What Do Voters in Scotland Want from Brexit?

Posted on 30 March 2017 by John Curtice

Scotland voted very differently from the rest of Britain in the EU referendum. It backed the view of the SNP and the Scottish Government that the UK should remain in the EU by no less than 62% to 38%, whereas the UK as a whole voted by 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. In the wake of that outcome, last December the Scottish Government published a white paper outlining a very different vision of Brexit than the one proposed by the UK Government. It said that ideally the UK in general, and certainly Scotland in particular, should remain part of the EU single market and at the same time continue to adhere to the EU’s provisions on freedom of movement.

It is the UK government’s apparent rejection of that stance that has led the Scottish Government to request that Westminster grant Holyrood the authority to hold a second independence referendum at the point when the Brexit process is drawing to a close. It evidently anticipates that the kind of Brexit that Theresa May hopes to achieve will prove an anathema to sufficient voters in Scotland that this time a majority will back independence.

However, to date very little polling has been undertaken of what kind of Brexit deal voters in Scotland would actually like to see negotiated. Today, we try to help fill that gap with a report of some new survey work that NatCen/ScotCen Social Research have carried out. It is based on interviews conducted between early February and early March with 859 people who were first interviewed for the 2015 or 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes surveys, the respondents to which (unlike most polls) are chosen entirely at random. The methodology of the survey is the same as that deployed in a parallel Britain-wide survey on which we reported last week, as are many of the questions asked (whose subject matter ranges from free trade to the cost of mobile phone calls). This means that, as well as putting attitudes in Scotland under the microcosm, we can also compare them systematically with those across Britain as a whole.

The results will doubtless come as a surprise to many. For it seems that despite the way Scotland voted in the EU referendum, attitudes north of the border towards the shape of Brexit are not so different after all. In particular, rather than endorsing freedom of movement, it seems that most voters in Scotland, just like their counterparts elsewhere, would like to maintain free trade but abandon freedom of movement. As a result, it seems that their position is much closer to that of the UK government than that of the Scottish Government.

On the one hand, support for free trade appears to be near universal. As many as 93% of people in Scotland think that EU companies should be able to trade freely in Britain while British companies should be able to do the same within the EU. The figure is simply just a little higher than the 88% who take that view across Britain as a whole.

But, at the same time, there is widespread support for curbing freedom of movement. Nearly two-thirds of Scots (64%) think that people who wish to move to Britain from the EU should have to apply to do so in the same way that non-EU migrants should have to do. Only 22% are opposed. That means opinion is no more than a tad more liberal than it is across Britain as a whole, where 68% are in favour.

True, those who voted Remain are less keen on the idea of curbing EU migration than those who voted Leave. However, it is still the case that somewhat over half of this group (53%) are in favour of making EU migrants apply to come to Britain. It is the fact that so many Remain voters are in favour of curbs on EU immigration that explains why there is relatively little support for freedom of movement north of the border, even though Scotland voted so strongly to Remain.

If there is some difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain on the question of immigration, it is one of priority rather than principle. In Scotland 61% think that Britain should either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement in return for allowing British firms to trade freely in the EU, a choice that may well in some form or other be presented to the UK government during the Brexit talks. This is somewhat higher (though no more than that) than the 54% of people across Britain as a whole who would be willing to strike such a deal.

But this slightly softer outlook certainly does not extend to being willing to embrace a more liberal immigration regime for Scotland than pertains in England and Wales. Just 25% think that it should be easier for someone from the EU to come to Scotland to live and work than to England or Wales. Even on free trade, only 34% endorse the idea that it should be easier for a EU company to do business in Scotland than in England and Wales. In short, there seems to be relatively little appetite for a Brexit that varies across the UK in the way that the Scottish Government envisages.

Of course, that still leaves open the question of whether Scotland should or should not accept the UK-wide decision to leave the EU in the first place. On this opinion is almost evenly divided. As many as 47% think that ‘Scotland is an integral part of the UK and so should accept the UK-wide vote to leave the EU’, while just slightly more, 51%, believe that ‘Scotland is a nation and so should not have to leave the EU when a majority of Scots voted to stay’. These figures are, of course, much closer to the relatively even balance of opinion in the polls on how people would vote in an independence referendum than they are to the 62:38 vote in the EU referendum. While nearly everyone who voted both Yes to independence and to Remain in EU thinks that Scotland should not have to leave the EU, the balance of opinion amongst everybody else is strongly tilted towards the view that the UK-wide result should be accepted.

The lesson, it seems, is that, despite the outcome of the referendum vote, Scots’ commitment to the EU is not so strong after all.

This post also appears at whatscotlandthinks.org

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

23 thoughts on “What Do Voters in Scotland Want from Brexit?

  1. Go for Independence Scotland. Free yourself from the shackles of Tory Government forever. Ireland did it, and will never return. So too can Scotland.Report

    1. Unfortunately, Ireland may not be a good example. For the first fifty years outside the UK, Ireland experienced depression-like economic circumstances, and there was a constant drain of emigration, to the US, and also to the UK.

      It wasn’t until Ireland joined the EU and received substantial subsidies – 10% of GDP a year at the beginning – that the Irish economy began to recover, and even then there have been three quite serious financial crises in Ireland, culminating in the whopper of 2008.

      And if a hypothetical independent Scotland joins the EU, they can’t expect the sort of subsidies that Ireland got, because as part of the UK, Scotland’s GDP/head makes it one of the EU’s richer regions.Report

  2. Scotland did not vote in the Brexit referendum Great Britain did. Regions, sections or “nations” were not determining their own futures in or out of the European Union. It was a vote for Britain as a whole with a result that applied to Britain as a whole. In 2014 with victory for the rejection of Scottish independence in the referendum by 10.6% points. That decision reaffirmed that we are one nation from the Scilly Isles to the Shetland Isles.Report

  3. The snp have a cheek to ask for another indi referendum on the basis of Scotland being taken out of the eu by it’s will when she was doing that anyway if she won the referendum in 2014.i know lots about politics and what the snp are doing is political suicide.just to let you all know the Scots lose their pensions the dwp stops all payments to Scots and the disabled lose their pip.our banks will close and move down south and that is already happening with the rbs as it’s closing 3 branches in Bathgate Alexandra parade and Livingston. Businesses will close in their hundreds as the rates are far to much you will be looking at a tax rate of up to 25% the nhs well what the snp will not tell you is we will have to adopt the same system as America and have health insurance and there will be no free prescriptions and this is just some of things but they won’t tell you. They want to join the eu and that is another billion a year lol where do we get that from as oil is non existent here now and we sold our whiskey to England 8 years ago so anyone thinking Scotland can make it on their own is completely insane Report

    1. What incoherent rubbish.

      I’m tired of dismantling unionist drones’ threats about why Scotland is dead in the water if we leave the UK so I’ll keep this brief:
      1. “where do we get that from as oil is non existent” – you’ve obviously not read about the billion barrel discovery west of Shetland made in the last week.

      2. The question of independence is not directly about the currency, EU membership, NATO membership, a £15 billion deficit or what substance the moon is made of. Quite simply, it is about the people that live in Scotland having the unequivocal right to determine their own answers to all of those issues and more.Report

      1. ” Quite simply, it is about the people that live in Scotland having the unequivocal right to determine their own answers to all of those issues and more.”

        And, of course, paying the bills.Report

  4. Who said anything about cutting trading ties with rest of UK. ….WM govt …still desperate to trade with Europe as well as seeking out new deals elsewhere. ….what makes anybody think that WM /rest of UK ….would suddenly want to stop trading with Scotland… Independence is not a trading choice between two options….it is being in control to enable both. ..Report

    1. If a hypothetical independent Scotland joined the EU, and the EU and UK imposed tariffs on one anothers’ trade, then Scotland would face those tariffs on the four times as much it exports to the rest of the UK, and would be tariff free on the one fourth as much it exports to the rest of the EU.Report

  5. Nicola Sturgeon has a brass neck criticising Theresa May by saying she is taking this country over a cliff.That is exactly what she is trying to do with us, the Scottish people.She wants another referendum on independence and she hasn’t a clue what currency Scotland would use, plus the fact, we would loose the Barnet formula,no shipbuilding, all U.K. Forces moved south of the border.Banks before the last vote said they would move south of the border to protect their customers money.
    Finally,she criticises Westminster for going for a hard Brexit.How does she know it will be a hard Brexit?Things may turn out quite favourable for the U K and until the whole thing is settled,she should keep her gob shut.Report

    1. A cliff?! Yes… you should listen to what is said in EUROPE… EU don’t want to encourage others to leave AND make an example (Merkel, Polish FM, and almost all EU MEPs are saying that). And it’s just common sense after all…

      Relying on ancient Commonwealth colonies for trade?! Canadian, USA and Australian companies are planning in moving their operational bases out of U.K. To be able to trade in EU…

      Pound is falling (it might favour our exports, but to where?! EU IS OUR GREATEST EXPORT BENEFICIARY!!! DUH!!!Report

      1. UK exports are up 11% from last year, and the trade deficit is about one third of what it was a year ago. Shipments rose the most to France (8 percent), the Netherlands (7.1 percent), the US (7 percent), China (5.1 percent) and Germany (4.9 percent). By contrast, sales fell to Spain (-20.3 percent), Switzerland (-10.3 percent) and Canada (-8.8 percent).


  6. I cannot understand why the SNP is so up in arms about the possibility of losing trade links with Europe but so keen to cut our links with our biggest trading partner. Our current exports are nearly 5 times greater to the rest of UK than they are with Europe. How much of that would we lose if we become independent with a new currency?

    The SNP only cares about independence. Its their reason for being and nothing else matters. They would ruin us all and not blink an eye.Report

      1. If a hypothetical independent Scotland joined the EU, and the EU and UK imposed tariffs on one anothers’ trade, then Scotland would face those tariffs on the four times as much it exports to the rest of the UK, and would be tariff free on the one fourth as much it exports to the rest of the EU.

    1. Because what you are stating is just not right and innacurate The UK consumer is barely 10% of the EU consumer numbers…

      And like stated Yvonne, as much as there will not be hard border Btw Northern Ireland and RoI… I trust less WM than SG when it comes to stability of Scotland and fairness.Report

      1. Scotland is in the EU right now, but still exports four times as much to the rest of the UK than to the rest of the EU. Consumer numbers are not very relevant if they are not buying your goods.Report

        1. You need to consider exactly what is being exported to the UK, like Oil, Gas and electricity (soon even water) much of the exports are then re-exported abroad like whisky, gin and foodstuff. Report

  7. The problem with theses surveys or any poll is the answers reflect peoples knowledge and their attitudes which are greatly influenced by the press. The vast majority of people in Scotland aren’t aware of the true number of immigrants in the country or the rate of population growth or the value to the country of those immigrants. People in Scotland are fed the same right wing propaganda as the people in England by the press. Figures in England are vastly different to Scotland. If people in Scotland were fully aware of the facts of immigration and the economic benefit of EU membership specifically for Scotland attitudes would change.Report

    1. I think this is a very important comment. Most people do not understand the nature of controls on migrants, whether EU or non-EU, or the reality of how many there are and their overall net contribution. Migrants into the UK in the last 60 years have mostly been a net contributor to economic growth. The constant barrage of myths from the media saying that migrants are a drain on resources is rarely countered in the popular understanding by more accurate accounts of how they fill gaps in the labour market and how important parts of the economy and services would actually completely cease functioning if they were to be removed.

      People look to the rise of the USA in the 20th Century to become the most dominant nation in the globe as an example of how a successful economy can be built – yet it was entirely done on the back of millions of migrants moving there from all over the world.

      By contrast to workers from the EU moving to the UK making a net positive contribution because they are largely of working age and well trained/educated, UK migrants into other EU countries have largely had a negative factor on their economies, witness the large number of retirees who make lesser economic contribution to the likes of the Costa del Sol.

      However that is not to say that an understanding of the value of migrants is automatically synchronised with support for membership of the EU. The EU has largely been doing its best to keep out migrants from the rest of the world, particularly acutely during the recent refugee crisis. Successive British governments (Labour, Coalition and now Conservative) have repeatedly used controls over non-EU migrants for primarily an ideological purpose rather than economic – for example why make it so difficult for non-EU students paying large fees to our Universities to come and study here? It makes little economic sense, which is why the Treasury have been saying for years but the politics of responding to xenophobia takes a higher ranking.

      Saying that EU migrants should be treated the same way as non-EU migrants post-Brexit is a perfectly logical choice that is capable of two completely different interpretations – supportive or not supportive of the government.

      This research is interesting but by posing so many apparently binary choices which are capable of multiple interpretations, I’m not actually sure it tells us that muchReport

  8. Just wish the SNP would get on with running our country and trust the UK Goverment to get the best for all of us. At all cost Scotland needs to get real and see we need to be kept within The UK first and foremost.Report

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