES movement /Indy organisations put into working to persuade people it’s rather like someone trying to encourage people to get on a bus when the bus driver says he/she isn’t going anywhere soon. (if at all, some might add). If the SNP don’t list a destination on the bus sometime soon and a timetable to boot then there are plenty of vandals around keen to remove the wheels and any other part that’s salvageable.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Hi Jim,

      One of the things I didn’t cover in this piece is the qualitative work we DO have (done a few years ago by the Scottish Independence Convention and a significant body of work). I try to warn a lot that we have a step to take before we focus on telling people why independence is a good idea. The correlation which is clear and significant is that voting for independence is closely linked to ‘risk appetite’. People who are intrinsically less averse to taking risks are more likely to support independence and visa versa. There is a substantial group which have a similar risk appetite to Yes voters but voted No and the problem for them isn’t that they are averse to risk but that they find specific risk in the current case for independence. Put bluntly, they say that they’re not taking a risk if those proposing it can’t answer sensible questions in a way they find convincing.

      People sometimes think I go on about this because I want specific policy positions to be taken. And yes, like everyone I have my views on policy. But with my strategy head on I can tell you that we need SOME KIND of clear and robust answers if we are to engage again – and we distinctly do not have them.

      People get too hung up on ‘inspiration and passion’ or ‘the selfishness of voters’ or ‘pacifying hostile institutions’ and pay far too little attention to ‘risk appetite’. If we just dive in again with the same messages/answers we’re likely to get the same result. There are about 15 per cent of the population who are susceptible to shift if we can tell them that Scotland will be better BUT ONLY if we persuade them first that we know what we’re doing…


  2. Ian Davidson

    The post Brexit nightmare has probably reduced the “risk appetite” of some voters? Anecdotally, I know folks who voted Yes in 2014 who just can’t/won’t contemplate the inevitable upheaval, even chaos that a new indy vote, let alone, an actual Yes vote would bring. When the lead party for indy has spent the past seven years doing little to formulate convincing strategies for indy then indeed, why should any of us get “on the bus”? Wake me up when the current politic-existential catch 22 nightmare is over, if ever!

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Ian – that’s part of the problem, we simply don’t have anything like enough qualitative information about the ongoing impact of Brexit. The work the SIC did was in 2017 and the main lesson of Brexit then was that people were ‘waiting to see’ and that it seemed to be making them more potentially susceptible to independence arguments but also more nervous (which pushes in the other direction).

      The general theory on this is that ‘crisis’ (or the perception of it) makes people tend towards the small-c conservative option until a tipping point where the crisis is seen to be so bad that the person thinks ‘anything would be better than this’. It’s the difference between ‘bad-ish Brexit, let’s not do anything else stupid’ and ‘terrible Brexit, where’s the life raft?’. And while I amn’t aware of anything that would make us certain which of these is prevalent, everything I’ve seen seems to tend towards the former.

      But we’re approaching this with insufficient information and too much conviction that ‘another leaflet, another knock on the door’ will ‘do it’. I’m very much more sceptical about that. I’m not sure we’re really listening to the actual concerns of our target voters. Rather I think we’re projecting our pre-existing beliefs onto them in arguments internal to the movement.


  3. Robin, arguably the independence of ‘a people’ is about far more than a policy on this and that, how better or worse off folks might be, or a view of who sits in No. 10 on a given day. This includes an understanding of the fundamental reason for independence and why it is necessary. There is perhaps a different approach needed to analysis of the demographics of the matter:

  4. Robin McAlpine

    Hi Alf,

    First, yes of course there is more to independence and sovereignty than ‘any given policy’ and there are fundamental questions of democracy involved. And second, it is quite easy to place too much weight on ‘demographic determinism’ because demographics are only one ingredient – like I mentioned above, there is much on political inclination, personality type (attitude to risk, self confidence) and so on that are also key factors. These are all just ‘guides’ not rules to be followed.

    But a couple of points. First, to emphasise again that the ‘shifters’ in this poll are only about five per cent of the population (or thereabouts). Most people are NOT shifting much and there isn’t really any reason to conclude that the demographics are ‘naturally’ changing in our favour or otherwise. If I was being very crude we can see the task ahead as fairly simple; there is about five per cent of the population in ‘don’t know’ who’ve been in ‘Yes’ at some point and we need them back. A lot of these are male, leave voters or low-motivation low-income voters – and there’s probably about another five per cent we could bring with them. Then we need to find about another five per cent of the currently No-minded and get them to switch. That (give or take) would give us a solid 60 per cent.

    That is where the second point comes in. These different groups probably respond differently and we need to manage both dynamics. So we need to motivate the ‘lost five per cent’ and persuade them we’re still on their side (I don’t think they’re convinced by that any more). And then we need to get the ‘cautious but sympathetic’ vote. That’s key for me – because that group IS NOT susceptible to the argument you set out about not being about ‘the small things’ like a policy here or there and so on. This group isn’t making the decision on the basis of abstract thoughts of ‘sovereignty’ but on the pragmatic question of ‘I like the idea but can it work?’. And the difference for them is that they need a sense that we know what we’re doing, that we precisely AREN’T doing this driven by a fundamental belief in it and that we’ll ‘just fix the details afterwards’ – they were stung with this over Brexit. We need to see the issues the way they see them and not the way we see them.

    One other point I’d make here is that we do need to take some care with how we present these issues to ourselves. Class sizes or NHS waiting times are day to day domestic policy and those come and go. But what currency you’ll use, how you’ll handle your borders, how you’ll pursue a relationship with the EU, how you’ll write a constitution and so on – these aren’t ‘optional add-ons’ but fundamental to the whole concept of being an independent country. We cannot dismiss issues of that significance for ‘later’ and certainly not if we want to win over cautious voters.


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